Pour-Over Coffee: The Endless Possibilities

Trio of pour overs and matching mugs, 8 in. (20 cm) in height (each).

I made my first ceramic coffee pour over at Penland School of Crafts in 2009 after living at a cabin in the Adirondack mountains for many months and using a plastic camping coffee pour over to make coffee each morning. I loved the direct, quick approach to making a delicious cup of coffee in a place that didn’t have a coffee maker. The only problem with the process for me was the plastic apparatus. It seemed that the whole experience could be a lot more beautiful and satisfying if the pour over were ceramic like the mug it was pouring into.

I am a big believer in the power of handmade goods. They embed meaning and life into an object that gets passed on to the user and makes an experience much richer. They encourage us, in a life of manufactured, throw-away goods, to slow down and appreciate what we have and the beauty around us.

Developing a New Form

Fresh out of graduate school and trying desperately to make it as an artist, my fast-paced, no-time-for-slowness life did not allow for playtime in the studio. I had to create the forms already in my repertoire to support myself. But I signed up for a class at Penland, knowing that growth and learning were crucial to my career as well. It was the perfect break and learning experience to grow as an artist and simply play in the studio in the company of other fabulous potters.

I made my first few pour overs during the class, but none of them worked. One came close, though, and when I got home, I continued to pursue the form, choosing a very simple, direct approach for the shape. I embellished the surface with lines and dots, in my style. When this version functioned, I was happy to see how the pattern on the pour over combined with the pattern on my cups for a loud and delicious visual experience.

I also found that it was enjoyable to pair my own pour over with mugs made by others, creating an interesting aesthetic combination. I put my pour over on top of a mug made by one of my ceramic heroes, and suddenly I had a collaboration piece with Ron Meyers! On top of a mug gifted to me by my dear professor Ted Saupe at my BFA show, the combination connected us and our work, creating a meaningful moment every time I made my morning coffee.

Pour over in action with Ron Meyers’ mug, 7 in. (18 cm) in height, Meyers’ mug: earthenware, electric fired to cone 04, 2006; Dondero pour over, 2009; Dondero mug (left), 2017.

The physical experience of boiling the water, grinding the coffee, and filling the paper filter became a ritual. Listening to the coffee drip into the cup and watching the steam rise were grounding experiences. It was meditative, and evocative of a tea ceremony I had experienced in Japan. Creating a cup of coffee with handmade objects had become an anticipated part of my daily routine. The process had elevated a cup of coffee to an aesthetic experience, creating meaning and beauty.

As it happened, my studio was in the same building as a small coffee roaster, and when the day was dragging on, I could pop over for some freshly roasted beans and make a cup of coffee to keep me going. I started to make pour overs for my holiday sales and sold them with filters as a nice gift.

Variations on a Theme

I am certainly not claiming to have been the first to make a handmade ceramic pour over, but when I made my first one, I had not seen any. Today, I see many handmade pour overs and many of them are better than mine! I love seeing how other potters interpret the form, some with an added foot to make it sit inside the mug, some with a handle. The possibilities are endless. But I continue to keep my pour-over form pretty simple and add more character in the surface design. This design is perhaps not up to the precise standards of some coffee-aficionados, but it makes a tasty cup of coffee using filters that are commonly available at the grocery store, and that is good enough for me.

Pour over paired with Ted Saupe’s mug, 8 in. (20 cm) in height. Saupe’s mug: stoneware, salt fired to cone 1, 2005; pour over: 2017.

Maria Dondero’s Long Dog Mug and Striped Pour Over, 8 in. (20 cm) in height, 2017. All pieces by Dondero are earthenware, slip, glazes, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln.

Process

To make this particular version, use about 2 pounds of clay. Center the clay on the wheel and open up a flat wide base that is big enough to sit on top of most mugs (4–5 inches wide). Leave a ring of clay for the outer flange that is ¼-inch thick and about 1 inch wide (1), then start to throw a cup shape with the remaining clay on top of the flange (2). Compress the bottom of the cup and flange area so that it won’t crack. Make sure it is not too thick. It’s helpful to have a paper filter to gauge the size and volume of the cup area that will be used for brewing. I like filter size #4, which sticks out a bit over the top of the pour over. When the thrown cup/bowl is the correct size, trim away any excess clay with a rib so that the pour over is not too heavy. Slice the pot from the wheel with a wire tool.

The fun part is altering the circular cup shape into an oval when pulling it off the wheel (3). Simply apply pressure to two sides of the cup portion when picking it up off the wheel and leave it to dry in a lemon shape that mimics the filter (4).

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The fine tuning and hole-cutting should be done when the piece is leather hard. Another important factor for function is making the hole the appropriate size so that the water steeps with the coffee grounds for the right amount of time. If the hole is too big, or there are too many holes, the water will pour through before fully brewing the coffee. I have made this mistake, and there is really nothing more dismaying than a weak cup of coffee. On the other hand, if the hole is too small, the coffee will take so long to drain into the cup that it gets bitter by the time it finally drains through. So, making one hole that is about 13-inch in diameter is just about right for the shrinkage rate of my clay body (see 4). Make sure that the entire base remains flat. If the bottom rounds up, the coffee will drip down the sides of the cup instead of inside.

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Surface Decoration

This part has nothing to do with function and everything to do with enjoyment (both in the making and the use). I dip the dark clay into a white Tile-6 kaolin slip (see recipe on page 60) when the piece is leather hard (5). After the slip dries to the touch, I draw into the slip with a semi-sharpened pencil (6). If the clay is too dry, the pencil will not glide and working this way is no fun. Leave all the burrs from the sgraffito on the pot until fully dry (7). At this point, they can be rubbed off and won’t become sharp when fired. After bisque firing the pot, I brush on a black-iron and copper-carbonate stain, making sure to get into the sgraffito lines. Next, with a wet sponge, I wipe the stain back off, which leaves it thick in the lines. I glaze the interior of the pot by pouring glaze into it. A clear glaze highlights the beautiful irregularities of the dipped slip. For color, I brush on touches of glaze with added copper carbonate and red iron oxide (8–10). The final glazing consists of a clear glaze with 2% red iron oxide sprayed on with a hand-blown atomizer. This low-tech approach gives a very light sheen, with some nice variation to add interest. Lastly, I fire the pots to cone 1 in an electric kiln.

Happy throwing, brewing, and sipping!

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the author Maria Dondero is a studio potter and teacher living in Athens, Georgia. She received her MFA from the University of Georgia in Athens in 2008. In addition to running Marmalade Pottery, she also runs Southern Star Studio, a former industrial facility she renovated into a studio and gallery. She rents space there to many other local ceramic artists. To learn more visit her website, https://mariadondero.com.

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