Zen and the art of cold brew coffee: Review of the Hario Cold Water Dripper

Posted on August 2, 2012 by Brandon

I’ve been fascinated with cold brew coffee since I read about it a couple years ago. Being a caffeinehead in Singapore means drinking a ton of iced coffees – the weather is often too hot for regular coffees or espressos, even in the air-conditioned comfort of my office – and I’d always felt that the conventional method of simply pouring steaming hot coffee over ice compromised the flavour profile of the beans somewhat. The cold brew method, which favours a slow steeping process over the shock therapy of adding boiling water, seemed a lot more elegant; but I’d never been able to find a product that satisfied both my vain predilections and my cold caffeine curiosity. That is, until I discovered the Hario Cold Water Dripper.

The Hario Cold Water Dripper is the anti espresso-machine, a triptych of glassware and stainless steel. Comprising a large container for water, a beaker with a hollowed out base for ground coffee, and a pot for collecting the coffee – all housed in a transparent acrylic stand – it wouldn’t look out of place in a laboratory. It’s beautifully quirky, and exudes a playfulness that I don’t get from most other cold brew coffee makers. I’ve had to explain to everyone who walked by my desk that my new toy wasn’t a science experiment.

Two simple forces, gravity and diffusion, lie at the heart of Hario’s particular cold brew process. Regulated by a brass faucet, water drips down at a constant rate from the container into the ground coffee in the beaker, which then falls, drop by chocolate-brown drop, through a filter at the bottom into the distinctively shaped pot. The entire process takes about three to five hours, during which each drop absorbs the flavor and aroma of the ground coffee, resulting in a decadent concoction that retains the character of your beans without any of the trauma associated with high-temperature brewing. Long story short, you get a coffee that’s a lot less acidic and acerbic, perfect for drinking on the rocks or as a mixer for other coffee based beverages.

For my first batches of cold brew, I used the Organic Fair Trade blend, which has a sweet, cherry-chocolate flavour with a smooth finish, from the Graffeo Coffee Roasting Company. I drank the coffee unsweetened and on the rocks – and it was intensely addictive. Without the harsh bite of regular brewed coffee, a subtle honey-like tone, which I missed when I didn’t use the cold drip method, came to the fore, adding a whole new dimension to my drink. I don’t usually add sugar to my coffee, but the flavors of the cold brew were so harmonious, so perfect, that embellishing it with any kind of sweetener would have been downright criminal.

My colleagues, who probably would have murdered me in cold blood if I hadn’t offered them any of my cold brew, agreed, saying that they found the Hario coffee much more drinkable than their usual iced coffees. One even commented that he was getting a complexity and taste profile more akin to whiskey than coffee. I may have used the term “caffeine punch in a velvet glove” at some point.

Of course, I didn’t just take my own word for it. Inspired by the aesthetics of the Hario, I decided to conduct a little experiment of my own. One afternoon, I brought a pot of freshly brewed, cold drip Graffeo Organic Fair Trade coffee to my favorite café in town, which uses the same blend in their drinks. (I must’ve looked slightly insane during the five-minute walk to the place, crossing busy roads and cutting across shopping malls with a glass jug of brown liquid cradled in my arms.) With the help of the (very accommodating) café owners, I prepared two glasses of iced coffee, one made with conventionally brewed coffee from the café’s coffee machine, and one made with my Hario brew.

The three of us ­agreed that the Hario iced coffee was softer and more palatable than the regular iced coffee; however, my two caffeine compatriots didn’t seem completely sold on the gentler taste of the cold brew coffee. There are times, perhaps, when one could use a bitter bite in one’s coffee.

But the Hario isn’t just about the coffee. It’s also about the brewing experience, which is both primitive and peaceful. By actually scooping out my own coffee, moistening it to ensure proper permeation of water, and then waiting for hours on end before I could have a taste, I started to feel ridiculously rustic, even atavistic.

And then there was the dripping. Observing the slow pitter-patter of water, which Hario recommends calibrating to one drop a second for optimal flavor, onto the coffee, is strangely therapeutic. It was like having the coffee machine-equivalent of a Zen garden on my desk. Since bringing the device to the office, I’ve found myself gazing at the machinations of the small faucet, asking profound questions in my head as I pondered the mysteries of life. That is, until I drank the coffee and turned into a hyperactive monster.

