In 1930s, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was already long established as the epicenter of American scientific research. M.I.T. graduates were running industrial giants like General Motors, General Electric, and Eastman Kodak. Fortune Magazine published articles on subjects like the university’s gargantuan six-million-volt Van de Graaff generator. Who would’ve imagined that a young Samuel Prescott, Dean of Science, was then ensconced in a three-year quest to realize the perfect cup of coffee? At M.I.T., no one paid any attention to the slander about coffee being “slow poison” or inducing moral promiscuity. Just as wine’s never been just wine in France, in America, coffee’s never been just coffee.

The pour over method at Cafe Volan.

The Pour Over Method. (Image by Cafe Volan.)

Prescott’s “tasting squad” sampled, over the next several years, coffee brewed under all kinds of conditions. Coffee was boiled, dripped, and filtered. Water of varying hardnesses was heated at different temperatures. Aluminum, copper, nickel, tin plate, and glass pots were all tested. Prescott (now known about the Cambridge campus as “coffee-maker without peer”) finally concluded, “the ideal cup of coffee should be made in glass or stone, with coffee freshly ground, and water a few degrees below boiling. Never boil, and never reuse the grounds.”

Since the 1930s, an endless stream of manufacturers of coffeemakers have followed up on Professor Prescott’s clinical trials, utilizing the M.I.T. tasting squad’s two key variables in a coffeemaker’s performance: the water temperature and the brew process. The optimal temperature for coffee brewing is 200 degrees Fahrenheit. (Your brew will be under-extracted if the temperature’s lower, over-extracted when higher.) All kinds of coffeemakers will vie for your attention – French press, percolators, Napolitanos, espresso makers, and even vacuum pots – but when it comes to the control of flavor and aroma, any card-carrying coffee nerd will tell you flat out that manual coffeemakers (a.k.a. pour-over coffeemakers) provide the tastiest, most magical and memorable brews. And among the pour-overs, hands down, the shapely drip cone style reigns supreme.

A line-up of drip cones. (Image by Trent Engel)

The daily grind. (Image by Trent Engel)

The drip cone’s simplicity constitutes both its efficiency and its beauty. You place your drip cone – containing a filter – smack on top of your favorite mug or carafe. Next, you pour your water (at its perfect temperature) over the coffee grounds, manually regulating the flow, and creating optimal turbulence thanks to the cone’s elegant design. Since all the water is angled toward a common point, the oils and flavor are extracted more evenly than in a flat basket. You have superior drainage, one-cup-at-a-time freshness, and superb distillation.

Finally, you will want to be aware of the comparative qualities of the two most popular filters available for drip cones. Gold filters – composed of a fine-hued screen – allow the purest oils to gratify your taste buds. Coffee veteranos will note the gold filter’s richer taste. The downside is tiny bits of the ground can penetrate the mesh as well. While paper filters might raise eyebrows among gold filter snobs, the taste is hailed as smoother. Plus, there’s nothing to clean.

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  1. Babette
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 8:18 AM | Permalink

    I am entranced that others who are just as obsessed as I with the perfect cup of coffee. I am flabbergasted at the brews others will drink as if it is real coffee. Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts? Gag. I brew a great cup of coffee each morning with a cone on my cup (preheated of course.) Poured carefully, and a bit at a time, please. The only other coffee aficionados I am aware of are the Cajuns of Southwest Louisiana. They perfected coffee with an enamel pot, which name I cannot recall. The rate at which the water is added is critical. Thanks for this article; I had no idea!

  2. Ashleigh
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:55 AM | Permalink

    I have a 3 cup Chemex that I've used every morning for years. I love the clean, smooth taste of perfectly brewed coffee. How do you think the ceramic cone compares?

  3. Kate in Kansas
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:58 AM | Permalink

    So, is there a drip cone that is stone or glass? Is there a filter with no plastic parts?

    Also, very interested in the other commentator's mention of the Cajun coffee. Will have to search for more information about that.

  4. Rox in California
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:48 PM | Permalink

    Kate, there are a number of glass and ceramic cones brewers available. The Chemex, of course, Is fabulous. My current favorite is a glass cone with a plastic frame made by Hario. I use a Chemex paper filter in the Hario glass cone, and brew directly into a thermos, which keeps the brew hotter.

  5. Yep
    Posted January 6, 2013 at 11:27 AM | Permalink

    Teas better

  6. barknot
    Posted March 30, 2013 at 6:25 PM | Permalink

    And if you like your coffee sweet, you can add the sugar or sweetener to the ground coffee in the filter in the cone before you pour the hot water onto it. Saves washing one spoon and the stirring you would do if you add the sugar to the liquid coffee in the cup. It came in real handy when I went camping once and forgot to bring any spoons.

  7. Posted January 7, 2015 at 5:54 AM | Permalink

    Indeed a better method

  8. Posted February 7, 2015 at 1:14 AM | Permalink

    I think that ceramic cone is best for me. I have not tried it yet but have heard a lot about it. Thanks

  9. Posted March 5, 2016 at 9:28 AM | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your positive feedback with us!

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