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Besides the obvious colour difference: Is there any significant difference between using a brown ("natural") paper filter, and a white (bleached or otherwise whitened) paper filter? That is: when all other factors are held constant; when used for drip, filter, pour-over, etc. brewing methods when using a paper filter.

The metrics that I can think of include the following:

  • Filtering performance. E.g., Do brown and white filters filter out the same "stuff"? Do they permit the same rate of water flow?
  • Flavor of result. E.g., Does one or the other impart off-flavours (e.g., leftovers from whitening, or lack of whitening)? Does does the resulting brewed coffee taste the same?
  • Production / environmental issues. E.g., Does it take more energy to produce one or the other? Waste? Chemicals?

I've tried to read up on this, and most sources seem to indicate that there's no significant difference; it reduces to personal preference, or off-hand environmental claims... but I see nothing concrete.

  • Melitta says that they don't use chlorine bleach to whiten paper filters instead using "oxygen" (which I take to actaully mean "peroxide", which may be less bad, but I'm not sure). Clicking through also says there's no difference, so maybe I should just accept that;
  • A discussion on Chow has little more than personal preference;
  • Basically the same on CoffeeGeek with a "paper taste" claim about brown filters;
  • Similar mild paper-taste conclusion from Reddit.
  • There is probably some effect if the paper imparts some flavouring, this is why it's recommended to use ceramic burr grinders as opposed to steel to avoid contaminating the ground coffee flavour – EdChum - Reinstate Monica Feb 19 '15 at 13:16
  • @EdChum - On ceramic versus steel grinder: that sounds like a separate (and good!) question. :) In this context, though, you're simply making an analogy to the concept of preparation having an impact on flavor (e.g., grinder material might make a difference, in a similar sense to paper material making a difference) -- or is there a different impact of grinder style in brown filters versus white filters?? I've heard to wet or rinse the paper filter, but perhaps that's a separate question also... – hoc_age Feb 19 '15 at 13:43
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    My point was about avoiding contaminating the coffee during the whole process, to use materials that are chemically inert, like you've stated some of these filters make a point of saying they use unbleached paper, these are all interesting questions though – EdChum - Reinstate Monica Feb 19 '15 at 13:47
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    Something to note, the quality of the paper probably also has something to do with taste and paper quality does not necessarily match color. I would think high quality paper could be used for either color. That said, I still buy the cheapest brown filters I can find. Looking forward to learning something here though – Justin C Feb 19 '15 at 15:28
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There are many difference between the two filters. In this website. it states that:

Today, most white paper filters are whitened with oxygen. Oxygen whitening is much more friendly to the environment, and imparts no taste to the filter. Brown filters are simply unwhitened. Your choice, but oxygen whitened filters are usually less expensive.

Brown filters are just plain without any improvements. Surprisingly, they are more expensive yet yields the same flavor as a white filter here. Trying to save money, get a white one.

Speaking of Performance...

In this website,it states that:

  • Natural brown : In its natural form, all paper is brown colored, so brown filters are completely unprocessed. Other than aesthetics and processing, there are no other differences in color.
  • White : White paper filters are processed to get that clean, white shade. Chlorine bleaching or natural oxygen bleaching are common methods for whitening paper. Generally, better quality paper ones do not use chlorine bleach.

Avoid white coffee filters that have been whitened with cholrine bleaching. These types of filters have a lower quality than natural brown or white ones using natural oxygen methods. Performance may vary though. Look online like in Amazon for high quality paper filters and look at the reviews.

Taste

Yep, some brown paper filters will add some extra taste to your coffee, sometimes not that good:

Melitta 'whites' are best. I use them, as they are oxygenated, not bleached. I don't care for any of the brown filters. I have used the Filtropa/Aroma (browns) and the Chemex and didn't care for them. Many brown filters introduce a wet cardboard taste into the brew. Hario is an exception but they are pricey.

Brown paper filters add a wet cardboard taste to your coffee. That just makes your coffee less enjoyable. As said in the performance section, white filters are probably better (if only implied with natural oxygen methods to get the white). Hario is a brown paper filter that acts like a white paper filter, adding no extra, disgusting flavor into your coffee. It is rather expensive though. Here is the website where all the information of this section came from.

Environmental Impacts

Well here is a paragraph about a study by Harvard about paper filters and such:

According to Harvard Health Publications, paper filters are more effective at eliminating diterpenes than permanent or cloth filters. Paper filters are also easier to clean up -- you dispose of them after one use. Cloth and permanent filters must be cleaned after every use. Paper filters are not as environmentally friendly as the other types of filters, but since they’re made of natural fibers, they are biodegradable. To make paper filters more “green,” compost them along with your coffee grounds. For composting, natural brown filters are better than bleached white filters.

Paper filters aren't as eco-friendly as others but can are biodegradeable, unlike plastic which takes forever and metal, which probably takes even longer. Paper filters can even be used as compost with your coffee grounds. It will make good fertilizer with the rest of your compost. Using normal brown paper filters is preferred over bleached white filters. Production is nearly the same. A white paper filter is really a brown paper filter that is bleached or has added oxygen. Here is the website that provided the paragraph.

Conclusion

Not a lot of differences that are outright clear, but there are minor differences between the two. I hope this helps you!

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    I disagree about the brown filters adding a "cardboard" flavor. If the only difference between white and brown is an oxidation process to change the color I don't see what would cause the brown ones to add any flavor. Maybe the brown color, being similar to cardboard, is creating an association for the tester. – Justin C Feb 24 '15 at 18:41

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