Specialty Coffee: The Pour-Over

Sophie Chung

The joy starts as the hot silky water gently hits the ground coffee beans. The dark brown bits swell in slow motion and, like lava, burst as small bubbles form. The aroma molecules gush out; they are the aurora of olfaction, fulfilling like dark chocolate and mysterious like wine. The barista continues tilting the kettle skillfully, distributing water on the ground coffee. Drops of coffee break free of the filter, forming a bigger and bigger pond. The coffee is now lying in its purest form, waiting to be understood. Delicate. Sensitive. Balanced. Passionate. They are all adjectives for this alluring cup of coffee. But there are more. The sensation of taste is deeper and more powerful. It can be clean or complex, smooth or jazzy, nutty like almond, or smoky like tobacco – but it’s not until the coffee glides across your tongue that you can truly realize the flavors on the taster’s wheel. You might not have heard the noun “specialty coffee,” but this is it. This steaming cup of coffee brewed with freshly ground high-quality beans, naked yet leveled in its own way, is specialty coffee. Neatly categorized according to the brew method described, it is given a simple name: pour-over coffee.

From the producer (farmer) to the green coffee buyer, then to the roaster and the barista, and finally into the consumer’s mouth, specialty coffee – a term first used by Erna Knutsen in 1974 to describe beans of high quality that are produced in ideal climates – exists because of the dedication of people involved in each process. Although there are an estimated 450 million cups of coffee consumed daily in the United States, pour-over coffee is far from being recognized in the popular coffee culture in this country compared to espresso-based drinks, such as caffè latte and cappuccino (Nattell, 2002). It is therefore hard to imagine that the capital city of a tiny island in East Asia – my hometown, Taipei, Taiwan – is a “coffee heaven” that integrates specialty coffee into daily life.

Coffee came to Taiwan with the Japanese, who occupied the nation for 50 years starting in 1895, when Japan itself was strongly influenced by Western ideals and aesthetics. In the early 1920s, coffee shops became meeting places for intellectuals to exchange political views. Even after World War II, as Taiwan was detached from Japan and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan from China, intellectuals still gathered in coffee shops to share ideas. Later, the economic boom in the 1970s gave rise to a new middle class, making more people capable of affording coffee. “After Starbucks arrived, Taiwanese became passionate about coffee as a way of life,” says Chou Wen Pei, head of the Taiwan Coffee Association and a founder of Taiwan Barista Championship, on the arrival of Starbucks in the 1990s. As in the U.S., Starbucks is extremely popular in Taiwan and is even considered a luxurious chain. However, in the 105-square-mile Taipei City, the figures are stunning: while there were 119 Starbucks in Taipei by the end of 2015, there were more than 2,500 indie coffee shops in this city (“The Survival,” 2010).

I didn’t start exploring specialty coffee until I was in high school, when a specialty coffee shop happened to open right across from my grandparents’ place. It was where I had my very first pour-over coffee. The first cup of pour-over coffee did not feel smooth, though; it tasted much stronger and more “raw” than I expected. I just loved the atmosphere of the shop and was fascinated by the way they made coffee for me there, so I kept visiting. The barista would bring a set of pour-over coffee utensils to my table and let me observe the filter technique as they carefully poured hot water onto the ground coffee beans. It was very stylish. But style wasn’t the main attraction to me. “There must be a reason for people who enjoy this type of coffee,” I thought to myself and decided to find out what that reason was.

Back in Taipei, searching for specialty coffee shops was always one of my most exciting goals. Plus, based on the statistics, it looked like a never-ending adventure ahead. My home in Taipei was close to the National University of Taiwan, the oldest college here with a deep-rooted coffee culture. I’d bike to a coffee shop with good reviews on the Internet, sit down with full expectation, and order an item on the menu that uses the name of the coffee beans’ country, region, processing type, roasting technique, and predicted tastes. For a cup of pour-over coffee, the beans usually came from a single origin, meaning they are solely from a specific coffee producer and are not blended. Generally speaking, beans from Ethiopia are floral, herbal, and citrus; beans from Colombia tend to be sweet, nutty, and chocolatey; beans from Costa Rica have complex sweetness combined with acidity and citrus, floral flavors . . . and so on. In specialty coffee, every single detail involved, from planting coffee trees to that final cup of coffee on your table, can be a factor that influences the flavor.

