One of the most regular questions I get asked is ‘why do you order filter coffee when you visit a new coffee shop?’ Rightly so, many people seem to regard filter coffee as of a lower quality, or more basic, than a finely-crafted flat white. This is for good reason: the proliferation of coffee chains that have needed to present something that can attract a higher price point has meant that filter is seen as something that paupers have. Successful, middle-class coffee-drinkers can afford to pay for textured milk to be poured into their coffee. The implicit marketing scheme is that paying 2.50 for a latte is superior to paying 99p for a filter coffee (after all, I can create that stuff at home for less than that!).
This is very clever marketing, but the truth is that missing out on filter coffee means missing out on a whole world of flavour. There are many analogies to draw between alcohol and coffee (worthy of an article in itself), but the one I use here is with a cocktail. A cocktail can taste great, and some really imaginative concoctions of cocktails have been invented. They are a taste experience as separate from their constituents. But you wouldn’t use a twelve-year old single malt to make a ‘Tom Collins’. There’s a beauty in itself to drinking a complex scotch (albeit a rather acquired taste) and it’s a waste to lose that flavour in with lime and coke and whatever other impurities you decide to add.
So. Lattes, flat whites and cappuccinos are our cocktails. And they can taste fantastic, especially when you factor in well textured milk and finely balanced espresso. There’s most definitely an art, and making lattes is a skill in itself. A well made filter coffee is the single malt scotch, complex, intense and an altogether different (and sometimes acquired) experience. It’s not a comparable drink. What makes a filter well made? That’s for another article. But you ever see the words ‘aeropress’, ‘v60’ or ‘siphon’, among others, you can bet it’s got a certain quality to it. Each set of beans requires it’s own weight and brew time, and this is proper geekery. Where making espresso-based lattes etc. is an art, filter is a science.
But to get back to my framing question: why do I order filter upon entering a new coffee shop? It’s worth noting that not every good coffee shop serves filter (@FleetRiver and @FandWCoffee St Anne’s are two recent examples that I have reviewed), and it’s by no means a slight upon those shops. But if I get served a flat white, then there’s a lot of room for error. The shot could be pulled incorrectly and the milk slightly scalded, and I may not notice this. If a filter coffee is made wrong you know about it. You know because it loses all flavour and becomes very dull and uninteresting. Get it right, and you have access to higher registers of flavour than you would ever have considered present in coffee. In theory, at any rate, a not-too-experienced coffee drinker should be able to tell the difference between any two filters (if well enough made).
So, now that you’re hooked on filter coffee, can you make it at home to the same quality? Freshly ground coffee will taste better than preground and the quality of coffee makes a huge difference (in both price and quality). You can get an aeropress for 25 pounds, and a good grinder for less than an espresso grinder. It is, without doubt, the cheapest way of making coffee. Though the beans are usually more expensive (Monmouth ‘Espresso’ for instance is designed for an espresso machine, and is their cheapest brand. The ever-changing ranges of filter coffees are usually more expensive, but are specifically roasted for putting through a filter.) Drink it black (always. Good beans shouldn’t need milk to dilute them) and experiment! There are some graphs around that tell you the ratio of beans to water (it’s about 8% of beans to water), which for an aeropress means around 20g of coffee. The more you experiment with the coarseness of your grounds and the weighting of the beans, the closer you’ll get to the high quality coffee you get in good coffee shops. In other words, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than buying an espresso machine, and you get to enjoy your coffee more.