From the neoprene to the zip-down reveal, there's little not to be intrigued about in the Cafe Solo. Though its first blast of trendy popularity on the coffee scene expired several years ago, many still hold true to the stylish carafe brewer's mysterious ways, which throw a piston-less twist on the idea of a French Press—and put a sexy little coat on it.
Though the Danish device's high price is intimidating—these babies cost upwards of $90—its fans are legion for the simplicity and paper-filter-free functionality. The Cafe Solo's principles of superbasic immersion (rather than gravity-down extraction as in cone-style drippers) are ideal for truly bringing out dimensions of flavor in a coffee, and can be likened to the just-put-grounds-in-water mode of "cupping" that is used to professionally evaluate coffees for taste and quality.
Like a French Press, the Cafe Solo steeps water and coffee for approximately four minutes before filtering through a fine mesh screen, but instead steeping and then pressing down on a plunger, the coffee is agitated once after the "bloom" (via an included paddle, or whatever you have handy) and then extracts gradually through full immersion brewing. The agitation that stimulates extraction takes place, then, both at the bloom-stir stage and the pouroff stage, the latter of which should be done carefully and smoothly. Though the Solo produces a lot less sludge than a French Press, be prepared to decant carefully as sediment will occur. Silt notwithstanding, it produces a vivid, well-balanced cup.
Charles Babinski, a Coffee Educator for Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea in Venice, CA, sees the Cafe Solo as a fine way to do something perfectly simple:
I honestly believe that great coffee is not about as much about the brewer than it is the confluence of 3 things: a great coffee, great water and the right grind. The Cafe Solo is, for me, the yuppie-bejacketed priest of this doctrine. All it really does is let coffee and water hang out and make brew."
(Babinski is currently perfecting how to reduce the Solo's propensity for particulates by using a finer grind and refiltering the coffee through a "coffee sock".)
How to Use a Cafe Solo
Note that instructions are for the 1L sized Cafe Solo.
Water: Bring good quality filtered water (not distilled) to a boil.
Prep Tip: Once you have some hot water going, it's a great idea to preheat your Cafe Solo carafe by letting some hot water sit in it while you measure and grind coffee and otherwise futz about. Please note that your Cafe Solo wants its jacket on before filling with any hot water, and not after, when it is too hot to touch.
Coffee: Measure out 65 grams of coffee and grind to a coarser-than-drip setting—not quite as large a particle size as for French Press, but coarser than your average filter grind.
Once your water and coffee are both ready, empty your preheated Cafe Solo and pour in the ground coffee.
Add water—don't fill the Cafe Solo too far up, just go up to the neck—and set timer for 1 minute. The frothy head of the coffee will rise and bloom at this stage.
At the 1:00 mark, use your Cafe Solo paddle, or a bamboo stirrer, or a similar long-handled stick, and give the bloom a few gentle agitations to fully stir up the grounds. At this time insert the Cafe Solo's filter-top and put the lid on it.
Set the timer for 3 more minutes. When the time's up, you're ready to decant! Remove the lid and gently pour off the contents of your Cafe Solo. You'll want to do this without too much dramatic agitation, both to reduce the amount of potential overextraction and to keep too much of that silt from finding its way into your cup.
It is worth noting that there are competing schools of thought on how long you can let coffee sit in an immersion brewer before it becomes overextracted (too strong, too bitter, unsubtle, tastes bad). Some believe a Cafe Solo should be decanted in full, immediately, into a secondary server so as to halt the water soaking up any more coffee from the grounds, while others believe letting the Solo brew sit in relative tranquility for up to ten or fifteen minutes has no significant effect on extraction. It's certainly tempting to let your Cafe Solo keep the rest of your coffee warm in her cute little jumpsuit, but only your palate (and perhaps your refractometer) knows what's best.