I remember my first time using an Aeropress. It was about eight or so years ago, and my roommate Laura, a ceramicist, had one. She used it every morning on top one of her beautiful handmade mugs, frothed some warm milk on the side, and ended up with a simple homemade latte every single morning. I thought it was magic.
Fast forward to this year, when I went to my first ever Aeropress championships. I was in a bar full of specialty coffee lovers, battling it out for a trip to the World Aeropress Championships, held earlier this year in Seattle. All the competitors made their various Aeropress recipes with a precision I have never seen before. I wondered: How did the Aeropress achieve such cult status?
If you have yet to come across an Aeropress, it's a cylindrical plastic device for brewing coffee. You place a filter at the bottom of it, add coffee grounds and hot water, let the coffee grounds steep, then — using a plunger — push down so the water extracts through the coffee grounds and filter and down into your cup. Nowadays, you spot them often in specialty cafes — yet another icon in the coffee geek's accoutrement of coffee paraphernalia.
As it turns out, the Aeropress, invented in 2005, has a rather interesting history. You would think that only a coffee professional could come up with such a thing, but on the contrary, it took a scientist.
The Aeropress is the brainchild of engineering instructor, scientist, and inventor, Alan Adler, who also invented the Aerobie, a flying disc that holds the Guinness World Record for the farthest throw (1,333 feet, in case you were wondering). Alder was a coffee lover, and with a scientific craving for understanding what he was drinking, he set out to analyze the brewing process so he could make a better cup at home.
Through a lot of testing (he went through 40 prototypes before landing on the right one), he developed the Aeropress, an inexpensive and lightweight hand press that would help you brew coffee in the ultimate conditions.
For many, the benefit of an Aeropress is time. The coffee grounds and water have to steep for much less time than with a manual brew method like a French press. That's for two reasons: First, because with a paper filter you are using finely ground coffee, which has more surface area so you extract flavors quicker. Second, because you are pushing water through the grinds to do your extraction, similar to how espresso is made.
That being said, many coffee lovers also employ the inverted method, where the Aeropress is turned upside down, and the coffee grounds and water are added, left to brew, and then turned back over and plunged once ready. In this method, the brew time tends to be longer, and in turn, the grind may be coarser.
The coffee produced by an Aeropress is similar in strength to an espresso, and with a smooth taste that's much less bitter than some brew methods. Another added benefit? A Porlex hand grinder serendipitously fits inside of it, making it the preferred brew method for many coffee lovers who travel. And if you like to minimize waste, which is convenient when you're traveling, Able Brewing even makes a reusable filter that's specifically designed for use with the Aeropress.
The other big benefit of the Aeropress? Price. It costs a tiny fraction of expensive coffee machines, and on top of it, is much simpler to use and maintain.
What's fun to see is how far coffee lovers have taken the use of the Aeropress; national championships are held around the world every year, and the recipes and methods used are always innovative. I asked Adler why he thought the coffee industry had so wholeheartedly embraced the device. "I think coffee aficionados love to innovate and incorporate their own ideas in coffee brewing," wrote Adler in an email to me. "The diminutive AeroPress grants them a huge playing field to express their own creativity."
At the end of the day, for Adler it's really all about taste. Once he identified all the key components in brewing a good cup of coffee, and had invented a device that ensured all those components were in place, he was pretty convinced about the device's success. "I don't claim to have always been right about the success of my inventions, but I did tell our team that the AeroPress sales would match all of our other products combined," wrote Adler. "I based that expectation solely on flavor. I'd never tasted such rich, yet un-bitter brew." I think we can all agree that we don't like bitter coffee. Adler was definitely onto something, and it's no wonder that the device has hit cult status.
Want to make coffee at home with an Aeropress? Here's a good guide for both the traditional and the inverted method.