Author Archives: colinharmon

The Return of the Secret Blend

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Anyone that was one of the 20 odd people that turned up for the first day of 3fe would know that Bodytonic’s very own festival “The Beatyard” started on the very same day. Over the years 3fe and the Beatyard have grown in their own wonderful way and 4 and a half years later we decided to hook up and create a collaborative Beatyard Blend to have some fun with.
 
Blends are nothing new though so why the big fuss? Well, just to make it a little more interesting we’ll be pushing the blend on a number of cafes around the city as well as our own place on Grand Canal Street. However, unlike every other blend we do we’re gonna keep this one a secret.
 
The components of the blend will remain a secret up to the last day of the festival and its up to you the coffee loving public to sip, speculate and interpret what exactly’s gone in there!
 
You’ll see the blend start to hit the cafes of the city in time for the Beatyard festival which runs 24th April to the 4th of May. Over that period all you need to do is taste it at one of the participating cafes (we’ll post a list!) and let us know via the hashtag #beatyardblend what you think its made up of.
 
The person who guesses closest on the components will get a prize of a hand grinder, an Aeropress and a monthly subscription of 3fe coffee straight to their door. This should be a lot of fun so keep an eye on the @3fe twitter feed for a list of cafes that will be pulling shots of the blend and if you’re a cafe that would like to participate drop us a line at wholesale@3fe.com. There will be roast dates on 17th/22nd so orders are taken until 1pm on the preceding day for wholesale.
 
Happy tasting!
Col
 

A short post on a good week

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Last week this post appeared on Lovin Dublin which aside from being a really nice surprise was a great shot in the arm for all the staff at 3fe. We’ve been pushing each other really hard for the last 3 months or so and to come out on top of such a prestigious list was a great reward for all the staff. We were, naturally, chuffed.

I mentioned to Niall at Lovin Dublin that the post had done wonders for business, and obviously expressed my gratitude. I promised that once I had a week of numbers I would share them. So I will!

Its very important to remember that we had our busiest week ever at 3fe the week before this post so creating any more sales was a difficult task. Admittedly, when I saw the post my hope was that we’d maintain the previous weeks performance. What actually happened was that over the course of the seven days following the post our sales went up by a whopping 9.53% on the previous 7 days.

This  has obviously been great in terms of the bare numbers but its been remarkable how many people have dropped by for their first time since the post went up. We’ve now picked up some new regulars that lived or worked locally but never new we were here. Its amazing and embarrassing all at the same time.

So, what has all this taught me? Despite what you might think it is definitely not; pander to online bloggers and reviewers. In fact my advice is to the contrary. Niall, Jamie, Louise and all the other crew at Lovin’ Dublin have never received any freebies from 3fe and when they come for lunch and a coffee they pay the same price everyone else does. I think they respect us more for that if I’m honest.

What I have taken from all of this is a renewed sense of optimism that there is now a meritocracy in place that is rewarding those that are doing a great job and levelling the playing field for businesses all across the city. There was a time when your advertising budget, industry contacts or friends in the media would dictate how much coverage you get but with the various social media platforms, food blogs, and web guides you have a great opportunity to tell your story to those that want to listen. Sometimes the online reviews really sting, but sometimes they make for an incredible week and lift the whole team

I met yesterday with my old (young!) mentor Karl from Coffee Angel and it was great to chat about working hard, pushing the small things and getting incremental rewards. Their new place on Pembroke Street is hopping and I’m expecting similar things when they open the refurbished shop on South Anne Street soon. They too appeared on the LD list and have been breaking sales records themselves all week.

I’m well aware that this is all very much early days for us and our business is a very unforgiving one. Smarter people with more money than us have failed miserably in the past so I’m taking nothing for granted. It is nice however to be able to sit down with the guys at 3fe and say these are the fruits of our labour and it was worth all that effort. Onwards!

The Grinder Era…?

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I’ve spent most of my time in coffee complaining about grinders. They are so crucial to what we do but for as long as anyone can remember all of the focus in development seemed to be on espresso machines. Whenever I get asked for advice by people opening coffee shops I always advise them to break the bank on grinders and just get a decent machine. Grinders are that important.

I recently posted this about the EK43 grinder that we put on the bar at 3fe and to be honest you’d be best reading that first or this might get a little confusing.

The EK43 became our weapon of choice on bar at 3fe and what we saw was a massive leap in quality in our espresso drinks. We minimised waste, extracted more from our brews and improved the taste of our espresso across the board. It seemed like the answer to all of our problems, and in a lot of ways it was.

We put it on bar in July/Aug which is traditionally our quiet period and after a sketchy start its seemed to take off. What we lost in workflow and efficiency we seemed to be gaining in quality and consistency. What definitely became obvious was that we weren’t going back to our old grinders. We began to challenge our preference for espresso and how we did and ask ourselves if we could manage to run a busy cafe with a pre-dosed service. The answer was a resounding “almost”.

Unfortunately there were some downsides too and as the shop got busier the cracks started to appear. In fairness to the staff at 3fe, we actually did pull it off but my fear was that we could never get any busier and in the next year we envisage getting twice as busy.

So am I against EK43s being used on bar? Quite the opposite actually. Most coffee shops worth their salt these days do a “guest coffee’, namely another option for usually a few cents extra. In my experience this coffee is usually quite disappointing. It’s not dialled in properly, there’s not enough in the hopper and what is in there has probably been sitting there for a few days.

