Weighing it all up

There has recently been some arguments on twitter and coffeed about the validity, relevance, importance and execution of weighing espresso shots. This arguing about accuracy and information has me wondering why there is so much resistance to measurement and why we as an industry are playing unnecessarily with variables?

There is an obvious reluctance to stray from the “craft” tag in favour of the “science” but I really believe the two are more intertwined than we realise.

Cheese making is undoubtadly recognised as a craft but question them on acidity levels, temperatures, yield weights, water contents and bacterial content and they’ll bore you to tears. Craft beers embrace a lot of the same refractometre technologies that the coffee industry is battling with today. So why the resistance?

The world showcase for baristas (The WBC) fror example presents us with a scenario where baristas have to use their “skill” to time their own shots.

We are led to believe that bad baristas can’t accurately time their own shots and great baristas have an inner clock that will help them nail each one. By this logic should a great barista know what a 20g dose feels like? Should we take timers from dosers? Perhaps great baristas should stick their fingers under the groups until they feel that unmistakeable 93.5c that all great baristas know.

The truth is that timers, scales, thermometres and any other piece of diagnostic equipment you can get your hands on will help you make great coffee. I know plenty of baristas who can count to 25 in their head but still make awful coffee.

Back in my banking days I used to joke that my job was to become so efficient that my job would become redundant. I said this firmly tongue in cheek because I knew that whenever my daily tasks became automated through progress, I would move onto another more valued task with greater impact on my chosen profession.

Worst case scenario; all this mojoing and weighing, this tds reading and timing, this temperature stability and pressure profiling, this absolute brew recipe emailing collective will end us up in a place where the craft of the barista is forgotten.

The barista would have so many definitives in place that he would have no personal input into how the coffee tastes. He (or she!) would become nothing more than a conduit that would apply the necessary science to make the final cup as perfect as it could possibly be.

In this hellish future, someone will come into my shop and ask me to recommend a coffee. I’ll talk them through my personal favourite that day and tell them a little bit about the terroir, processing and all the other realms of information I have to hand.

 I’ll grind this coffee to its optimum grind specifically chosen for the brewer it will pass through. The brewing process will be specifically tailored for this coffees varietals, density, roast profile and process. It will take all these factors into account and combine it with the requisite brewing time, temperature, yield, extraction, tds and water recipe. The final cup will be an amazingly pleasurable beverage that is a perfect representation of that individual coffee.

In this hellish future I will have researched my coffee and applied the best technologies and accuracy to my delivering the coffee. I won’t have made any guesses in the making of it and there will be enough definitives in place to write a hefty essay on that one cup.

In this hellish future I will be more of a professional than I am today and the customers and my peers will recognise that.

In this hellish future, I won’t be the star, the coffee will be. Is that such a scary thought?

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14 thoughts on “Weighing it all up

  1. Glenn Watson says:

    An utterly brilliant synopsis Colin

    I like your future…

  2. Breno says:

    Colin,

    I totally agree with your points, and think that if the coffee truly is the star, the barista must do their due diligence to know/use every available variable to bring out the intrinsic potential in that coffee. That being said not every coffee professional is dedicated to that task. Nor do many companies have the time/ energy/resources to get to know the variables involved in each of their coffees. There is a pride involved in the personal ‘craft’ which is now becoming a hindrance to the production of great coffee. It may seem backward, but by having barista humility, and being faithful to coffee involves gathering and using all available variables to produce coffee that taps into that intrinsic potential in the coffee.

    Put down the ego and pick up a scale!

  3. Mark C says:

    Interesting post. I’m very much in agreement with you on the pursuit of better ways of understanding and controlling the variables in coffee making, and I’ll be going shopping for some scales that will measure to 0.1g as soon as I’ve finished typing. But, considering things from a behavioural perspective, I don’t think the examples of cheese making and beer brewing are good comparisons, and perhaps could lead us to misunderstand what is the underlying problem for the weigh nay-sayers.

    The science of cheese making and beer brewing is all done in the production side, behind the scenes in the diary and brewery. Whereas, the barista’s art up front, on display in front of the customer. That, to a large extent, is why we consider it an art. It’s a performance. I’m sure those who are against weighing aren’t similarly against the control of variables that are involved in coffee roasting. But because this is done in the back room, it’s not problematic for them in the same way as the idea of a barista weighing out espresso shots.

    I don’t believe that weighing removes the art in espresso making. But I think that’s the fear of those who are against it. After all, we all consider the art to be important. The barista could serve exactly the same well-made beverage with or without latte art, but most of us consider the one with the swan or double heart to be created by a more skillful person than the plain one. Therefore, recognising that the barista’s job is an artistic one is important in understanding why there could be reticence to adding more science to the process. As always, the question of change is as much psychological as it is technical.

