Sowden SoftBrew: A Brewer Disguised As A Teapot

I got this interesting coffee maker from Oren Bloostein. Oren suggested this might appeal to some folks as an alternative to the French Press or press pot as it’s becoming more widely (if generically) known.

And, it is innovative. It features an attractive ceramic pot, and a patented inner cylinder. You simply place grounds in the cylinder, pop the cylinder in the pot, and pour hot water over the grounds. After a few minutes, you pour your cups of coffee. The designer assumes you are pouring all your coffee at once, and the cylinder, itself a mesh filter, holds back the grounds from your cup. It makes four six-ounce cups, or less.

What I liked instantly is its sense of design. It has, as they say in the car business, curb appeal. I brought it out a few times for visitors, and everyone wanted a cup of coffee made with it. They also asked what it was and how it worked. So, the good news is it’s an attention-getting and attractive design. The bad news is no one knows how it works, which in terms of retail usually spells disaster.

With the automatic drip makers 90% of the public use, any time you decrease the batch size, the grounds bed is smaller, shortening the contact time, and the smaller volume of water passing through compounds this. It throws everything off. Not with a simple steeping method such as the SoftBrew. When I just wanted two cups, I boiled half the water, and I used half the amount of ground coffee.

So let’s see if what’s innovative about the SoftBrew results in an improved cup of coffee and if it’s your next coffee maker.

TESTS

I made my first test the moment I arrived home from my visit with Oren. I’d dropped by one of his stores and bought a pound of Sumatra Mandheling. I shoveled forty grams of coffee into my grinder, selected as coarse as setting as possible (as I would for a French press) and boiled 24 ounces of water. When the water came to boiling, I poured it over the grounds in the cylinder. I took the water’s temperature and it was already well below industry brewing standards. This didn’t surprise me too much, as it typically is for the French press as well. Water cools rapidly and the SoftBrew’s ceramic water proved itself a poor heat insulator. Most of the brewing cycle took place at below recommended temperatures.

Regardless, the coffee tasted fine. Admittedly, I’ve gotten more from it in terms of bright acidity and complexity in high-temperature drip or vacuum brewers, but methods such as this or press pots are proof that there’s more than one way to brew coffee. That’s another article.

One thing all steep methods have in common is the ability to get all the grounds thoroughly wet and this alone causes them to deliver decent coffee.

Next test, I pre-scalded the ceramic pot moments before placing the cylinder inside and adding the water for brewing. This raised the brewing temperatures five to ten degrees, which brought at least part of the brewing process in line with industry standards, but a large portion of the brewing time still took place at cooler temperatures. The coffee was fuller flavored, although no one would mistake it for brew from a vacuum maker, or for that matter, a higher performing drip maker.

Then I came upon the idea of placing the water inside the carafe and microwaving the brewer. This would pre-heat the unit and ensure the brewing temps were up there with the finest, right? Well I did so, and while the introductory brew temp was solidly above 200°F, the temperature did dip below the bottom 195° during brewing. I finally did a test where I microwaved the water to 212°F, a full rolling boil, but it was problematic as the grounds foamed up over the carafe’s top, making a mess. The coffee was good however, full flavored and savory. I’d run out of Oren’s Sumatra, but had Whole Foods’ 365 Days blend on hand, which is really a good, and inexpensive coffee, maybe a good choice to tide me over until the economy improves.

Note: There’s just a point where coffee is like television – that is, it’s a matter of flavor resolution. Once I got the brew temps up, the coffee just came into focus.

GRIND DISCOVERY

For many, the press pot’s contradiction is that while finer grinding best suits the short time the water stays hot enough to brew properly, users invariably grind coarse, so as to not risk clogging up fine grounds in the brewer as the mesh filter presses them through the coffee to their final resting place at the brewer’s bottom. Since the SoftBrew has no press stage, I tried using a finer grind and there was no increase in grounds in my cup. I would suggest using a drip grind or finer with the SoftBrew.

