Making Coffee By Hand: Is Coffee Brewed Best Without Machines?
Published on: September 26, 2020
I’ve been making coffee full time for over 15 years – using espresso and super-automatic espresso machines or by hand. With the exception of espresso, I’ve consistently found that coffee is best brewed without machines. I’ll introduce you here to my favorite manual methods and give you tips on everything from coffee grinds to coffee pots.
What do you think of when you hear the words making coffee? An old pump thermos full of machine coffee, a moka pot, a portafilter or super-automatic machine?
I bet many people think first of machine and electric forms of coffee making before any manual methods come to mind.
Why would they? Why make life complicated when a machine can do all the work?
I’ll tell you why!
Manual or traditional methods of coffee preparation, without any electronics, usually ensure the most comprehensive coffee flavors. They are much cheaper. They are a form of meditation. They offer many ‘aha’ experiences. They use less space and energy. The list goes on and on…
Machines are convenience products. Apart from portafilters, all machine coffee preparation methods are just “simpler” variations 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 coffee by hand and introduce you to all the various 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 preparation 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 is the trend drink every summer. 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 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 into very complex pour-over brews, 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 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 Karlsbader coffee maker is a real ruffian – at least when it comes to grind size. That’s because its rigid porcelain sieve requires coffee grinds of gravel pit quality. Strictly speaking, this is also a type of pour-over dripper, however, the “pore size” lends the coffee a completely different character..
I’ll go into more detail about each of these methods further down.
Using the coffee making methods presented here, you’ll also have to somehow achieve by other means what high-quality super-automatic 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’ve not managed to cover the special topics of tampers and coffee scales anywhere else, but it’s finally time for me to say more than two words about them. Scales, especially, are indispensable if you’re serious about coffee (and espresso).
In addition to the options covered here already, some other manual methods and specialty products, usually variations of the main categories presented above, are available too. The Hario Woodneck, a Chemex-style carafe with special fabric filter, is a perfect example.
The coffee siphon *should* *theoretically* be listed here too, but I’ve steadfastly refused to take this complicated apparatus with its vacuum glass flask seriously for years. I can’t shake the feeling that siphon coffee is much the same as coffee from an AeroPress – just made the other way round and with too much fuss.
If we started that nonsense, we’d also have to include manual espresso makers like the Nanopress and that just gets too complicated.
The Main Categories of Coffee Preparation: Full Immersion and 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, a distinction is made between preparation with and without a filter.
I consider this to be only partly correct, however, 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, of course, but only at its second step. Having said that, this common definition is still perfectly adequate.
Basically, though, it’s a matter of how long and in what form each individual coffee particle comes into contact with water during extraction:
For the entire brewing time (Full Immersion)
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 components left at the end.
Once we’ve understood this, the clear allocation of methods is pretty simple:
Karlsbader Coffee Maker
I’ve removed stove-top moka pots from this list, or rather given them their own separate category. In principle, they too make use of the pour-over method, because during brewing the water shoots up from the lower chamber and passes though the coffee grinds.
However, the concept used is oriented much more towards portafilter machines or the style of espressos and therefore, in part, belongs to the same group as super-automatic machines.
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.
Pour over and full immersion methods and are not contradictory concepts, but they do tease out completely different aromas from one and the same coffee bean. 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. Moka pot coffee is a slight bit stronger still, however. Cold brew (and drip), French press, pour-over drip 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 stronger aromas such as chocolate, nuts or cocoa come very much to the fore.
The filter used in pour-over methods holds most of these heavy components back. In terms of mouthfeel, the coffee is lighter, less lingering, fresher and more light-footed. This makes way for citrus aromas, acids, fruit essences, and the like.
There’s therefore no clear answer to the question of which method of coffee preparation is best? It all depends on what you’re wanting from your coffee!
If the basic conditions are met – quality coffee beans, freshly ground to the correct grind size – full immersion is always less prone to error than pour-over methods. This makes full immersion coffee perfect for beginners.
Brewing With a French Press – The Classic That Always Delivers!
While revamping the French press guide recently, I was once again struck by just how simple coffee presses are.
Unfortunately, this video is only available in German.
You only need about 50 to 70 g (7-10 tablespoons) of roasted coffee beans per 34 fl oz ground to a medium-coarse grind, the press pot of your choice and water at 205 degrees.
Everything else – from the correct pouring technique to advice on stirring – is actually just trivial nonsense for coffee nerds.
Having said that, nerds generally like to ignore French presses anyway because, in their opinion, the coffee produced is simply too bold – thanks to the full immersion method. They also always 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 you can’t go wrong in that sense. Depending on the grind, roast and dose used, you’ll come to discover your coffee differently each time, without really having to be an expert.