  4. Chris Capell says:

    OMFG, I can’t even express how happy this post makes me. Thank you, Colin. Thank you.

  5. WACs says:

    Nice post Colin.

    ‘The Craft’ is alive and well.

  6. Tumi Ferrer says:

    Nice post, Colin. I’ve been thinking a lot about this after my recent experiences in teaching pour-over. I’ve had to deal with lot’s of aesthetic arguements, mainly people not wanting to use the scale to weigh the water, but rather having the romantic idea that one can consistently sense when you’ve reached 12 oz., while still seeing the necessity in weighing the coffee and grinding it freshly and so on.

    An extract mojo would definitely help here. The problem is that there is (yet) only one mojo for the whole company I’m working for and right now we’re redefining our automatic filter method, and the company is pretty big. Of course, this is just an excuse; I could’ve bought my own mojo (actually I’m thinking about doing that) but I’m waiting for the economy to shapen up a bit ;)

    The mojo, by itself, wouldn’t be enough, though. As pointed out before, baristas tend to feel like they’d have to give up the craft for the enhancing emphasis on science. We need to answer right away that science and art (and philosophy as well) are different approaches that balance each other; in that case a wide-minded approach would be three-dimensional, which is far better than just a narrow-minded one-dimensional approach, whether it’s philosophical, artistic og scientific. We need all three dimensions together. Does that make sense?

    In that sense: “The Craft” hasn’t been fully defined yet; it’s still on an early stage (although I hope the task of the barista will be in constant redefinition, indefinitely).

  7. Ed Buston says:

    Like many I’ve been following this debate on twitter and various other blogs. The thing that strikes me and has so far been failed to mention is that we already have a device to accurately dispense a consistent amount of espresso. It’s called a flow meter, by measuring the brewing water volume not the extraction volume it is not affected by roast style/freshness/time of day….and it is present in most espresso machines.

    It’s always slightly bewildered me why so many top espresso bars opt for semi automatic/manual/paddle espresso machines. I am lucky enough to have a mechanical paddle Strada in the training centre and I love experimenting and pulling shots on it but it is so hard to be consistent and this is the last machine I would have in a busy cafe. It’s a 3 group but it may as well be a 1 group the amount of attention and focus required for each shot!

    I’m all in favour of the ‘craft’ and using scales, mojo, timers, pressure gauges, thermometers etc. are all excellent tools to create brew recipes and to aid dialling in your espresso. Once it’s dialled in in reality you only have seconds to access each shot as it’s prepared for your customer whilst you also steam just the right amount of perfect milk and pour a multitude of different espresso based drinks and make tea and keep the cups and saucers stocked up and talk to your customers and….a lot more. Having a manual espresso machine is only going to increase your chances of screwing up the shot.

    Maybe we need to admit to ourselves that we are not good enough to use manual espresso machine and one more automated step in the process is a good thing. Long live the barista craft and long live flow meters and automatic espresso machines!

  8. Nancy Scott says:

    What’s a mojo?

  9. sL says:

    well said Colin…

  10. Hugo says:

    Nicely written post, appreciate the point, but am inclined to agree with Ed. I dial in the grinder, set the flow meter to give me the desired shot and may tweak the temperature but then I just get on with it. On a busy day I’ll be serving a drink on average every minute for a 10 hour period.
    I’ve an uncomfortable feeling about the rise of the twitter collective decreeing how a coffee should be made and how many parameters and specifications must be followed, measured and adhered to. It’s handy to know a few parameters but 99.9% of my customers simply like my cafe and trust me to make them a nice coffee which by and large I do.
    I for one won’t be made to feel inadequate or uncomitted because I haven’t mojo’d anything, ever.

  11. Chri says:

    This is completely aside from any comments made or even the blog post.

    Every couple of days I like to check this blog to see what you have to say. I have yet to bookmark it, so I have to type in your name each time in google and find that way.

    I think it’s fantastic that when I type in your name, google images shows a few pictures, the fourth of which is the label for “Green Giant”. Yup, fantastic.

  12. AndyS says:

    I agree with the others that this post (and the 1.55x one before it) are brilliant, Colin. Thank you for posting.

    My only comment on this is that probably the barista will have a _little_ more input than you say in determining what “a perfect representation” of any particular coffee will be. Different shops may offer different interpretations of “perfection.”

    In any case, I love the point of your post, and i hope that eventually the art of taste and the science of brewing will productively coexist in the heart of every professional barista.

  13. AndyS says:

    > what’s a mojo?

    Nancy, mojo is short for Extractmojo, a system for improving one’s coffee/espresso making:

    http://vstapps.com/

  14. Horter says:

    Colin what an inspired post. Your words convey a message of a true unselfish Disciple of coffee.
    THANK YOU.

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