company - education - coffee

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Right or wrong, it's in the discussion

There is always a balance between art and science in coffee. We tend to approach this as much as we can by eliminating variables and making the art 'the interpretation of the equation', not a few loose variables in the equation. We feel that developing a fundamental understanding of the how and why that fits into one's own personal expression is very important because at it's heart coffee is expression and discussing perfection should be be a matter of opinion. Recently, the discussion has centered around absolute statements such as 'extraction perfection' where some prominent voices believe there is a perfect extraction metric that applies across all coffees, roast styles, water supplies, grind qualities, brew methodologies, brew physics... you get the picture.

I say this because as much as we try to measure and control what we do, the interpretation is in what we produce or more specifically the measure of 'correct' we choose to apply internally to what we produce. You can take a coffee in roast profile to the same drop point a dozen ways or more and the version of 'correct' is really up to the person choosing the profile. The roast errors are definable and obviously unwanted, but that always escapes the discussion.

Over the time I have been in coffee, I have come to the simple realization that there is no right, only what I like and hopefully I find others that agree with this and enjoy it as well. Right and wrong sounds good on paper, when preaching as if it's religion, and in online forums but in truth it's completely subjective, even when standing in the same room cupping together.

Our segment of the professional coffee community that might be reading this though is something of a social networking movement. It is not essentially built on tangible and definable quality, it is built on the conversation about quality. This presents an interesting dynamic where there is nothing cohesive about the companies or many of the individuals lumped together other than working within coffee itself.

So fundamentally, there is a need to control message by many, to be at the cutting edge, that you can see many companies (and individuals) run towards whatever is trending on twitter or being championed on coffeed. Sure, they may abandon it in two months to a year or it makes the kitchen drawer after only a use or two, but that's not the point. Whatever is new and seems cutting edge will be hot for a few minutes until people tire of it and begin looking for the new thing. That's what drives the discussion to have fresh new things to throw against the wall and offer opinions about. A prominent UK blogger/roaster is the prime example of where this creates ripples of noise. His well intentioned 'what if' posts are often to the tune of, I tried this and it was interesting, you try it too. The problem though is that people take the words as facts, as thoroughly researched and proven science which it never was intended as. Empirical notes or scientific method, we should take the latter but it's hard to comment on this unless you are willing to pick up the slack and do the work involved to either prove or disprove statements.

That really doesn't matter expect ironically, the community discussion is always swirling around this moving target of quality and arguing it with vicious statements of absolutism. This presents the simple premise, how can we talk about quality if the brew methods change so often, the coffees rotate so quickly, and the attention span is so short? When our prominent voices in the community are only willing to offer a conversation and strong opinions without offering repeatable scientific experiments to test, we are in murky waters.

A interesting case study would be how the success of the seasonal approach is actually creating a consumption culture among cafes who rotate among roasters. Yes, fresh coffee tastes great... unless it never really gets dialed in or never really hits that mark to live up to the cupping table potential. Let's assume the roaster has the chops to nail the coffee on first arrival and gets the most out of it the first time around. Let's assume there was no feeling out period of getting to know the coffee and avoiding sending out batches that weren't a good representation of the coffee. Let's then assume that all the shops selling it could all dial it in on the first few brews and would be serving it up perfectly in the first week. Then let's erase all of that and start over in two weeks or so. Sound like a reasonable quality system? I would offer it's hard enough to remember the last coffee you enjoyed as a consumer to only come back next week and be confronted with an entirely new roulette wheel of coffees and barista suffer the same overload of 'new'. This is not a criticism but an observation of the plus minus out there.

Here's the real problem I am getting at because I am not really trying to cast stones at big companies or seasonality. We can't say what I just said in those last few paragraphs. In naming the companies or having an open discussion about them with enough inference, I would be assailed by more than a dozen kids who worked for some of the companies talking about how wrong it was and defending the company they work for... until they work for another company.

It borders on group-think where dissent is quashed in an attempt to keep the norm and adhere to the louder voices of the community. If we can't critique and have the serious debates in this industry, then there is no point in having discussion. A little over three years ago, on this blog, we were championing things like getting rid of black box blends, being transparent about ingredients, using progressive packing and storing, and dozens of other crazy ideas at the time that a lot of us were thinking about but few if any had implemented. We took a lot of flack and critique from some prominent voices (who are now quietly on the other side) and were labeled unfairly for our stands. Then some of those ideas caught on with a few big companies and weren't really crazy anymore when proven in the mainstream.

Right now, there is little difference between signal and noise in the discussion. Good coffee is still entirely subjective and having debates about it is only healthy if they are open, have some cynicism and a few dissenting voices to challenge us. Otherwise, it is simply a race to adopt every new toy, be the first to review it then proclaim it amazing, not a discussion about what needs to be fixed and there is an awful lot wrong with our industry. We may be in the middle of a coffee renaissance in the US but it's also a time where idealism runs rampant and egos get big. It's still hard to find a good cup of coffee, still hard to define good, and this movement is still a small segment of a large industry figuring out who it wants to be.