Bleached VS Unbleached Coffee Filters: Which is Best…and What’s the Difference?

a coffee enthusiast

If you were to dream up a stereotypical model of a coffee enthusiast, chances are most people envision a lab coat-clad wizard with coffee stains and beakers filling the brew-scented lab. This is because coffee lovers can get extremely fixated on the details. And there’s not just one facet of this obsession either.

Many coffee obsessors are interested in what tools, ingredients and processes will bring them one step closer to the perfect brew. That’s when they aren’t cleaning every nook and cranny of their brewer with a toothbrush.

The coffee filter debate rages on. What kinds of paper will influence the brewing process in positive or negative ways.

It’s actually an interesting debate too despite it taking place on the battlefields of various kinds of papers. But first some history on the matter:

What Were the First Coffee Filters Made From?

The coffee filter was invented by a German housewife named Melitta Bentz, whom after much experimentation, and a distaste for pulling stray grounds out of serving cups, created a filter that would live on forever.

Her contribution to the evolution of coffee started by simply folding a piece of blotting paper so that it would take on coffee grounds similarly to the tea bag, but open at the top. Pouring water over it, thus creating the first pour-over and first drip coffee, essentially simultaneously.

Origin of the Coffee FilterNowadays, If you go down the aisle of your supermarket to grab some coffee filters, chances are that you might be overwhelmed at your choices. Still, the search that Melissa Bentz started in the 1900s is still going on, the search for the holy grail cup of Joe. So much so that the kinds of paper used to brew coffee is under scrutiny.

Bleached coffee filters, though it may sound strange, don’t influence a brew’s taste as much as unbleached. These are going to be low-cost and easy to find at any grocery store or even gas stations. The gold standard for bleached filters are probably the Melittas but most any unbleached filter will do..however, it’s worth examining the label to determine the nature of the process used to bleach your filters.

Bleached Filters

bleach coffee filterThere are two types of bleaching processes used: chlorine and oxygen. Oxygen bleaching is regarded as the more natural of the two, and it’s usually a mark of a higher quality bleached filter. Next time your at the store, take notice that the cheaper filter papers are bleached with chlorine in order to achieve its white color.

If this bothers you then it’s wise to look closely at the label to differentiate which filters are chlorine free.

Natural brown filters are not processed to achieve a whiter color, this is probably why many think of the unbleached filter as the natural option. Unbleached filters don’t tend to brew a better cup of coffee, but they can be considered environmentally friendly.

This is because bleached filters require more processing and ask a bit more in the process, and although composting them won’t hurt, it’s better to leave the bleach out. Less processed, tends to mean a better option for the environment, as it requires less energy.

Unbleached Filters

Since paper is naturally brown, that’s right, think back to ancient Egyptian papyrus for a clue, then unbleached filters will take on that color of paper. It’s important to note that while many complain of the papery taste of unbleached filters, it’s wise to look for a quality maker of filters anyway. Some of the cheapest filters are guilty of giving off mis-flavors.

When you go to grab an unbleached filter, make sure you not only select the proper size for your brewing method of choice but also examine the label for the thickness. The thinner the brewing filters then the faster water will pass through. Makes sense right?

coffee dripping through filterThis speed of permeation through the filter will certainly affect the brewing process. quick permeation is not ideal. This golden rule should lead you to better cups of coffee in the long run anyway, and really, filters are not the most expensive part of investing in proper coffee. So don’t shy way from spending the extra cents.

So if it’s so great for the environment, what’s the reason that all the predominant filters are bleached. Well, sadly unbleached paper tends to lend it’s poor taste and color to the brew. It’s unfortunate, but there’s a workaround for it.

When using an unbleached filter, it’s important to wet the filter before brewing your coffee:

  1. Arrange the filter as if you were going to make a pot of coffee. Nothing fancy, just don’t put the grounds in yet.
  2. Pour through a carafe of water, the same size you’d use to brew. You might notice the water or the filter begin to change color slightly, as it filters through.
  3. Now being your normal brew procedure.

Now you’ve removed some of the papery pulp flavor that is known to occur. Many coffee enthusiasts will tell you to do this with bleached filters to remove some of the impurities. Whether this is true or just a side effect of too much time in the lab, is going to require more research.

Is it really as simple a battle of taste vs environmental impact? Enter the reusable metal filter.

The Best Permanent Coffee Filter?

metal coffee filterSo after stumbling upon the reusable filters and left wondering, “is this the path?” Let’s consult those coffee scientists for the verdict.There’s a bit of pro and con when it comes to the metal filter.

Firstly, you’re able to save on cost. A metal filter doesn’t cost much for you or the environment. If composting is an option for you, then disposing of the filter day in and day out isn’t very appealing.

Second, reusable metal filters are actually pretty poor at filtering with their mesh nets. That might not sound like an endorsement but in all actuality the paper filters have a bit too much restraint. Crema and flavor oils almost always remain in the brewing basket with the grounds and filter. Un-retrieved and off to the waste bin. Paper filters actively remove oily components called diterpenes; these organic compounds, present in unfiltered coffee are known to be anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory.

