This is a story of how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
There’s coffee and then there’s coffee. These days, how you make coffee is just as important as your choice of coffee beans.
Have you noticed more and more independent coffee bars, “labs” and lounges popping up in your neighborhood? In the world of coffee magnificence, manually brewed coffee by-the-cup is a thing. If you want to be coffee-cool, drinking pourover coffee is pretty much mandatory. You know, coffee made with swanky gear like the V60 and Chemex.
The whole idea of pourover coffee is, to pour hot water over ground coffee. The process requires coffee and water to be precisely weighed out, and coffee filters with specific porosity to be used. Hi-tech gear like the V60 and Chemex basically comprise a cone typically made of ceramic or glass, and lined with conical filter paper on the inside. Ground coffee goes inside the cone, hot water gets poured over the coffee, and voilà – you just brewed some coffee gold. Oh, I should mention the water temperature should stay in the range of 195ºF to 205 ºF. Anything hotter, and you risk bitter coffee.
If you think this sounds like science lab, you’re not too far off. Coffee has risen to a science, not to mention an art form, what with the very talented baristas wielding latte art on a whim.
Now what about the epiphany I had that early morning hour? Well, it is that the coffee vendors in Malaysia have been doing pourover coffee for generations. You find them selling their brew street side, or in a kopitiam (a no-frills coffee shop where the diehard locals go).
The ones who do their thing in a kopitiam are a little bit like coffee jockeys, working everything from coffee-based drinks, to freshly-squeezed fruit juice drinks, to shaved ice desserts.
These coffee vendors don’t get anywhere close to the status modern baristas enjoy, and really, their coffee setup is pretty crude.
There’s the muslin “sock” with a round wire frame to hold open the mouth of the sock, a wire handle, and a pitcher or a cup under the contraption to catch the brew. The vendor spoons ground coffee into the sock, pours hot water over the coffee, and fills the cup or pitcher with the dribbling brew.
There you have it: brew by-the cup coffee, 100% handcrafted (just like the V60 or Chemex), although admittedly, without the precision of gram scales and thermometers.
Les Stoneham told me it’s important not to douse the coffee with all of the hot water at once when making pourover coffee. Gases trapped in the coffee should be allowed to escape first, leaving more coffee-to-water contact for better extraction with the subsequent pour of water. The no-frills Malaysian coffee vendors rarely use the first pass-through of the coffee sock. Instinctively, they’re doing the right thing by science.
Here’s to the coffee jockeys and baristas, young and old, near and far. The coffee-drinking crowd needs and appreciates you more than you know.
A note of thanks: I have awesome Malaysian friends who swiftly responded to my call for hometown coffee photos. Thank you Jamie, Jenny, Esene, Kathleen and Joyce. You made this story possible!