Coffee Brewing Methods: Is Making Coffee By Hand the Way to Go?

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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What does brewing coffee bring to mind for you? An old thermos full of joe, a moka pot, a semi-automatic or super-automatic espresso machine? I bet many people think first of machine coffee brewing methods before any manual methods come to mind.

What does brewing coffee bring to mind for you? An old thermos full of joe, a moka pot, a semi-automatic or super-automatic espresso machine? I bet many people think first of machine coffee brewing methods before any manual methods come to mind.

And why not? Why make life complicated when a machine can do all the work?

I’ll tell you why!

Manual methods of coffee preparation, without any electronics, usually ensure the most comprehensive coffee flavors. They’re much cheaper. They offer a form of meditation. You’ll have many “aha” experiences. They need less space and energy. The list goes on and on …

Machines are convenience products. Apart from espresso machines, automatic coffee preparation methods are just “simpler” versions of manual concepts – and this simplicity forces you to make compromises.

Long story short, this completely revised guide is intended to whet your appetite for making java by hand and introduce you to all the various coffee brewing methods. It’s Italian and French, inventive and ice-cold, sometimes weird, but always delicious.

Making Coffee Without Machines: Which Methods Should I Know About?

Over the years, my section here on coffee brewing methods has developed into a focal point for the many aspects of coffee making:

  • French press, as a full-immersion method, is a perfect beginner’s option and provides very forthright, bold coffee. The “clean” version without any sediment is called American press.

  • Cold brew coffee is now a year-round trend. You really can’t make coffee more slowly and easily and the best thing is you don’t even need any special equipment! The only drawback: it’s always going to be a cup of cold brewed coffee.

  • My moka pot often just sits in the corner collecting dust. After all, I possess multiple espresso machines that deliver real espresso. But quite honestly, if you like strong espresso-style Italian coffee, you’ll never get your caffeine kick more easily or cheaply!

  • Oh, pour-over dripper, coffee love of my life! To me, there’s no better way of making coffee – if you’re ready for a lot of trial and error, that is.

  • Hype, more hype, the Chemex! Sometimes it amuses me that the most beautiful coffee carafe in the world is treated as if it were its own method of preparation. But don’t let yourself be fooled: this too is a pour-over coffee dripper, albeit a clever one!

  • The AeroPress is my favorite companion for coffee shenanigans when I’m on the road. It looks complicated but is in fact very easy to use – once you’ve had a look through the instructions. It’ll provide you with a cross between filter coffee and ultralight espresso. Ultra-exciting!

  • The siphon, or vacuum coffee maker just won’t go away. It’s been around for over a hundred years and still captures the imagination of science-loving coffee nerds.

Don’t worry, I’ll go into more detail about each of these coffee brewing methods a little later.

Additional Equipment

Using the coffee brewing methods presented here, you’ll also have to somehow achieve by other means what high-quality fully automatic espresso machines can do at the touch of a button: make your own milk foam.

We now know that the foam for latte art can successfully be made by other methods – in fact, some automatic milk frothers outperform super-automatic machines by far. Their dimensions lend themselves perfectly for use with manual coffee making equipment too.

I won’t need to talk about espresso tampers in this article, but I will make special mention of the mighty coffee scale. Trust me when I tell you that achieving true perfection demands precision. So, while you might not want to abandon your coffee scoop completely, you’ll thank me once you’ve discovered the joys of using a good scale for manual brewing.

It almost goes without saying that you’ll need a good burr coffee grinder, whichever coffee brewing method you’re using. And don’t forget that some manual coffee grinders can outperform electric models costing two or three times as much.

Finally, selecting the right kettle is essential if you want to focus on pour-over coffee. Check out my guide to the best gooseneck kettles in 2024 for more detailed information.

Coffee Brewing Methods: Full Immersion vs Pour-Over

Every (manual) preparation method can be clearly assigned, more or less, to one of two main categories: full immersion or pour over. Very roughly speaking, we make a distinction between preparation with and without a coffee filter.

I consider this to be only partly correct, because it’s not the filter that’s responsible for the actual process of extraction. A filter only removes any particles from the finished product, which changes its style considerably, but only at its second step. Having said that, this common definition is still perfectly adequate.

