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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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