company - education - coffee

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Flawed brews and the benefit of understanding

I have been thinking a lot about how quickly methodology can become inherently flawed by a series of estimations. Empirical observations where we use a vague understanding of science and develop a creative theory to justify method. This can be a disastrous approach. Starting with an off premise and then adjusting to compensate leading to a series of hacks to adjust for the initial flaws is very common. Making it worse, it is inherent in our barista culture that ownership of a method means making changes or adjustments. Adopting a method that may not have been fully understood becomes an exercise in tweaking which is often thought of as improvement though it may have simply been mere compensation for early flaws.

What I am getting at is that in our young coffee culture, our methods shift too often for reasons that are little more than a flawed initial interpretation.

We started with a version of pour over that was acceptable but have been playing with new equipment for the kiosk that makes me think we had ventured in the wrong direction for a little while. It happens a lot. Right now, the brews are coming out as good as our Syphon brews but with a different profile emphasis.

Coffee isn't simple, in fact, it's more complex than it should be and that's the basic problem. Our barista culture is always looking for the shortcuts. Skipping steps, trying to create a new approach that is simpler, easier, or gets results quicker. There is an inherent danger in this. As I see it, an inflexibility happens with ownership of a method. By changing the original method, it becomes personal, therein defense of the method becomes rigid even in the face of contradicting results. In short, we change it, we own it, we then defend it even though it may possibly be wrong. What's worse is there are very eloquent speakers in our community who pass prose for science but it's little more than empirical data given romantic aspirations.

This is a flaw in our current coffee culture which is justified simply because there is a very weak base which the new wave of coffee people can build upon. There are no forefathers of the pour over movement around on bar to give advice. No syphon masters locally to compare notes with. This is good because there is no rigid methodology and the options are wide open but bad because there is nothing to compare to. There is no great coffee culture here beyond the multitude of faceless airpot brewers which are often programmed with refractometers and spreadsheets. How does it become that taste is no longer part of the equation but graphs and charts are the end measure in many roasting outfits? What should we as barista gain from this?

Given this, it's easy to throw out everything and rewrite the book as you see it. To adopt your own independent methodology over how you brew. The problem is that without a base to begin, finding a good method or approach is about taking a lot of wrong turns. A good method is built upon scientific method, testing, repeating, and analytical approach. Most people in our culture don't have the time or patience to spend months roasting before going into production. They don't have time to pull a thousand shots or brew hundreds of brews to figure out and refine a single approach. They wing it, adjust, and all too often fall in love with their own approach even if there are gaping holes in it.

I think it's good to have true peers to give you a reality check. To tell you your pour over is just under extracted or that your bar routine is too inefficient. To pat you on the back when you make great gains or represent yourself professionally. Without that, the route to getting better is a longer tribulation than it should be and may be full of dead ends. Getting better depends on having respected peers be they in Taiwan or across the town line.

This is why I believe in a local community. If we simply hole up in our spaces behind terminals on the internet, we can debate all day and make careful arguments. Mostly rubbish but furiously typed nonetheless. It has little worth because of the distance of contributors and the lack of a commonality, the shared cup of coffee to sample. If we do not venture from our own cafe, how do we ever really experience this?

Our real peers, those that can taste our coffees and may then understand us, are the ones that matter most in our improvement. They may not agree but they can taste what you taste and that's the real key to getting better and raising the proverbial bar. Method grows from competition and understanding. The base of knowledge is built on a foundation not within a single roaster/cafe culture but in competitive improvement across many. To get better, there is a certain point at which we must understand others and learn from them, even challenge them and tell them they are wrong once in a while.

Growth is not always a singular movement. Often, it is a shared movement whether we like it or not. Those who benefit are often those who participate and the real challenge is to participate. To grow may in the end require that others grow with you.