company - education - coffee

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Fast, cheap, and quality

Ben always has this thing where we sit down and discuss how to get one of my big ideas done and time after time one comment comes up, you can do it but it will cost ya. He's always quick to point out an old saying: you can pick two of these three choices (fast, cheap, quality) but not all three.

Doing something well cannot be so simple as adopting a hip mantra. The same is true on every level of coffee production on down to the cafe. While we all market and dream about ideas of coffee served in high volume cafes at cheap prices being fantastic, maybe the classic cafe just isn't a model built for great coffees. Before everyone gets all high and mighty protecting their own cafes or current employer, hear me out first. This is about the future of coffee, the CoE winners to come, and the changes just ahead of us in storage as higher prices are paid and the specialty market grows more aware of quality beyond exectution. You know, not everyone is going to leave they're prize winning coffees still sitting in jute months after harvest. Standards are changing and new attitudes are spreading.

The best brew I have had is a technically pulled vac pot and yes, espresso has been my great challenge over the years. Both take immense time and skill to get right, an investment in technique and repetition. A learning curve where a great deal of time must be invested to build a routine and understand what is happening. Producing the best cup may mean that you cannot do it cheap or quickly. We have been critics of Aeropress as a brew method and abhor french press as being the least expressive brew method available for great coffees. They are simple and they are convenient. Both are ultimately, in our opinion, inadequate for top end coffees. A cheapo darker roasted coffee, just fine, adds body and hides some of the less refined characters. French pressing Panama Esmeralda or CoE Colombia #1 would be amateurish or at least we could agree to say it's a lazy and less rewarding way to brew an expensive coffee. Doing justice to a great coffee may mean following it every step of the way with a scientific approach to preserving more at every quality point along the way. From harvest and processing, to bagging and transport, to roast and brew, everything matters. The tiniest detail can create the biggest problems when overlooked. At least that's how I feel about it these days more so than ever.

We, the Internet crowd, are opt to chime in about 'letting the coffee speak for itself' and other romancing but is it the character on the cupping table that we should all woo? Why can't it be about finding that perfect balanced chorus of notes coming through a technically timed vac pot that were faint at best in the cupping? Maybe it's a balance of roast skills and baristaing that brings aromatic harmony into the tiny demitasse. Is the barista in the way or is the barista the chef who does just enough to get the most out of the expression? The devil's in the cup, you can pour latte art all you want and wear the cool t-shirts, at the end of the day though, we all got to be chasing something. Maybe that perfect cup is just perpetualy out of reach but we must continue to learn more and invest ourselves in it to reap the rewards. Because time and quality don't come cheap and neither does a great coffee.

There is an inverse relationship between effort and reward in most brew methods. Even Clover is a balance of sacrifice. As speed is desired in the brew method, a loss of quality occurs, but an increase in cost(from added technology) is able to preserve some quality to a point. The balance is keeping the speed but also having a measure of quality worth the price. You cannot have speed and quality without a high price. For that matter, you cannot have the highest level of quality without a high price AND sacrificing speed. Basic common sense.

In terms of difficulty from easy to most difficult among manual methods we use often are as follows:
Traditional Cupping, French Press, Abid, Melitta, Pour Over, Vac Pot
In terms of most rewarding to least, the lineup changes thus:
Vac Pot, Pour Over, Melitta, Abid, French Press, Traditional Cupping
You will notice an inverse relationship between the two. That's a byproduct of effort and detail applied resulting in a better brew. The Vac pot is a flatline brew(with our methodology) which gets a full extraction and the French press is a declining brew profile that is already cooling by the end of the brew time so it hides many faults as well as good characters. I don't recommend french press unless you are out camping, even then, your melitta, if properly done can produce a much better brew with only a little more effort.

I don't believe in lowest common denominator. Trying to be the everyman for coffee is great for some but I just don't find it exciting. Pushing the coffees to the limit is much more exciting. Challenging what is acceptable will always be more rewading than falling in line.