Some minor limitations:
A somewhat coarser grind is essential. French press coffee made using too fine a grind always tastes horrible! You can find out why in my article on coffee grind size.
Always fully fill a French press. Half portions and funny doses produce yucky coffee.
Water at a temperature of 205 degrees 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, however, is the cost: apart from the coffee beans and water, a good French press from Bodum and co. sets you back practically nothing – let’s leave out for now how you choose to heat your water.
Pour Over From a Coffee Dripper – A Never-Ending Love Story
I won’t annoy you by reciting here my umpteenth hymn of praise to the pour-over coffee dripper, 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 taste
There’s no better way of bringing out the very fine aromas of light roasts
You can prepare small amounts of coffee without much effort
You need only buy basic equipment at a reasonable price
You can start with a light to medium roast ground to a medium-fine grind, using a brew ratio of 8 to 12 g (1-1.5 tablespoons) per 4 fl oz (1/2 cup) of hot water at 205 degrees (F). It might take you a while to find your optimal parameters and internalize the extraction process – but practice makes perfect.
I consider pour-over drippers to be the most satisfying way of “making coffee”, but I also know how error-prone the whole thing is too. Many people shy away from it for this reason, preferring to use drip coffee makers instead.
However, under normal circumstances, these cannot even begin to match the precision of pour-over drippers. This is especially noticeable with the clear acidity of typical third wave roasts. In a machine this becomes “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.
Stove-Top Espresso – What About Brewing Using a Moka Pot?
A Bialetti espresso maker 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 stove-top moka pots often don’t even appear at all. Why is that?
Unfortunately, this video is only available in German.
On the one hand, even though this coffee pretends to be espresso, it is miles removed from the original made using a portafilter. The brew is very strong, very Italian and certainly tasty. But, because stove-top coffee makers are far too imprecise when it comes to the necessary parameters, it’s also quite unbalanced.
On the other hand, this also makes moka pot coffee an excellent beginner’s option. You just grind the coffee to a fine consistency (with slight tendency towards coarse) and fill the grinds to the top of the filter basket, before leveling and pressing them down somewhat. You then need to add water to the level of the valve in the bottom chamber, before placing the pot on the stove and simply waiting until the bubbling stops.
There are no dosing guidelines, no complex instructions and even less complicated preparation tips. No wonder the coffee pros look the other way here almost as resolutely as they do with K-cups.
In contrast to coffee pods, however, coffee made on the stove top isn’t an environmental disaster and is totally worth a try. It’s certainly no revelation, but instead a compact, orderly caffeinated affair. It’s more refined than a mocha and with more kick than other preparation methods.
You also don’t have to do much cleaning and it basically doesn’t matter what kind of coffee you use. Darker roasts do traditionally have an advantage, however. An aluminum or (for induction) 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: at 210 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, 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. This method of making coffee therefore impacts high-quality roasts more than seems sensible.
Having said that: if you’re longing for a beverage 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 that comes complete with requisite coffee pot. From the get-go, Chemex has relied on its own filter system which has now taken over the pour-over drip category:
Instead of using a Melitta-shaped filter with a flat bottom, the Chemex requires you to fold special filter paper into a pointed bag. This shape, as we know from Hario dipper filters too, ensures an even throughput of water. It also prevents any extracted soup from swimming around in the bottom of the filter.
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 most important reason why many connoisseurs have invariably come 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, too, 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 quickly break
My Chemex pots of various sizes have lasted a long time, but then I’m also very careful with them. Depending on the store, the standard 8-cup pot costs around 45 dollars, a filter pack around 10 dollars. There are many copycats, of course, among them the Hario Woodneck or, in part, the Bodum Pour Over. With these products, something about the filters has usually been modified.
The bottom line is that the Chemex is just a coffee dripper that’s been dressed up from head to toe. This method of preparing coffee therefore usually falls by the wayside in my daily life. For a review or a single serving of coffee, I prefer to place my grinds in a more uncomplicated pour-over device.
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, however, 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 espresso roast instead of filter roast… with this device, everything that’s written in the instructions, can and should be questioned.
The exact opposite of a French press or stove-top moka pot, the AeroPress is thus not really a device for beginners. To defy and then redefine parameters such as grind size, you first have to understand them.
The style of the coffee produced clearly reflects this hybrid of coffee preparation methods – with flavor attributes 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 as it fires your curiosity and is lots of fun.
Pour Over from a Karlsbader Coffee Maker – Good Morning, You Ruffian!
In one respect, brewing with a Karlsbader coffee maker is the exact opposite of making espresso: it demands the coarsest of all grinds, i.e. gravel pit quality and then some. In other respects, the question often arises whether this classic combination of porcelain pot and very coarse-meshed porcelain filter is even a method in its own right at all.