Moccamaster Kaffeemaschine Preinfusion

Basically, it’s a matter of how long and in what form each individual coffee particle comes into contact with water during extraction:

  1. For the entire brewing time (Full Immersion)

  2. In passing, depending on the flow rate (Pour-Over)

Even if, for example, we use an AeroPress with a filter, the actual extraction process still takes the form of pure full immersion. The filter serves only to retain any solid substances and certain coffee compounds.

Once we’ve understood this, it’s pretty easy to clearly allocate the coffee brewing methods:

Full ImmersionPour Over
French PressX
Cold BrewX
Pour-Over DripperX
Karlsbader Coffee MakerX

I’ve removed moka pots from this list; or rather, given them their own separate category. In principle, they make use of the pour-over method, because during brewing the hot water shoots up from the lower chamber and passes through the coffee grounds.

However, the concept used is oriented much more towards espresso-style coffee.

Besides, this option should correctly be labeled as “bubble over,” because the water is thermodynamically pushed from bottom to top. A siphon works in a similar way.

Differences in the Cup

Pour-over and full immersion methods are not contradictory concepts, but they do tease out completely different qualities from the same coffee beans. The finished coffee has a completely different mouthfeel and its caffeine content varies too.

According to my caffeine study, AeroPress coffee tops the caffeine-kick rankings of clearly attributable manual preparation methods. That said, moka pot coffee is a wee bit stronger. Cold brew, French press, pour-over and Chemex coffee come in descending order after that.

This shows us, at least to some extent, that direct brewing methods extract more caffeine. What else does it tell us?

Full immersion is a byword for discernible bitter compounds, a dense mouthfeel and a very bold style in which notes of chocolate, nuts and cocoa come very much to the fore.

The filter used in pour-over methods holds most of these heavier components back. In terms of mouthfeel, the coffee is lighter, brighter, fresher and more complex. This makes way for floral and citrus notes.

There’s clearly no answer to the question of which method of coffee preparation is best. It all depends on what you want from your coffee!

If the basic conditions are met – quality coffee beans, freshly ground to about the right grind size – full immersion is always more forgiving than pour-over methods. This makes full immersion coffee perfect for beginners.

Brewing With a French Press: The Classic That Always Delivers!

While revamping my French press guide recently, I was once again struck by just how simple coffee presses are.

You only need about 50-70 grams of coarsely ground coffee beans per 34 ounces (1 liter), the press pot of your choice and water at 205 degrees Fahrenheit (96 degrees Celsius).

Everything else – from the correct pouring technique to advice on stirring – is actually just trivial nonsense for coffee nerds.

Fellow French Press Coffee

Having said that, nerds generally like to ignore French presses anyway. In their opinion, the coffee is simply too bold – thanks to the full immersion method. They also like to moan about the coffee sediment left in the cup.

All that’s true, it just doesn’t matter. That’s because with a French Press it’s hard to go wrong. Depending on the grind, roast and brewing ratio, you’ll experience your coffee differently each time, without really having to be an expert.

Some minor limitations:

  1. A somewhat coarser grind is essential. French press coffee made using too fine a grind always tastes horrible! You can find out why by checking out my coffee grind size chart.

  2. Always fill a French press all the way. Half portions and funny doses produce yucky coffee.

  3. The aforementioned water temperature is the absolute upper limit. Let the water cool a bit longer if possible.

One of the most convincing arguments for making coffee using a French press is the cost: a good French press from Bodum sets you back practically nothing, so you’ll have more to spend on good coffee beans. Still, that’s not to say there aren’t some expensive models out there. Check out my Fellow French Press review if you’re interested in a boutique pot.

Pour Over From a Coffee Dripper: A Never-Ending Love Story

I won’t annoy you by reciting my umpteenth hymn of praise to the pour-over coffee maker. You’ll find my love letter in the detailed guide. In my view, this method is unbeatable for four reasons:

  • Just a few small changes during preparation allow you to uncover completely new worlds of flavor

  • There’s no better way of bringing out the very subtle qualities of light roasts

  • You can brew coffee in small amounts without much effort

  • You need only buy basic equipment at a reasonable price

QBO Kolumbien Kaffeebohnen 27

You can start with a light to medium roast ground medium-fine, using a brew ratio of 8-12 grams per 4 ounces (120 milliliters) of water at 205 degrees Fahrenheit (96 degrees Celsius). It might take you a while to find your optimal parameters and nail the extraction process – but practice makes perfect.

