Mr. George Sowden is an industrious man with a few hundred designs in his name. Now he has turned his attention to oldskool coffee makers, the result of which is the SoftBrew coffee maker.
The first thing that struck me about the Sowden SoftBrew is its style. It does have a certain understated elegance. But there’s more to it than just appearances.
The SoftBrew consists of a porcelain coffee pot, called the “Oskar”, with a large stainless steel filter, the “SoftBrew” part. The combination is similar to an old “sock pot” or biggin. These were early type infusion coffee maker, in which the grounds were put in a cotton sock, and submersed in the water to separate the two. The Sowden SoftBrew is different in that it uses a large stainless steel “sock”.
The choice of materials has some pros. The porcelain not only looks good, it is also neutral, easy to clean, and helps keep the coffee fairly warm.
The patented filter is made of fairly thin stainless steel that flexes a little under pressure. The holes are not punched, but presumably laser etched. Although the holes seem minute (the patent mentions an “ideal diameter of 0.15 mm”), the filter lets more sediment pass than the Coava Kone filter. I would rate the SoftBrew’s filter on par with a Swissgold filter.
The SoftBrew is basically a simple infusion brewer, much like a press pot, but without the “press”. All you have to do to make a good cup of coffee, is: 1. preheat the pot, 2. put ground coffee in the filter, 3. add water of the right temperature, 4. stir well, 5. let the grounds steep for ca. 3 to 4 minutes, and you’re ready to pour the coffee.
Kevin Sinnott’s review includes some useful tips for getting the best out of the SoftBrew. He recommends using a fairly fine grind, what he calls a filter grind. Looking at my own experiments, I think that would be about right. Kevin prefers the Sowden SoftBrew for dark roasted coffees, whereas I like it best for light roasted, fairly bright coffees – probably a matter of taste. I’ve not tried his suggestion to heat the brew water by microwaving it in the SoftBrew’s coffee pot. It could give better results. Needless to say, you should remove the stainless steel filter, before putting the coffee pot in the microwave.
In a side by side test, using the same coffee, equal grind and steep time, the Sowden SoftBrew and a press pot gave similar results. The amount of sediment in the cup was the same, and the flavour of the brew was almost identical. I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish between the two in a blind cupping. In coffee quality the Sowden is as good as a press pot.
The Sowden pot does have a few benefits though. In a press pot, you need to separate the grounds from the brewed coffee by pressing down a filter. In the Sowden SoftBrew, the grounds are already separated from the start, and contained in the stainless steel “sock” filter.
That makes the SoftBrew easier to use, because you don’t have to scoop off the floating grounds, and you don’t have to press down a filter. It also makes the Sowden easier to clean. Take the filter from the coffee pot, turn it upside down in the sink, give it a few taps and most of the grounds will come out. A little rinsing will do the rest.
Lastly, it keeps the coffee warm for a while. Even after fifteen minutes the coffee was still at drinking temperature. I tried the coffee, and although I had expected a terribly astringent, overextracted cup, it actually still was quite tasty.
Still, the SoftBrew does have some downsides. One issue is the lid, which is made of the same thin porcelain as the rest of the Oskar coffee pot. In addition, the lid sits rather loose on the pot. Unlike most teapots, there are no lips to lock it. On top of that, the porcelain lid does get pretty hot after a few minutes. That means that carelessly pouring the coffee might result in a broken lid. Many modern Japanese teapots, such as made by Zero Japan, use hinged stainless steel lids for this reason. I would have preferred one on the Sowden pot. Ideally, the lid would be insulated stainless steel, and easy to attach to, and remove from the filter.
The thin porcelain makes the coffee pot fairly fragile, and doesn’t keep the temperature very stable. In a controlled experiment, a preheated pot filled with 500ml of water drops from 94°C to about 79 °C during 4 minutes of brewing. After 10 minutes, the temperature has fallen to 68°C, and after 20 minutes it is below 60°C. Extraction obviously does continue, but is significantly reduced when temperature gets below 85°C. That is partly why after fifteen minutes the coffee still isn’t horribly overextracted.
Thicker porcelain would make the SoftBrew sturdier, and would also improve heat retention. Another option, one that I would like, is an insulated collar similar to the one on the Eva Solo coffee brewer.
The question then is, how do the pros and cons add up?
One way to look at it, is to see the Sowden SoftBrew as a press pot for lazy days. It makes the same quality coffee, but it’s easier to use, and easier to clean. In that view, it certainly gets a thumbs up.
If you prefer a more clearly defined, crisp cup, look at insulated brewers such as the Espro press, Bodum Columbia, or the Eva Solo coffee brewer. Or better still, try a siphon brewer.
The bottomline, as a basic infusion brewer, the Sowden SoftBrew does a good job, and it’s very stylish to boot.
Apart from home use, I can certainly recommend the Sowden SoftBrew as a coffee maker for use in more high-end restaurants. For customers, the stylish presentation and the quality of the brew are commensurate with the quality of the food – depending on the choice of coffee, of course…
On the other hand, the SoftBrew is light on staff involvement. Setup and cleaning are easier than conventional press pots.
The only possible downside, as far as I can see, is the issue of the lid.