Pursuing the Pourover

Making pour­over coffee is a study in the pretentious.

First, you must heat water to exactly 205 F. This is best done in not just any kettle, but a gooseneck kettle, so named because the spout is long, thin, and shaped like a swan’s neck. Carefully, you should then pour water in a circular motion onto your pre­measured, just­ground­tothe­right­consistency beans (which, of course, were roasted no more than a week ago), making sure to wet the grounds evenly. Having poured a hundred grams of water, wait for a minute to let the grounds ‘bloom’ as they degass, puffing up a bit and then deflating. Then continue pouring until you have poured exactly seventeen grams of water to every gram of coffee you’ve measured out.

Water enters the top of the dripper, then coffee exits the bottom into your cup after passing through the grounds. It should take no fewer than three minutes for the water to drip through into your cup, but no more than four. True aficionados know their ideal time to the second.

Sometime this semester, I became obsessed with pour­over coffee. It became a ritual I could do in my dorm room, whenever I felt the need to procrastinate. It was soothing, at times, to have this level of fastidious control over something. And, somewhat contradictorily, there was something beautiful about being able to create a complexity of flavors out of something as simple as pouring water over coffee.

There are a lot of contradictions in pour­over. Despite the fact that—or perhaps because­­ the process is so complicated, the raw ingredients needed are few: coffee beans, water, paper filters. (This makes it an almost perfect eccentricity for a hipster, dorm­dwelling, college student.)

The filters are easy to find. I buy them at Wal­Mart in packs of a hundred. Water I pour from the drinking fountains. Only the coffee beans are difficult to find; they are what take you on a journey into lands of different flavors. This is the story of how I went looking for coffee beans and, instead, found something else.

In Princeton, if you seek coffee beans of higher quality than Small World’s blends, you merely have to walk to Rojo’s in Palmer Square, where you will find coffee beans from Ethiopia, Indonesia and Colombia that are “artisinally roasted” only fifteen miles away in Lawrenceville.

Yet sometimes I find myself hankering for beans roasted elsewhere. So every time I find myself in Philadelphia or New York I make a point to look up a coffee store, and when I went home recently to Hong Kong I dutifully searched out a list of the “7 best coffee shops in Hong Kong.”

The first coffee shop was in Mongkok, of all places. You can understand where Mongkok is within the socio­cultural map of Hong Kong—why it is an ‘of all places’—from its street names. In a city still littered with marks of British colonialism, streets in Hong Kong’s city centre are named either after grand, British people and places (see Queen’s Road, Des Vouex Road) or after funny little local customs (see Ice House Street, Soy Street). Mongkok is the sort of place that the colonialist street­namer didn’t try to step too far into, perhaps for fear of never coming out. It’s here that I looked for a place called Knockbox Café, on a street called Hak Po Street.

Unlike the colonialist street­namer, I didn’t fear Mongkok’s back alleys. I ventured far beyond the main Mongkok thoroughfare into streets packed with local hawkers selling gai daan jai (egg waffles) and fung zaau paai gwat faan (steamed rice topped with spareribs and chicken feet). I ignored it all: the colorful sights, the sweet and savoury smells. I wanted artisanal coffee. And eventually, I found it, at Knockbox Café. It was an oasis in the storm, the sort of place that could have been a bar if the walls hadn’t been painted white. I sat at what would have been the bar ­table, thinking of how this was a far cry from the street hawkers and neon signs.

It is also the sort of place where pour­over coffee cost $8.39 in a neighborhood where you can get lunch for $4. I wondered how much beans cost. Even for a café, the place wasn’t too pure, I snobbishly noted—it serves friendly desserts like banana sundaes and chocolate­chip cookie flavored cakes. The girl next to me ordered one. I debated between getting pour­over or a flat white—figuring that people in Hong Kong can probably make an Australian drink better than Americans can.

But I figured, if I was going to buy their beans to make my own pour­over, I might as well try the café’s pour­over first. The barista made the pour­over on the not­a­bar­table. After about five minutes of preparation and show, I ended up with a small eight­ounce cup of black coffee. I saw the girl sitting next to me watch in amazement (and, perhaps, a bit of bemusement), and I invited her to try some of my coffee.

“No, thank you,” she said. So I began to drink.