RESULTS

So what are we to make of all this? I found it is possible to achieve some stellar results with some extra effort – fact it, more extra effort than most end-users are likely to perform. And is it worth it?

In my opinion, there are two ways to use this machine, casual or intense. With casual, simply boil water in a kettle, scald the carafe just before adding the filter. Then place ground coffee in the cylinder, insert it and add your boiling water. For casual use, use a slightly dark roast coffee. It will match or exceed what a French press will do. You’ll get a delightful four cups of coffee for you and your friends and not have to think too much, at least not about brewing coffee.

The intense way, which isn’t that intense, boil your water inside the carafe using a microwave. That ensures a hot enough brewing temperature. Be careful as you add the cylinder, especially if your coffee is super fresh. Add it slowly. Cover it immediately and stir slightly, but not too much – just enough to get the grounds wet.

Come to think of it, the only real difference is the brewing temperature. One way, it’s casual. The other way, you make sure to aim high.

TIPS

  • Stirring seems to cause the water to cool. Most people learn, using a press pot, to stir in order to facilitate extraction. In the coffee business this is called turbidity. But, it is a tradeoff. It may facilitate extraction, but it will change what’s extracted by lowering the temperature.
  • Dark roast coffee works better in steep method brewers, at least in my experience.
  • Consider grinding finer than French press (coarse) with the SoftBrew. In my tests, finer grinds didn’t result in perceptively more coffee grounds particles in the cup.
  • This brewer is not designed to store coffee, as the grounds will continue to brew after pouring your first cup. If you must store it, pour out the brew into a second vessel, or simply remove the filter, preferably over a sink.

CONCLUSION

The Sowden SoftBrew is a flexible brewing method. It gets the grounds wet. You control the temperature, so there’s not reason you can’t brew great coffee with it. I expected the fine mesh filter to eliminate ‘mud’ in my press pot cups, but it simply minimized it a bit. It is not like a metal filter in an autodrip machine or a Chemex – the end product still resembles a press pot’s. Perhaps I just like a clear cup, and I didn’t get that using this machine. It takes more work to keep the brew temps as high as in, say a vacuum coffee maker.

George Howell, in our Coffee Brewing Secrets DVD www.coffeebrewingsecrets.com demonstrated how different a filtered cup of coffee is from a minimally filtered cup. The Sowden SoftBrew delivers the latter. If you don’t mind some sediment in your cup, it can be a good coffee brewer, easy to use and capable of good coffee used casually to great coffee when used optimally.

©2010 Kevin Sinnott

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About coffeekevin

Kevin Sinnott, host of the how-to video “Coffee Brewing Secrets”, author of The Art and Craft of Coffee and curator of www.coffeecompanion.com website is America’s foremost consumer coffee authority. His groundsbreaking newsletter THE COFFEE COMPANION was the first-ever consumer publication about finding and brewing the world’s best coffee. The COFFEE COMPANION, which achieved a readership of more than 10,000 coffee lovers, offered Sinnott’s unbiased evaluations of what he calls “hardware” – all the equipment necessary to brew great tasting coffee, from water filters to coffee bean grinders to brewers. Since then, he’s made more than 100 media appearances, in USA TODAY and The Chicago Tribune, OPRAH WINFREY, 20/20, and The FOOD NETWORK and has done countless talk radio shows. Kevin Sinnott lives with his wife and three sons in Warrenville, Illinois.
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16 Responses to Sowden SoftBrew: A Brewer Disguised As A Teapot

  1. Pingback: Your Garden

  2. Maureen Shandobil says:

    Thanks for your very informative comments about the Swoden SoftBrew. I am thinking of getting one for my college aged son. He will usually be making small batches, so the 4 cup would be fine for most days, but I was thinking of getting him the 8 cup for times he has company. Is it ok to make a small batch in the bigger pot?

    Thanks so much!

  3. coffeekevin says:

    The short answer is yes, you can make a smaller batch with the same expected taste results. One benefit of steeped coffee such as the Sowden SoftBrew produces is the contact time between water and grounds remains identical regardless of batch size.