From a complete beginner to a person who appreciates the making of a good cup of coffee, coffee has surely influenced my lifestyle a lot. Like discovering a new star in the sky to astrologists, finding a fantastic coffee shop I had not visited before, or finding myself able to identify more flavors from coffee were exciting milestones to me. My interest in coffee has also expanded my curiosity, as I would excitedly try any exotic coffee – like Serbian or Nepalese coffee – that I saw in restaurants.

I remember the day I tried a coffee shop in a well-hidden alley in Taipei. The shop owner offered me his newly made pour-over coffee that wasn’t on the menu. The beans were Ethiopian and dry-processed. I took a sip, and the aftertaste that followed immediately struck my entire sensory system like lightning – how on earth could a cup of coffee taste like grapes?! After confirming with the shop owner that the coffee really had the flavor of wine and that my taste buds were functioning normally, I had an instant impulse to reproduce that kind of coffee myself.

With a full set of pour-over coffee utensils in my dorm room, I not only learned how to make pour-over coffee with online tutorials and coffee books, but I became eager to discover specialty coffee shops in Madison when I came to the UW. The history of coffee in America can be traced back to the early 18th century as it first reached the New World, although coffee didn’t popularize in the United States until the Boston Tea Party in 1773. That’s when Americans boycotted tea, and coffee from Brazil and the Caribbean was cheaper and easier to obtain than tea from China and India (Avey, 2013). Vacuum packaging, invented in 1900 by R.W. Hills, changed how coffee is packaged. By the mid-1900s, instant coffee became the new lifestyle in the U.S. and even supplied the military for World War II. By the 1970s, as much as one-third of imported coffee was processed into instant coffee. Then came Starbucks, which was founded in 1971, and four and a half decades later, it has 23,768 locations worldwide and became the icon of the coffee empire of the U.S (“The History,” 2016). However, although the U.S. is famous for coffee shops that you can spot almost everywhere, it was a real bummer that many of them in Madison served only espresso-based drinks.

As much as I prefer pour-over coffee over espresso-based drinks, it was still eye-opening the first few times I looked at the coffee shops’ menus and struggled to order something, because there are so many types of espresso drinks that don’t exist in coffee shops in my hometown. The espresso culture here was refreshing to me, so I quickly tried all the coffee shops I came across in Madison and many kinds of espresso drinks. I have decided a favorite, which I visited so often that I bet the employees can draw the outline of my face without looking.

Although that coffee shop had a great atmosphere for studying and enjoying a cup of coffee plus dessert, to me pour-over is still the soul of coffee-making. Fortunately, my pour-over coffee drought ended recently after a friend recommended a coffee shop little-known to students but not far from campus. It sits on the corner of University and Highland Avenues and, to my surprise, its founder was the World Barista Champion in 2011. So with high expectations and excitement, I came to 5th Element Coffee. It did not let me down. Their pour-over coffee used beans from the founder’s coffee farm in El Salvador and was wonderfully complex. It had a delightful smoky flavor that gave me an impression of a marvelous feast. After months of searching, I finally found a place that can satisfy my craving for specialty coffee. I have a feeling that the owner and the apprentices of 5th Element Coffee and I will see each other a lot. “There are some people who order pour-over coffee, but cappuccino is definitely more popular,” the apprentice at 5th Element Coffee told me. I watched him weigh the El Salvador beans and put them into the automatic grinder. He wet the paper filter with hot water, then dumped the ground coffee beans on it. He slowly poured water on the coffee, which “bloomed,” creating a blossoming effect called pre-infusion. After 20 seconds, he added the second pour, circling hot water around the ground coffee to fully release the flavors of the beans. Coffee dripped through the paper filter and was collected in the container underneath. He shook the final product gently to mix the brownish liquid that glowed beautifully, poured it into a coffee mug, and handed it to me.

I inhaled deeply and took a sip; the coffee was now on my tongue, stimulating every taste bud. I let the aroma and flavors take me on an adventure. The liquid went down my throat, but the aftertaste still floated, building new neural connections in my brain. I exhaled. My whole body softened and sank into the seat. Looking around the coffee shop, I wasn’t sure what kind of coffee others were having in their cups. The only thing I knew was this cup of pour-over coffee was what I had been looking for.