On the one hand, it’s not. Just because the coffee is ground more coarsely, nothing else is done any differently than when brewing with a pour-over dripper. On the other hand, coarse coffee grinds and a coarse filter ensure that the resultant coffee in the cup is fairly pure.
This is great for learning, because you are clearly able to taste, for example, the different methods of coffee processing. Then again, an otherwise very convincing, multifarious coffee can quickly crash and burn when prepared in a Karlsbader or Bayreuth pot.
Especially roasts in which fleeting and fine nuances of flavor compete with one other quickly become a jumbled mess without any substance. Basically, what’s lacking is the necessary support of fine filter paper.
Unfortunately, this video is only available in German.
Looking at it from this perspective, a Karlsbader pot is really just an upside-down French press. Or rather, seeing as the porcelain ensemble has been around for much longer, press pots have turned the concept of the Karlsbader upside down.
To be honest though, at the end of the day, this ruffian among the pour-over methods is not really all that special. Pour-over coffee is pour-over coffee, after all.
I have the feeling, though, that this preparation method is definitely becoming fashionable again and could celebrate a sexy comeback – if only due to its aesthetics. The one thing that speaks against this is the price, the sets themselves being very expensive and anything but practical.
Aside From the Tips: What Else You Need to Know
I’m aware that some methods are still missing from my list here. Mocha, the “strongest coffee in the world” prepared using an Ibrik, is an absolute trend topic that I constantly ignore. That’s quite simply because I never drink this double-boiled brew (with or without spices).
We could discuss too whether “Turkish coffee” – i.e. cowboy coffee, with ground coffee added directly to the cup – isn’t also a methodology of its own needing a guide.
But no matter which machine-free preparation 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 presses, drippers etc., 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. What do I mean? Check this out:
All of them. None of them. What do I know? In the initial version of this guide, I was of the opinion that the reputation of coffee seemed to be generally improving. Now I have the feeling that this trend is reversing.
The more people learn about coffee, the more suspicious of each of its different forms they become. In the meantime, however, I’ve come to regard the question of whether an espresso is fundamentally better than a cup of pour over as pointless.
Coffee shouldn’t fulfill any health promises or promote any goals. Coffee is an indulgence. For this reason, I wouldn’t get too hung up on statements that coffee should be counted as part of your fluid balance or that it’s more easily digestible in this, that or the other form. I’ll leave you to come to your own conclusions and simply refer you to:
After years of commotion and inaccuracies, I can finally answer this question correctly and above all scientifically. In my large-scale caffeine study I had all the common methods of making coffee examined in the laboratory for their caffeine content.
Even though we acknowledge that I only ran the tests once, on a single roast, the laboratory was able to provide us with clear indications for the first time. The caffeine-kick rankings for all preparation methods look like this:
Ristretto, the short espresso shot made using a stove-top pot, is the surprise manual-method winner – but only in terms of absolute concentration. Measured in relation to each drink’s typical serving-size, the rankings look somewhat different:
I think it’s completely crazy to buy equipment simply to see if that particular method of preparation is right for you. No matter how cheap the fun is.
Order something new in a cafe more often instead and when doing so, don’t forget to hold the milk! You’ll only learn which coffees you really like by drinking them pure. Ask the professional behind the counter for his opinion – but only if they’re not an arrogant hipster jerk!
Be sure to describe to them which flavors you prefer in your coffee, how much you drink per cup, etc. Armed with such information, a trained eye can quickly figure out whether you’re a pourer or an immerser. You’ll be able to find out which part of the world the right coffee for you should come from too.
You’ll also need to consider how much time and effort you want to put into daily preparation and the learning process. Pour over techniques take the “longest” time – both during infusion and in their perfection. With a French press, you can’t really do anything wrong and you’ll get coffee quickly – but you also won’t reach any great heights in terms of flavour.
Whatever you do, remember one thing: the first purchase you make should always be a coffee grinder. If your coffee comes ready-ground from a supermarket packet, you might as well save yourself all the effort from the start.
By Hand or Machine – Let's Be Honest...
You don’t even have to strain your eyes to recognize one truth: apart from portafilters, there’s no machine that’s better than manual preparation 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 stove-top coffee makers do – albeit much more successfully. Drip coffee machines (with grinders) have recently tried to emulate the concept of pour-over drippers – not the other way around.
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 has been “tried” before. Sage bragged about its Precision Brewer having this capability and was rightfully given a tongue-lashing by yours truly.
So, let’s be honest. Relying 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.
Have any questions or additions? Keep your comments coming!