  4. Mark in Arlington, Virginia says:

    Can the teapot go on the stove or on a hotplate to keep temps up while brewing?

    • coffeekevin says:

      Since it’s ceramic, it will no doubt accept heat, though not necessarily direct heat of a stove. In my tests, I took efforts to maintain higher temps through pre-heating and adding little bits of boiling water along the way for a “recharge”. I settled on doing almost nothing and got my most savory results. I’d try it both ways. I think you may be pleasantly surprised at how little intervention is required.

  5. Jan White says:

    I have been a French Press person for decades, but acid reflux has made me have to move from black brew to coffee with some kind of creamer. No amount of scrubbing could clean my old Columbia press, and so I resorted to a tiny round filter on the press assembly. Still too acid. I miss my black cuppa joe.

    I got a 4 cup just a few days ago, and so far I love it. I live in a tiny apartment and am the only coffee drinker in the house, so this was a good size for me. Like you, I find the taste is best with a darker roast, but the one I have is super caffeinated, so I may have to mix in a little decaf to keep me from jumping all day. I found I needed a full five scoops of coffee. I did what you said, pre-warmed my pot with some hot tap water since my tap water is extremely hot. I even prewarmed the filter, plopping it in the pot just before I added the grounds. I did a slow pour, and had a wonderful pot. Love it! The coffee was almost sweet, not acrid, and I am back to black!

    • coffeekevin says:

      The “almost sweet” note in the brew is referenced by Oren Bloostein, who thinks the SoftBrew delivers more sweetness than a press. He suggests the filter is the reason. I’m not sure, but there is a taste difference between a SoftBrew and a press.

  6. Ryan says:

    Great review! When you remove the filter, how long does it take for the brewed coffee to drip out?

    • coffeekevin says:

      I normally do not remove the filter. I found, since the heat is removed, the coffee does not get bitter, even if it takes me a few minutes to drink all of it. I did test it by removing the filter, and it took only 10 seconds for coffee within the filter to drip out.

  7. Ryan says:

    Bought one and love it, though my grinder (Solis Maestro Pro) grinds unevenly. Still a lot of sludge from dust-sized grind in the brew which I’ve been running through a paper filter.

  8. Thank you for the well-considered review. I normally use a CafeSolo, but the curb appeal of this brewer made it too good to pass up. I’ve really enjoyed the output of the Softbrew. But although I’ve yet to do a side-by-side comparison, I suspect the CafeSolo will fare better–particularly with lighter roast coffee or even coffee that is getting stale and tends to yield relatively more acidity. So far, I’ve found that leaving the coffee in does produce a bitterness after a few minutes, so I always promptly remove the filter. I don’t think this has much to do with temperature, but more to do with one’s grinding technique and the liquid passing through and stirring up the grounds repeatedly each time you pour. After I’ve gotten to know this brewer’s characteristics better, I’ll post an entry on my (tiny) blog. It’ll make a good second post!

  9. This is the second blog post, of urs I personally read through.
    However , I actually enjoy this specific 1, “Sowden SoftBrew:
    A Brewer Disguised As A Teapot | Coffeekevin’s Blog” the most. Thank you -Christi

  10. CTerry says:

    I am sorely tempted by the aesthetics and simplicity of the Sowden. Since my drip coffee maker expired, I have been using a saucepan, bringing water to just a boil, turning off heat, pouring in grounds, stirring briefly and pouring through a strainer. Am I kind of simulating the Sowden or missing some points?

    • coffeekevin says:

      There is nothing missing in your procedure. The Sowden does the same thing in an elegant fashion. Certainly the laser cut holes are tinier and thus more effective at delivering a relatively sediment free cup. I’d tried a competitor’s version using traditional screening and it wasn’t nearly as effective. Nonetheless you are able to extract on par using your method, just as cowboys did in the 1800s.

      Happy brewing!

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