While a long list of phrases could accurately be used to describe specialty coffee for 2010, to me, the past year largely stands out as the peak of the resurgence of pour over brewing. The Hario V60 family, Chemex Brewers, Abid Clever Coffee Dripper and even the Beehouse and Bonmac drippers all saw well more than their 15 minutes of fame, and they have the brewing videos to show for it. I only wish I had the wallet of those who designed and manufactured one of these new and/or newly-again-popular devices.*
In this koner…
To me, the kone neatly sums up this popular, faddish but also quality driven pour-over movement. It is a simple filter, crafted from a single sheet of steel with laser-etched holes. Designed by the guys from Coava Coffee Roasters in Portland, OR (who also roast some very nice coffees) and fabricated in the U.S., this filter fits the first three of the above-mentioned devices well and can work with some finessing in the remaining two. The kone offers up an aesthetically pleasing, very cool, somewhat trendy and (allegedly) environmentally sound alternative to to the wide array of paper filters, which one must typically navigate when pursuing pour over coffee.
The general concept behind the kone isn’t new. Consider the various gold cone filters you can purchase out there, ranging from $10-30. While the kone’s portafilter-sized holes are much cooler to marvel at than gold mesh and while their wider spacing allows for slightly slower pouring than your find with the gold cone filter, the thinking behind both devices is the same. Both allow through coffee oils as well as some coffee fines. Both of these factors contribute to a fuller-bodied and (theoretically) more flavorful, yet less clean cup.
We all pine for a kone
The novel features of the kone – what sets it apart from other filters – are three. First is design. The thing is a beauty to behold and the kind of device that makes coffee folks covet. Second is that it has been made by cool people who make good coffee and have successfully hyped it with press from just the right crowd. Thus, the kone is a device you want and feel left out for not buying it. Third is that it fits so well with the current pour-over movement. The kone is specifically engineered to fit the V60 and Chemex, places where a gold cone filter doesn’t really play well. (And it will soon fit perfectly in its own kone funnel dripper, also by Coava). These were the three reasons I jumped at the chance to get a kone when Coava agreed to send me one to test.
A kone-tankerous design
The packaging is austere; minimal like the device. The cardboard box and a few sheets of paper are sound enough to protect its delicate contents when smartly surrounded by another box and packing material as they were. I was happy with this packaging, both practically and aesthetically. That said, delicate was very much my first impression upon removing the kone from the box. Besides shiny and surprisingly lightweight, the kone seemed less sturdy than I imagined. I doubt a dent would affect performance much, but it would be an aesthetic bummer.
The kone is also sharp. The top rim would probably benefit from a fold in the metal as well as a way to better grab it when the hot kone is sitting down inside the Chemex or Clever brewers post-brewing. And watch out for that pointy tip. I pierced my hand on it while reaching for the thing one morning. These are a couple of design issues that I hope get worked on for version 2.
Through the ringer
I suppose the real proof is in the brewing. That’s I why I ran the kone through a series of tests – for brewability and taste – worthy of a moderately ambitious home brewer. A word of warning, though, these tests were only a moderately geeky, less than full-blown scientific endeavor. I didn’t pull out my still fictitious TDS meter or taste anything blind. I don’t actually own a V60 anymore so tests included coffee brewed exclusively via Chemex or my Abid Clever Coffee Dripper. I didn’t even bother comparing the kone to paper filters I don’t like. I only compared it only to bleached Chemex filters (the best around, in my book) and a gold cone filter. Finally, no regressions or statistical software was uses in the development of these findings.
That said, my tests weren’t completely devoid of geekery and rigor. I controlled for (brew) water and coffee temperature (at consumption). I also kept brew time, grind size and coffee freshness the same for the Clever. Brew time/grind varied a little for the Chemex as was necessary to get the best brew. I brewed two cups of the same coffee via the same method with paper vs. kone and gold cone vs. kone. I did this regimen over the course of a couple of weeks with a few different coffees, trying to cover a variety of coffee types. Here are my impressions.