I consider pour-over drippers to be among the most satisfying coffee brewing methods, but I also know how error-prone the brewing process is. Many people shy away from it for this reason, preferring to use drip coffee makers instead.

However, even a superb machine like the Ratio Six can’t quite match the precision of a gooseneck kettle and a pour-over dripper. This is especially noticeable when brewing typical third wave roasts. In a machine the acidity can easily become “sour,” whereas manual brewing produces a flavor profile that’s tangy, citrusy, fresh, fruity …

This isn’t just to do with the typical dose or grind size used. It’s also influenced by the perfect infusion technique, your state of mind when brewing and the wide variety of coffees for pour-over drippers available from your favorite coffee roaster.

Stovetop Espresso: What About Brewing Using a Moka Pot?

A Bialetti moka pot is very much like a French press: many people have them, but no coffee professional really takes them too seriously. On the brew charts for baristas, moka pots often don’t even appear at all. Why is that?

On the one hand, even though this coffee pretends to be espresso, it’s miles away from the real thing. The brew is very strong, very Italian and certainly tasty. But, because stovetop coffee makers are far too imprecise when it comes to brew ratios, it’s also quite unbalanced.

Brewing Cuban Coffee in Moka

On the other hand, this also makes moka pot coffee an excellent beginner’s option. You just take finely ground coffee and heap the grinds in the filter basket, before leveling them a little. Then you just add water to the bottom chamber, place the pot on the stove and simply wait until the bubbling stops.

There are no dosing guidelines, no complex instructions and even fewer complicated preparation tips. No wonder the coffee pros look the other way almost as resolutely as they do with K-cups.

Still, in contrast to coffee pods, stovetop espresso isn’t an environmental disaster and is totally worth a try. It’s certainly no revelation, but instead a compact, orderly caffeinated affair.

You also don’t have to do much cleaning and it basically doesn’t matter what kind of coffee you use. An aluminum or stainless steel moka pot is cheap to buy and will pretty much last forever.

What’s not to like? 

Taking a closer look, when making espresso with a moka pot you’re inherently committing a cardinal error: the brewing temperature is much too high. Many aromas don’t survive this shock treatment.

When you basically don’t give a damn about grind size and dose, perfect extraction is just not possible. Having said that: if you’re longing for a cup of coffee à la espresso, but don’t want the effort à la espresso, the Bialetti is an excellent alternative.

Making Coffee Using a Chemex: Totally Different and Yet Still the Same

I’ve mentioned many times previously that the Chemex is nothing more than a fancy version of a pour-over dripper in the form of a beautiful pot. From the get-go, Chemex has relied on its own (very expensive) filters.

Instead of using a Melitta-shaped filter with a flat bottom, the Chemex requires you to fold special filter paper into a triangle. This shape, as we know from the Hario V60, ensures an even flow rate. It also prevents any over extracted soup from swimming around in the bottom of the filter.

Kaffeezubereitung Uebersicht Chemex

Since there’s no filter holder, nothing can accumulate in the Chemex anyway – the coffee is extracted and flows directly into the pot. This is the key reason why many connoisseurs came to rely on the Chemex, even before the coffee dripper renaissance:

Do everything right and you’ll produce excellent pour-over coffee, just as the inventor intended!

The design is unrivaled and looks great in any kitchen. Here, for a change, we’re offered both style and substance.

Compared to pour-over drippers, the Chemex has only two clear disadvantages:

  • You must always brew a full pot of coffee (as with a French press)

  • The original branded equipment is expensive and can easily break

My Chemex pots of various sizes have lasted a long time, but then I’m also very careful with them. On Amazon, the standard 8-cup pot costs $48.93, and a box of 100 filters costs $32.95. Of course, there are more affordable copycats, among them the Hario Woodneck. Still, something about the filters has usually been modified.

Coffee From an AeroPress – A Lesson in the Joy of Experimentation

I’ve only just learned to love the strange in-between method that is the AeroPress once again. Part French press, part drip filter, with a dash of pressure – the AeroPress combines ways of making coffee that were once thought to be mutually exclusive.

