The device at Chinatown Coffee Co. looks like the jury-rigged still that Hawkeye and Trapper built to make moonshine in their tent on "M*A*S*H." Or perhaps like the world's largest coil condenser bong.
Actually, the contraption brews coffee, one agonizing drip at a time. The Kyoto cold-drip tower is the latest gadget to improve our morning caffeine ritual, following in the footsteps of pour-over drippers, vacuum pots, Chemex brewers, nitro coffee, AeroPresses, Steampunk machines and other "innovations" often adopted in America (the coffee heathen!) decades after their invention or created right here in the States (the coffee pioneer!).
Chinatown Coffee Co. is among the early adopters in D.C. of the Japanese tower. (Blue Bottle, of course, adopted it years earlier). In late June, Chinatown Coffee owner Max Brown introduced customers to his Yama-branded tower, a pricy piece of equipment that requires a lot of practice and patience to brew a quality cup of iced coffee.
"We tested it out for about a month to get the flavor we wanted it to be, while still having it feasible to actually sell," says Doug Barclay, brewmaster at Chinatown Coffee.
What Barclay means is the tower can drip as quickly, or as slowly, as you want, depending on how long you want to brew the coffee. The tower can produce a batch in five hours; it can produce one in 24 hours. A commercial coffee shop, obviously, wants to create a batch closer to the five-hour mark.
Chinatown Coffee invests seven to eight hours with each batch, using a drip-rate of one drop every second (more or less). "When the summer ends and cold-brew isn't in as much demand, we might start toying around with a 15-hour [batch] or maybe do a 24-hour [batch] and see what we can do with it," Barclay says.
To prepare a nine-cup batch, Barclay coarsely grinds 12 ounces of Ethiopia Aricha from Portland's Heart Roasters and places the coffee into the middle chamber. Next, he takes iced, filtered water and pours it into the top chamber. He then sets the dripper, and the long process begins.
"You really have to keep your eye on this throughout the entire shift," Barclay says. "This is a really collaborative effort from the people who come in at 6 a.m. to the people who close us down. This is — I don't want to use the word 'temperamental,' but it needs attention. Depending on what the temperature is outside, what the temperature is in here, the ice is going to melt a little differently. The pressure's going to drop as the day goes on, so you have to kind of fiddle with the actual ratio it's dripping at."
Chinatown wanted to develop a cold-drip recipe that "matched our clientele," Barclay notes. "Because we're split down the middle between tourists walking in off the street, who don't really know much about coffee, to people who come here as a destination spot . . . When we had more coffee [in the tower], the cup had a little bit more bite, but maybe too much bite."
Bite, as in bitterness, which the tower is designed to combat.
"The goal of this is to knock as much acidity out as humanly possible, and that was a little more difficult with the higher volume" of coffee, says Barclay. "So this is a little smoother, a little bit more subtle."
The resulting coffee — an almost syrupy cup that's both sweet and roasty — costs $5 for 16 ounces. If you can get your hands on it, that is. Chinatown Coffee has already developed a reputation for running out of the stuff, not surprising given the shop opens each day with two batches, tops. (Another batch is typically ready in the early afternoon.) Brown and Barclay are waiting for a second tower later this month, which should increase production.
Come fall, when Chinatown Coffee has the second tower (and a new interior after cosmetic renovations), Barclay expects to put his cold-drip contraptions to the test. Perhaps place some pumpkin rinds among the grounds to extract more autumnal flavors. Or maybe even create coffee cocktails.
"We have a liquor license here, so we've been playing around with different bourbon drinks," Barclay says. "We can do a lot, but obviously we want to get out the standard cup right now. It's a fun machine."
Cold-drip coffee available for $5 a cup at Chinatown Coffee Co., 475 H St. NW, www.chinatowncoffee.com.