“You’re drinking it straight?” she asked.

To pour sugar into something that has been so deliberately and delicately extracted for its flavor would be a crime. I said so, with less arrogance. “You should try some,” I said. “It’s not bad.”

(Actually, it was a bit sour.)

“It’s interesting,” she said. She went back to her dessert, which looked very appetizing. In the end, I decided not to buy any beans at Knockbox Café. On my way back to the subway station, I contemplated buying some of that gai daan jai as I passed by it, and briefly doubted whether my quest for coffee beans was really worth it.

A few days later, I went out with a friend, Leanne, a fully ­Chinese Hong Kong girl who speaks Received Pronunciation English when she wasn’t arguing with minibus drivers in Cantonese.

We went to one of the newly­ gentrified parts of the city, the sort of place where store staff spoke flawless English and there wasn’t a gai daan jai hawker within ten blocks. A 400-­square­ foot apartment there rented for $3,400 a month. (I later found out that the area, originally named Po Hing Fong, had been recently re­dubbed “PoHo.”)

“I’d like to stop by this café called lof10,” I told Leanne, my desire for coffee beans suddenly reinvigorated. “I’ve gotten into artisanal coffee, and I want to buy some coffee beans here.”

“Loft­ten?” she said. “I’ve been there once. It’s a bit strange. There’s one table. I guess everyone’s meant to sit around it. I don’t know how they make any money. Don’t you go to school in America? You should just buy coffee there. They love the stuff.”

In the end, however, she indulged me, and we walked to the café. They didn’t have pourover, I found out, and there really was only one table. We walked around the cavernous, empty café, looked briefly at the menu, then left empty­-handed.

Really I reflected, my friend had a point. America had given me this idea of ‘hipsterism’: the idea of taking what is local and making it better, hipper, in a process some people call it ‘gentrification.’ It was taking something that our parents do and turning it into a science, ‘modernizing’ it in the name of good taste.

In my naive chase for everything hipster, I’d neglected to see how much the pursuit of hipsterism could alienate us from everybody who was not well-­off, millennial and needlessly perfectionist. At Princeton, this was the norm. As an international student, a temporary visitor, how could I know it to be any different? It took coming back to Hong Kong for me to see how strange it all was. Hipsterism, after all, is an international phenomenon, if more prevalent in America.

“Here, let’s go to Teakkha,” Leanne proposed instead. Teakkha was a nice tea place down the road, where the menu was in English, the walls were painted green, and there were tables and paintings and comfy cushions.

I reluctantly concluded my artisanal coffee search on a half­hearted note. Passing up white peony tea and any of the ten types of chai lattes, I ordered a yuan­yang—a confectionary, caffeinated Cantonese creation that mixes strong black tea with coffee and condensed milk. It cost about $4.50, the same price as a cup of pour­over in Princeton. (Don’t tell Rojo, please. I don’t think he’d let me back in his shop.)

I drank my ying­yang, feeling temporarily superior because of my choice in beverages and café. In the back of my mind, I knew that once I was back in Princeton I would return to my pourover routine. But that felt normal, and this felt normal. There really was something wrong, I realized, with the idea of drinking pour­over in Hong Kong.

When we left, I noticed down the street a classic, Hong Kong cha caan teng. It was lit up with cheap neon lights; old men sat on plastic stools around fold­up tables along the street. It was the sort of place that would probably be gone in four years. And it occurred to me that I could have gotten an authentic yuan­yang there for $2.

Of course, my drink would have been put together by a frantic waitress. I could have watched her make it, seen her juggling bitter black tea with stale coffee and a can of the same brand of evaporated milk that everybody and their Cantonese mother uses to make Hong Kong­style milk tea. Forget gooseneck and artisinally­ roasted beans; there are no kettles involved. Black tea in Hong Kong is made in huge vats.

And where’s the fun in that?

Please. I never said that coming back to Hong Kong would mean giving up hipsterism…If anything, the British colonizers were the original hipsters. Going home only meant trading in American hipsterism, and the awful Hong Kong­style American hipsterism—lof10, Knockbox—for true Hong Kong hipsterism­­Teakkha and English menus. But it’s all the same. Really, hipsterism is just as absurd in Hong Kong as it is in Princeton.