The Washington Post

Craft brew: Why your morning coffee can now be as complicated as you like

Expert baristas demonstrate the Chemex, siphon and Steampunk coffee brewers and explain why each method is the best way for making the perfect cup of coffee. (Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

Baristas get no respect, at least not from those who shuffle into coffee shops looking for their daily jolt, like the walking dead stumbling in a post-apocalyptic fog for brains. These dawn-of-the-day zombies don't view baristas as the a.m. equivalent of mixologists, whose work behind a cocktail bar can earn them the drooling praise of stool pigeons who find genius in every house-made shrub and bottle of cocoa-infused bitters.

No, java zombies view baristas as little more than traffic cones or Jersey barriers: impediments to caffeine, which is the one and only reason they even bother to pour the liquid down their throats - as quickly as possible. The problem with java zombies is that they exert too much influence on our brewed coffee rituals.

How long are you willing to wait for a really good cup of coffee? 

As a culture, we've embraced the pleasures of the palate in so many areas, but not in our coffee cups. In dining rooms, at cocktail bars, down at the beer hall, in grocery stores and even at the ballpark, chefs and mixologists and managers are striving to upgrade their offerings to satisfy all of the discriminating eaters. But Americans have dug deep bunkers around their coffee shops, fending off assaults that threaten to permanently change the culture of caffeine with brewing methods that actually bring out the best in the beans - even if they're not as simple (or as quick) as filling a paper cup from a large brewing tower at the corner deli.

Some shops, like the Coffee Bar near the U Street corridor or Swing's in Foggy Bottom, don't even allow customers to order a carefully prepared pour-over coffee in the morning (or at all, in the case of Swing's). It's a concession to the maddening American work culture that seizes us by the throat every weekday morning. Coffee must be poured quickly and consumed just as fast, so we can go about our day, clicking off one task after another until we can finally enjoy the fruits of our labor in the evening (like maybe a good hand-crafted cocktail?).

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 21: Crosby Burns clicks away at his computer while patronizing Chinatown Coffee Co. on Friday, March 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

But a hand-poured coffee first thing in the morning, prepared by someone trained to accentuate the unique flavors trapped inside those meticulously roasted beans? I speak to baristas and roasters all the time, and the local knowledge base is expanding exponentially. Along with new know-how come different brewing techniques - with names like Steampunk and Chemex and siphon - that sacrifice speed for complexity.

These slow-brew methods have become more commonplace in recent months; they allow baristas to exert more control over every part of the brewing process, the same way a chef would obsess over heat (precise water temperatures are vital for perfect extraction), sharp blades (burr grinders are adjusted according to the bean and brewing method) and time (steeping periods vary depending on grind and brewing method).

Their efforts are worth a little extra money and a few more minutes of your morning. You might take that time to breathe deeply at a specialty coffee shop. Appreciate all that goes into this little cup, from the farmer tending those equatorial plants far removed from Washington to the barista working that water kettle to agitate your grounds for prime extraction. You might find that your zombie brain has grown a conscience: It no longer curses the people who ask for 10 minutes of your day to help you appreciate the wide world of coffee.

Read more:

• Where to try Steampunk, siphon and Chemex coffee

From the Ground Up: Follow two former Marines are they work to open a coffee shop

D.C.'s best coffee shops

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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