The Hario Cold Water Dripper isn’t for everyone. If you like your coffee steaming hot; if you’d rather not have to start brewing at 10am for an after-lunch drink; or if you just don’t like the taste of cold drip coffee, you may have to stick to the many, more conventional machines on the market. For me, though, the Hario is a refreshing, low-tech change from the oodles of coffee-capsule espresso machines that are all the rage today. It’s a shimmering oasis that rewards patience with a pot of delicately brewed serenity.

The Hario Cold Water Dripper can be purchased online through Amazon or Williams-Sonoma.

Many thanks to Lauren and Bei Jia of Kooka Café on Purvis Street for putting up with my weird experiments and caffeine-induced ramblings!

Brandon

About Brandon Chew

Brandon Chew’s first memory is of him eating chicken rice at the dining table of his parents’ old flat. His second memory is of him politely asking for, and receiving, a second helping of fries at KFC, which taught him two things: manners gets you places, and fries are the most awesome food known to man. Brandon has just returned to Singapore from New York and is happily exploring the food scene here.

What Others Are Saying

  1. w. August 2, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Great review! I’ve always wanted one of those ice drip towers, and the Hario one caught my eye a couple of weeks ago when I was doing some coffee shopping. Sadly, I fear I might finally be out of corners and counter tops in our tiny HK apartment that I can evacuate for a new kitchen toy. :(

    Out of curiosity: being a coffee geek, I’m sure you’ll have experimented with the cold brew/steep & strain method (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/27/dining/27coff.html?_r=1) as well as the Japanese method of brewing a pour over coffee straight onto ice (http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/10/ristretto-on-the-rocks/). How does the flavour profile of ice drip compare to these two? In particular, is there a marked difference between the coffee that the much more inelegant dump/stir/steep/strain method and the drip-by-drip version?

    • Aun August 2, 2012 at 5:20 pm

      W, I can’t speak for Brandon, but I use the 24 hour french press method, a la http://www.americastestkitchenfeed.com/do-it-yourself/2011/08/how-to-make-cold-brew-coffee/.

    • Brandon
      Brandon August 3, 2012 at 2:42 am

      Hi W, thanks for sharing! You’ll have to forgive me, but I haven’t tried either of the methods you mentioned. I’d imagine, though, that the DIY steep-and-strain method would give you a smoother concentrate than the Japanese method – the latter still has the trauma of dousing hot coffee immediately in ice. I also tend to think that the drip method would give you a slightly more delicate coffee, as the cold water spends less time steeping with the ground coffee than the overnight/Toddy method, which is why I ultimately chose the Hario over the Toddy. What do you think?

      • w. August 3, 2012 at 10:59 am

        Hey Brandon, thanks for the reply. Yes, cold brew definitely results in a gentler, sweeter brew than the Japanese method, which gives you a vibrant, more acidic cup that tastes a little closer to…say… an americano, only it’s cold, and without those off-tasting flavours we’re often subject to in the traditional espresso-over-ice type iced coffees).

        If I’m not wrong, proponents for the Japanese iced pour over method argue that it allows for some of the flavour compounds that perhaps get missed in either of the cold brew/ice drip methods to better shine through (and the aromatic nuances are then ‘locked’ into their optimal state since the coffee gets cooled immediately, drip by drip).

        Regarding the difference between ice drip and cold brew, you’re probably right too. But I guess it’s time for me to see if anyone around here has an ice drip system I can borrow for a little taste test! (Or…if you would happen to be so keen, I’m sure I’m not the only Chubby Hubby reader who’d be interested in hearing about your comparison! Heh.)

        To be perfectly honest though, I tend to pick between my two current iced coffee methods based on convenience, rather than flavour, necessarily: if I’m having a group of people over, I’ll mix up a batch of cold brew all that remains is to dilute and serve the coffee, but if I’m on my own (or if I’ve then run out of cold brew) then a 3-minute cup of Japanese iced pour over is usually what I do for myself. :)

        PS: Aun – thanks for that link! I don’t know why I never thought to use a french press for the first filtration step in my cold brew, will definitely try that next time.

        • Brandon
          Brandon August 3, 2012 at 11:51 pm

          W, I’m always up for a taste test (: I’m all for taking my caffeine addiction to another level, and will see if I can get a little experiment going in my office/kitchen.
          And I’m totally with you re: convenience. When I’m feeling lazy I tend to go back to the ‘cruder’ hot-and-cold method. Sometimes, you gotta get your caffeine kick quick and dirty…

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