Slow coffee: Is single cup preparation java’s next big thing?

Mudhouse’s Dan Pabst has mastered the art of pouring a perfect cup of coffee. Photo: Martyn Kyle Mudhouse’s Dan Pabst has mastered the art of pouring a perfect cup of coffee. Photo: Martyn Kyle

I am a mindless follower, a sheep that would walk with the rest of you straight to the slaughter if given the chance.

About eight years ago, while living in Chicago, I started taking down espresso drinks two at a time. You might guess this coincided with the growing popularity of a certain coffee shop chain that rhymes with “hard lucks.” If so, you’re a good guesser.

I started primarily on two-shot lattes, with the occasional macchiato or doppio espresso mixed in. Then I moved to Americanos. I thought to myself, “say, if you’re going to go around drinking coffee, you might as well actually taste the coffee.”

So there I’d be, sipping my espresso with hot water, smugly declining when the barista would ask if I’d like “room for cream,” and looking down my nose at all the people who ordered milky, flavored coffees. This went on for several years. (The Americano drinking that is. The smugness continues.) Then, this past spring, I met Dan Pabst of Mudhouse. This dude knows more about coffee than Deepak Chopra knows about chilling out.

“There is a science to brewing coffee,” Pabst said. “If we could get everyone following the science, coffee would be better everywhere.”

When I first encountered him, Pabst was in the only place I’ve ever seen the man—standing behind one of Mudhouse’s single cup coffee bars. He was manning the booth on the south side of the Charlottesville City Market, carefully pouring hot water in a tight circle into an inverted cone over a cream-colored Mudhouse mug. He was talking about bitterness—coffee should have none if it’s prepared properly, he said. He was talking about water-to-grounds ratios—too much or too little H20, and you won’t achieve the right flavor profile, he said.

I took the cup of coffee he’d poured for me (not quickly, by the way). I sipped it. It was phenomenal. The floral notes Pabst had mentioned were there. The citrus notes he had mentioned were there. The bitterness he’d derided? Not there. It was, simply put, like no other cup of coffee I’d ever had. A question filtered into my mind: was this the next big thing in coffee in the post-latte world?

I figured Pabst could help me with the answer, so I visited him at Mudhouse last week to put him on the hot plate. While bitterness and water levels were the two things that struck me during my first meeting with Pabst, those two attributes turned out to be but a few details in the story of the perfect single cup of coffee.

Each morning, Mudhouse baristas select only one coffee worthy of being prepared on the shop’s hand-pouring bar.

“Every coffee has a blossoms-on date,” Pabst said. “After we roast a coffee, we taste it every single day. We are noticing how the flavor changes over time.”

Pabst said coffees can take anywhere from three to 15 days to reach their peak, but they typically achieve maximum flavor at four to seven days. Depending on the roast (where the beans fall on the spectrum of light to dark), each varietal lends itself to a certain ratio of water-to-grounds. Using a standard 400 milliliters of hot water, Mudhouse experiments to determine how many grams of coffee will yield the desired flavor profile. It’s usually somewhere between 22 and 25 grams. According to Pabst, all of this is done in the lab ahead of time.

Brew time, which is controlled by the consistency of the grounds, is also critical. Each cup requires between 2.5 and 3.5 minutes of water-to-grounds contact. For a coffee that needs more time, a finer grind does the trick; for one that dictates a shorter brew cycle, a coarser grind is in order. And what lab would be worth its salt if it didn’t also account for temperature? The water has to be poured at or just above 200 degrees to optimize extraction (the percentage of coffee flavor in the drink) and concentration (the ratio of actual coffee solids to water content).

Mudhouse makes sure all these science-y parameters are in place before starting the hand pour at its bar. The barista begins by washing the unbleached white filters favored by Mudhouse to cleanse them of paper flavor and distributing the pre-set amount of grounds evenly in the cone. A pre-pour follows. It’s a chance for the grounds to degas and the fines (extremely small coffee particles) to settle in.

“It’s like calisthenics for the coffee, stretching before the workout,” Pabst said.

Next comes the carefully practiced, circular pouring motion, designed to keep all the grounds moisturized throughout the brewing process and allow the water to spread from the center of the coffee bed to the outside before funneling to the bottom. When the pour is finished, Pabst said the grounds should be level enough to take a comfortable power nap on them.

The result is, undoubtedly, a damn good beverage. And Pabst believes the single cup preparation is indeed destined to be the next big coffee trend. He guessed Mudhouse’s hand pouring sales have increased by 500 percent in the last two years and called the trend the “third wave” of American coffee drinking, a natural follow-on to the second wave of espresso drinkers who were fueled by that Seattle-based behemoth.

“We treat coffee like an artisanal food product,” Pabst said. “In a way, what we are doing is taking the same approach as espresso—made fresh to order—and applying it to our brewed coffee.”