More importantly, this “pressure piston with filter paper” not only allows you to carry out experiments, but explicitly encourages them. Turn the thing upside down, change the amount of coffee, use a coffee blend instead of a single origin … with this device, everything that’s written in the instructions can (and should) be questioned.

AeroPress Iced Coffee Recipe

The exact opposite of a French press or moka pot, the AeroPress isn’t really a device I’d recommend to beginners. I mean, to defy and then redefine all your brewing parameters, you first have to understand them.

The style of the coffee produced clearly reflects this hybrid coffee preparation method. You’ll experience cup profiles that are fuller than filter coffee, lighter than espresso and more elegant than French press. That’s great for all those who know what this means. Everyone else should train their taste buds on pure forms first.

That said, I do recommend everyone give the AeroPress a try, seeing as it fires your curiosity and is lots of fun.

Brewing With a Siphon Coffee Maker: Lab Coats at the Ready!

Before updating this guide I’d pretty much dismissed the siphon coffee maker as a gimmicky novelty that wasn’t worth discussing.

However, I’ve since come around to the idea of including siphon coffee makers seeing as they’re becoming so popular again. Besides, every guide to manual brewing methods needs something unique and exotic, right?

While a Chemex looks like something you’d find in a lab, brewing with a siphon coffee maker is more akin to a full-blown science experiment. Earlier I lumped the siphon in with the moka pot in terms of how coffee is brewed, but there are significant differences.

Sure, the siphon has two chambers and hot water is forced by heating it until it vaporizes. However, you’re able to control the temperature more precisely so as not to boil the water and over-extract the coffee grounds in the top chamber.

Plus, the siphon coffee maker is both a full immersion and a drip brewing method. Once you remove the heat source, coffee is pulled down to the bottom through a cloth filter, producing a clean, crisp brew.

This is what makes siphon aficionados so fond of this brewing method, and they’ll tell you the coffee is unmatched in complexity and flavor.

Personally, a siphon is too much work for me. However, if you want to impress your friends, it could be worth checking out.

Aside From the Tips: What Else You Need to Know

I’m aware that some methods are still missing from my list here. The coffee world is full of novelties and oddities – too many for me to discuss. Still, check out my reviews of the WACACO Nanopresso and Flair Espresso Maker if you want to explore the world of making espresso without electricity.

I’ve also written a guide to Turkish coffee for those of you wanting to experiment with a super-traditional brew method.

Turkish Home Roasting Coffee

But no matter which machine-free coffee brewing method is used: the most important thing is not how many spoons of ground coffee you add. The most important thing is that you take your time making it. Peace of mind, zen and a dash of dedication are more important than all the technical preparation tips in the world.

In addition, when discussing the coffee for French press, drippers and so on, I find it important that we don’t always look to see if this or that method is better. You can compare them all, yet never come to a final conclusion.

By Hand or Machine? Let’s Be Honest

You don’t even have to strain your eyes to recognize one truth: apart from a good espresso machine, there’s no automatic brewer that’s superior to manual coffee brewing methods. Easier, yes. More convenient too. But not better.

Super-automatic espresso machines are trade-off devices that imitate real espresso just as much as stovetop coffee makers do – albeit much more successfully. Drip coffee machines (some with grinders) have recently tried to emulate the concept of pour-over drippers, some more successfully than others.

Solis Barista Perfetta Plus Espressomaschine Uebersicht Arne

With French presses, adding any form of electricity would be completely superfluous and only make preparation unnecessarily complicated. The same applies to the AeroPress, which would certainly not be as experiment-friendly with the addition of electricity.

Cold brew from a machine is completely ludicrous, but manufacturers just keep trying. Breville bragged about its Precision Brewer having this capability and was rightfully given a tongue-lashing by yours truly.

So, let’s be honest. Relying solely on machines means you really are missing out. Namely, on the full, distinct coffee profile of each respective preparation method as well as the opportunity to truly engage with your coffee.

What’s your opinion on manual coffee brewing methods? Are you ready to abandon your coffee machine? I look forward to your comments!

Updated: 5. January 2024
Your coffee expert
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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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