Works Cited

Agentur, Deutsche P. “Taiwan a Mecca for Coffee Drinkers.” The Hindustan Times, 5 Feb. 2006,

Avey, Tori. “The Caffeinated History of Coffee.” PBS, 8 Apr. 2013. http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-coffee/.

Carp, Benjamin L. “7 Myths about the Boston Tea Party.” Journal of the American Revolution, https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/11/7-myths-boston-tea-party/.

Eckhardt, Robyn. “Food & Drink: Ground Rules — Finding Asia’s Best Cup of Coffee.” The Wall Street Journal Asia, 6 Nov. 2009, p.W.8.

Nattell, Tom. “The Simple Life: Caffeine Fix.” Metroland, 7 Nov. 2002.

Quartly, Jules. “Taipei Coffee Culture: Rich, Robust, and Satisfying.” Taiwan Business Topics, 15 Jan. 2015. topics.amcham.com.tw/2015/01/taipei-coffee-culture-rich-robust-and-satisfying/.

“Question: What Is Specialty Coffee?” Specialty Coffee Association of America, www.scaa.org/?page=resources&d=what-is-specialty-coffee.

“The History of First, Second, and Third Wave Coffee.” Craft Beverage Jobs, 17 Apr. 2016, www.craftbeveragejobs.com.

“The Survival of Independent Café under the War between Large Coffee Chains in Taiwan.” Coffee t&i, vol. 19, Nov.-Dec. 2010, pp. 10-15.

毛 怡玫. “上海遍地都是咖啡館?台灣人說還不夠!.” 壹讀, 8 Mar. 2016.

Instructor’s Memo

The theme of my English 100 course is “Community and Agency.” For their Informative Essay, I asked students to consider a global issue and how it plays out at a local level. Sophie’s striking sensory imagery and love for coffee was clear from the very first draft, which made it easy to see that this was a piece worth continuing. She also already had a sense of the global—the history of specialty coffee and the ways that coffee has become a part of various cultures. What became clear in early drafts, however, was that her “local” focus was in fact hyperlocal —centered on a single cup of coffee. We discussed how to make her “local” focus just a bit wider, and the end result is an essay that uses coffee as a lens to understand something about her experience of finding her way in the differing cultures of Taipei and Madison. The strength of her narrative style makes the reader immediately understand why something as seemingly basic as a cup of coffee can, if we spend the time to look carefully at it, say something about our lives.

— Scott Harman

Writer’s Memo

It has been quite a while since I last touched or thought about this piece of writing. However, the one thought that came to me when tracing the memory of writing it was definitely, “I wrote with passion.”
Coffee was a topic I cared about and would love to share with people; it was also an area of exploration I still had a lot to learn about. The process of writing the essay went like this: I wrote down the specific things I remembered regarding my first encounters with specialty coffee, forgetting about the structure of the essay in the beginning, and I researched for some additional academic information to support its credibility and educational meaning (since it was an “informative essay”). The structuring of the essay came in during the revision, just to make it easier to read. Fortunately, the topic of specialty coffee was something not very well known by most, so it made for an interesting topic to write about, and I hope it did not bore you.

When I was editing this article for publication, my writing seemed to be coming from an ancient age. It would be hard for me in my first year to imagine that between my submission of this essay and editing it now, I have read and encountered so many other types of writing and literature, ranging from formal academic papers in science and humanities, to literary giants like Franz Kafka and great cinema artists like Andrei Tarkovsky. So when looking back at my article on coffee, I was like, “Wow, I’m amazed at just how passionate my tone is in this essay!” I have no doubt that the moment I set my fingers on my laptop keyboard, all I wanted was to tell how coffee had influenced me for the rest of my life.

In this class we were given a lot of freedom to choose what we wanted to write about, and, to me, an important notion was to be “unique” in writing and to bring in my own very subjective point of view—not subjective on the facts, but on my relationship to the topic. As Andrei Tarkovsky noted in Sculpting in Time, authors should interpret their subjects personally and stay true to their visions. I believe that perspectives come from our own memory and our current state of interpretations. If I were to write on the same topic now, it would be vastly different from the one you are reading here. The feeling of passion might be different, but that’s why we write. Words are the traces we leave behind. Words are our expression of memory.

–Sophie Chung

Student Writing Award: Informative Essay

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