This gives way unto two different aspects of coffee drinking:

As coffee brewed through a metal bin is going to degrade easier over time and although this is rarely an issue for the quick-to-drink, we are discussing a full pot of brew here. The lack of flavors in paper brewing is probably what led to other developments in brewing like the french press or even the mocha pot which rely on completely different mechanisms to deliver.

Also, coffee has also been accused of raising cholesterol, the disagreeable kind called LDL. But that’s where the inquiry gets even more convoluted because the same oils that are transferred in high-yield low-filtration filters, as we will call them, deliver some pretty unique health benefits themselves.

These include:

  • Protecting against type 2 diabetes 
  • Parkinson’s disease 
  • Liver diseases
  • Liver cancer
  • Promote a healthy heart.

Some people might mistaking question, is coffee fattening?  We hope that readers will revel in those wondrous health benefits.

Since paper filters work so much harder to filter coffee grounds, with a finer “thread” which captures the majority of oils the resulting brew is of a different character, not only in taste, but also visually. Coffee brewed through a paper filter generally seems lighter than the dark results of a metal filter.

Metal filters are applied to Aeropress and french press designs for the robust flavor of brew they’re producing, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that this application works too.

Sure, you can simply toss out the paper filter filled with grounds but when one decides to go the composting route, and certainly isn’t throwing grounds down the kitchen sink, but the other side of the coin the metal filter is delivering some impressive results.

If avoiding making a whole pot of coffee, metal pour over filters exist as well, and that might just solve your whole conundrum.

In fact, there are two major styles of coffee that exist from the metal: Vietnamese iced coffee and Indian filter coffee.

Vietnamese Iced Coffee

Vietnamese Iced CoffeeAlthough the Indian Iced coffee requires a much different metal filter, called a dubarah, and is slightly difficult to make, this is a traditional drink that’s easy to order abroad. Simply ask for Kaapi in South Indian or try Madras in the rest of the country. It requires a much finer grain of coffee than that of the Vietnamese drink (that we will cover how to make here).

Making this drink is relatively easy if you’ve rushed out to get a metal filter after reading the wonderful benefits listed above.

  1. Using your metal filter and stovetop pan, bring a single cup of water to boil.
  2. Add coffee to your filter, it’s best to use a medium coarse grind. Simple place filter over tumbler glass or whatever coffee mug of your choice, however it’s nice to see the drink blending in the next step.
  3. Pour a splash of the hot water into filter to get your grounds blooming.
  4. Since the metal filter will work on the grinds a bit more it’s important to be patient enough to notice when coffee begins to drip through.
  5. Then add enough water to reach top of the glass.
  6. Place lid on filter and let coffee drip for three to four minutes (think french press). If coffee stops dripping sooner, gently tap on the side of the filter to relieve pressure.
  7. Stir in condensed milk (or experiment with your creamer of choice) until blended.
  8. Drink hot or go the traditional route: add ice, stir again, and serve this refreshing beverage.

This is a fairly easy drink to make for the beginner barista and looks and tastes impressive as well. Take notice of different kinds of coffee you can use in the beverage but keep in mind that blends or roasts around chicory flavors is the preferred style.

What to do if you run out of coffee filters

bleached vs unbleached coffee filters
Most people prefer to have coffee in the morning over tea. There’s something about tea that makes tends to bring on nausea on an empty stomach with certain people (myself included). But coffee is a bold and quick solution to stated the day if low energy has got you down.

So then, what are morning routines without coffee filters? This is about as scary as running out of toilet paper. Whether you’re trying to make coffee while camping or simple stranded in your own dorm. Here’s a few solutions to get your morning moving even without the filter:

Cheesecloth is perhaps a rarity to find in the kitchen, but even if you can’t find a good paper filter for your needs, it’s worth trying out the cheesecloth approach as a substitute for a coffee filter. Though it is less common to have cheesecloth on hand, maybe you might add in to the grocery list for an experiment. The reason why is that it comes in different grades, ranging from extra fine to coarse.

Return to the coffee lab for a moment, and we’ll find that a finer grade of cloth will perhaps be ideal for making coffee. The technique here might seem like more of parlor trick to show your coffee snob pals, but desperate times call for desperate measures, if you’re out of ways to make coffee.

The paper towel technique seems like a sad-college-kid kind of solution, but paper towels are processed with the same filtration function as a filter. This might be more what Bentz had in mind on the original coffee filter on her first flight day. These are especially practical as they are much more common around the house than cheese cloth. Though if you’re back in the dorms and out of napkins too, we still wouldn’t recommend the toilet paper technique.

Nor would we endorse the instant coffee.

We’re not here to tell you to just use instant coffee so move on from your traditional drip coffee maker and consider trying aeropress or french press to determine what the brew is like without a filter involved. Try making grind sizes as well to further investigate the properties of your coffee.

If you want to move on to a different grind or a different coffee maker altogether, then check out our gear while you’re here.

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

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