Feeling like a konehead, until I got Clever
The kone is a little tough to get the hang of when used in a Chemex. Slowing your water flow is extremely important or you’ll end up with very underextracted coffee. Water has a tendency to gush through the grinds. I found that restricting my water flow as much as possible, tightening the grind to a little coarser than drip (I thought to do it closer to a french press grind to minimize fines) and allowing for a longer bloom time than normal (at least 1:30, but more like 2:00) all helped to improve my results. I can see how the restricted flow of the soon-to-be-released kone funnel or the various commercial brewing devices in the footnote below, might improve conditions for the less-than-patient barista (not that I could afford most of these for my house!).
This is where the Clever Coffee Dripper came in. No worries here about water flow since you simply steep your coffee until you are ready to release it, and your technique doesn’t have to differ from what you do with paper. If you want fewer fines, then coarsen the grind and increase the steep time. This brewer removes any complexity required to master the kone.
Tasting the results
When it comes to taste, I can’t say I ever fully nailed my Chemex technique with the kone, which says something for the circumstances under which you should consider this device. You need to be a committed and patient home barista, or perhaps one with suitable water flow restricting gear, to make the kone work as a true pour over. In the end, I tended to prefer the paper filter by a slight margin with coffee brewed in the Chemex. I certainly did not taste a kone cup that was a clear winner given the work involved.
With the Clever, I found the kone comparable, but different to using paper. Results are probably what you’d expect. Kone-brewed coffee was less clean, more intense and bass-heavy, with fewer top notes and more body. In other words, it mimics what you get with a gold cone filter and is similar in overall character to what you might find in coffees brewed via French Press. I slightly favored a paper filter with the Clever when it came to brighter, more delicate coffees like those I tried from Kenya or Ethiopia. The kone had a real appeal, however, for certain fuller, rounder coffees like a middle palate Costa Rica or a sharper, darker Rwanda.
When put head to head with a gold cone filter, I preferred the kone slightly. It seemed to yield a somewhat fuller profile – both high notes and low notes – and produced slightly less sediment.
It’s worth noting that the kone isn’t cheap. At $50, this filter may be fairly priced, given the R&D involved, overall low scale of production and American-made craftsmanship (read: U.S. labor rates). Still, it is steep for home users and a price cafes will need to consider. While something like the kone funnel may make the kone even easier to use, the purchase of that brewer will add to your costs. Of course, the kone funnel may benefit cafes in that it allows staff to set up several pour overs with little oversight (not to mention that it is cool looking).
As a true alternative to paper, the financial (and even environmental) benefit isn’t obvious. One kone costs about as much as 6 boxes of Chemex filters (at a little less than $8 per box of 100 filters) and even more for other filters. At 1 cup a day, that’s nearly a 2-year supply of paper filters. Many people are likely to lose or damage their kone before then. Factor in that you will likely sometimes still want to brew coffee with paper and what you’re looking at instead is another filter to add to your repertoire of choices. So the kone becomes a supplement rather than a substitution, not that this fact should deter you. My coffee cabinet is full of devices. By adding the kone, I now have just one more way to enjoy my coffee.
Going for the Gold
In the end, I feel neutral about the kone when it come to comparisons with paper filters (by which I mean Chemex – I can’t speak for other paper, but since I find those even less palatable, I’ll you apply the communicative property). The kone certainly is coffee eye-candy even if it would benefit from a few upgrades in design. It can make a very nice cup of coffee, but it will take some work to master and an not insignificant financial investment. I’m happy I own it, but I sometimes like to use brew methods that don’t always yield the cleanest cup.
What I really see the kone as doing is serving as a strong alternative to the gold cone. It has re-awakened interest in this long-existing filter, improved upon its design and provided a way for many of us with certain brewing devices (for which the gold cone was never intended) to more easily explore the benefits of metal filters. Opting for a kone over a gold cone will set you back nearly double, but may be the best, or perhaps only, option for exploring this form of filter given the way you brew your coffee.
*If 2010 is the year when pour over peaked, then 2011 promises to be the year that the barista’s steady hand is removed from the pour over process. The Marco Uber Boiler is slowly making inroads at indie cafes while the Luminaire Bravo-1 is soon set to launch. Starbucks is introducing its Clover Precision Pour Over brewer, although probably only at Starbucks stores, while Coava will shortly begin selling its kone funnel dripper, starting at the La Marzocco Out of the Box in Berkeley event on January 18-19. Oh, and let’s not forget the ingenious prototype, the Frankenbrewer.