Batch Brew vs Hand Brew: a London Perspective

While many London cafes serve only espresso based drinks, many also serve some kind of filter or immersion brew. Aeropress, v60, Chemex, Clever Dripper, French Press, Kalita Wave and others are all hand brew processes. Hand brew processes place demands on the barista and by their nature introduce many variables to brewed coffee. With the best places, the best coffee and the best baristas, it can produce excellent results. We’ve had outstanding hand brewed coffee at places like Prufrock, Workshop, Silhouette, Origin, Amoret, Caravan, Milk Bar, Buhler & Co, Second Shot, Browns of Brockley, Lyles, Hubbard and Bell and Store St Espresso.

Hand brewed coffee is very dependent on the skill of the maker and several cafes have aimed to reduce inconsistency by using house recipes, using a less variable method such as a Kalita Wave or my controlling the water flow using some degree of automation such as the Marco SP9 as at Association Coffee, Caravan Bankside and (interestingly) at Costa’s new flagship store where it allows baristas who admit a relative lack of experience in filter to pour a quality brew.

Batch brew or bulk brew filter coffee has a long tradition in the US in diners and restaurants and elsewhere. Companies like Marco, Bunn and Fetco have refined the batch filter maker. Years ago, Drew at Black Swan Yard, Bermondsey began brewing flasks of filter on a Moccamaster to serve a cup at a time. Caravan also were early advocates of batch brew as were Store Street espresso. When James Bailey fine-tuned the Fetco brewers at Workshop when their Holborn Viaduct shop opened however, we suddenly had batch brew at a level we’d only experienced hand brewed coffee in the UK.

Workshop then introduced batch brew to all their stores, at a cheaper rate than time consuming Aeropress coffee and not necessarily an inferior drink. Dumo Mathema (of the Roastery Department) at Department of Coffee maintained consistency across the Department cafes by consolidating the offer of two espressos plus decaf and one or two batch filter options at all their stores. Dumo’s coffee on bulk brew is a consistent delight and he checks this regularly, as I found out recently when I bumped into him on one of his unannounced visits to one of Department’s cafes. Of course the coffee was superb,

Caravan deserve a lot of credit for the quality of their batch brew coffee nowadays and at the almost hidden brew bar in Caravan Kings Cross I love to drink hand brewed and batch brewed filters. In the main picture, head barista David is pouring me a Chemex with one hand while pouring a serving of batch brew filter to a customer simultaneously. Great credit should also go to Coffee Works Project in Southwark who gave all the americano/long black customers samples of batch brew to try and converted many to batch brew filter – tastier, cheaper and less work for the staff. Look out also for Gaz at Stopfix (Shed London, Haggerston) who experiments with filter blends on the bulk brewer. Lanark and I Will Kill Again also both brew a tasty batch

Scott Rao, who has given talks at Prufrock on batch brew filter, really made me think when he suggested in this article that he had experienced generally and frequently much better coffee by batch brew than hand brew because of the inherent consistency. The article itself is a must read for its perspective on hand brewing and Scott’s logic is persuasive. Having said that, Scott’s observations really jarred with my experiences in the UK. I’m sure it’s not just my personal preference for ever so slightly under extracted medium light roast coffee. I think it also reflects differences in the current situation between the US and the UK.

The US has a long tradition of batch brew and the UK doesn’t. This means that many UK cafes are only just coming round to the batch brew process and very few are doing it well. In the UK I’ve had a lot more undrinkable batch than undrinkable hand brew. There are issues of cleaning and dosing and preparation with bulk brew. I’ve even heard of cafes asking untrained staff to prepare it.

I also tend to order hand brewed filter at the best cafes in London, so I’m experiencing filter coffee made by the best baristas with the most skill. I have to say that I have had batch and hand brew at the same café on multiple occasions and it’s rare occasions I have preferred the batch – it has happened at Caravan, Workshop and Store St on occasions.

Another geographical issue is that as well as many American cafes knowing batch brew well, the American roasting style is also different with many roasting styles favouring body in slightly darker roasts. I have been told that American roasters roast ‘for batch’ and European roasters ‘for pourover’.

London’s leading coffeeshop, Prufrock, uses only hand brew methods but is very curious about batch brew, especially given their current emphasis on efficiency and consistency with the use of the likes of the Puq Press. Jeremy makes the points that this is partly a matter of our negative past experience and association with bad batch brew, partly the machine aesthetics, partly the role of the brew bar in helping customers improve their own brewing at home, and partly the value of a ‘slow food’ method. The value of anticipation and the sheer joy of sitting at the brew bar while a delicious coffee is prepared for you personally are not to be underestimated.

As Scott himself admits, Brewer’s Cup competitors all use hand brews and at the highest level of baristas skill, hand brew methods do provide a great canvas for a baristas’s ability. Personally, we understand why for many cafes, batch brew either alongside or in place of hand brewed filter makes sense and we are glad to taste better batch brew in London. Of course cafes need to sell enough batch brew and be busy enough to make it viable – some cafes start serving batch brew from 8am. Similarly, it makes sense for busy cafes to offer hand brew as an option at quieter times and batch brew only at busy times. There are days I only have time to drink a takeaway batch brew and times I want to sit at a brew bar and chat away with the barista while having a coffee made individually for me. The great thing is the choice. 

Article by Phil Wain - Editor

October 26, 2016 — Best Coffee