Even if you were to get a decent shot of it the barista would probably have to purge the guts of 50g through before crossing her fingers that the grinder is behaving something similar to what it was when it was dialled in 4 hours ago. The upshot of this scenario is that the customer takes a risk on “specialty coffee” and gets an expensive, disappointing experience. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m saying it can’t be done efficiently.

I see the Ek43 as the perfect solution to this problem. I reckon most “guest” coffees amount to 10% of a shops sales and using the EK43 for your guest coffee is not just achievable but would mean you can pretty much guarantee a delicious espresso every time. Add to that the fact that you can use the EK as a bag/filter grinder means that you’ll save yourself a fortune by having to only fork out on 2 grinders instead of 3. You could also use it for coffee shots, if you’re that way inclined*. It’s also worth noting that if yours is a shop that goes the low volume/high quality route, the EK43 is the grinder for you.

If I was opening a shop tomorrow I would prioritise a purchase of an EK43. It can be used for decaf/guest/filter/bag grinding all for the cost of one grinder. If you need further reasons why you need one, you have more problems than just grinders. I am very much still an EK43 fan boy, just not for full-blown service.

This week we made 50 more coffees a day than we usually do and that would have been impossible with only an EK43 to make coffee with. The staff wouldn’t have had the time to pre-dose the coffee, the service would have been slow and the frustration of the customers would have made everything awful for everyone. Everyone.

Which brings me to my next topic, the grinder that replaced it. I was loath to take a step back and go to another grinder that had hugely varying doses/grinds/temperatures and hope everything worked out tickety boo. It wouldn’t be.

It was lucky for us that we took delivery of a brand new toy that I’m pretty excited about, the Nuova Simonelli “Clima-Pro”.  At this stage I should probably disclose a few things;

  • I do a lot of work with Nuova Simonelli, coming to a town very near you
  • I was involved in the project that spat this grinder out
  • I count the people at Nuova Simonelli amongst my favourite people anywhere
  • I shall be at HOST in Milano next week making coffee with this bad boy

I thought it important to get those facts out there before I told you that this is one of the most exciting things that’s happened to grinders in quite a long time. Now, before you raise a suspicious eye-brow at these claims I feel it’s also important to note that;

  • This is the 5th incarnation of this grinder that I’ve tested for NS
  • None of the previous grinders have lasted more than a few hours on bar before being removed by angry people
  • NS grinders have never been my preference at 3fe for grinders, where we use Anfims, Mahlkonigs, and Uber Grinders

What the Clima-Pro was able to deliver was a consistent dose, basket distribution and temperature throughout service. Without stealing the thunder for next week, the latter is achieved not just with fans to keep the temperature up but also with a heating element (yes, you read that correctly) to keep the temperature up. To clarify, you now have to wait for your grinder to come to temp. Yep.

Coffee at room temperature can be brewed to taste delicious and coffee that’s ground hot can be brewed to taste delicious. The problem is brewing ground coffee that goes from cold to hot and back again in the course of a service is very difficult. I thought for a long time, like many, that keeping a grinder cool was the answer but once we did a bit of research it became obvious that keeping it consistent was the key.

Look at it this way. You’re grinder grinds coffee at 16°c and when you hit brew the water temp is 93°c. In reality it probably takes about 15 seconds before everything inside your portafilter is 93°c. Thats not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just the reality.

Now consider that grinders I’ve used in the past have spat out coffee at closer to 60°c when its busy. Once its dosed and the brew button is pushed, we’re looking at something closer to 8 seconds before everything in the portafilter is at 93°c. Again, not necessarily bad, just different.

This temperature jump makes our insistence on temperature stable espresso machines seem laughable when the grinders are giving us one hoot of a problem to deal with when it comes to variance. Whats 1° in the water temp when your ground coffee is giving you 45°c jumps?

What this grinder is doing for us is maintaining the coffee temperature at about 35°c to 50°c and as a consequence the taste of the espresso throughout the day is far better for it. I usually taste an espresso at the end of the lunch rush as this is when our equipment is hottest and the machines are at their dirtiest. This gives me a good indication of the espressos lowest ebb all day. I’ve never had better espresso at 3fe at this time as I do now, and  this for me is the biggest victory.

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Whats happening now is that we are currently yielding comfortably and consistently around 18% to 19.6% extraction. Consistently. I have a separate post to do this week on extraction disclosure but that sort of range on a consistent real time actual basis is very, very good. I also think we can improve on it. It pains me to say it but thats a significant jump more than what we were getting before the EK43 arrived, outside of dialling in.

The fact that we can use the portafliter hook to walk away from the grinder is an added bonus which has given us a double win in terms of workflow and efficiency. Its been a long time coming but this grinder is the biggest step towards end game that I’ve seen.

I’m excited about this grinder but also by the fact that Mahlkonig no doubt have a plan in place for the EK43 and that Mazzer, Compak and the other manufacturers will be encouraged to innovate and push more momentum into grinder development like we’ve all be wishing for so long. If there’s hype to be made people, make it now cause we will be all the better for it once the market drives more innovation.

The Clima-Pro is a really exciting grinder for us to use and I feel that what we’ve been asking for is starting to become a reality.  I’m also slightly reluctant to disclose much more at this stage because I don’t want to steal their thunder, but I’m pretty sure if you’re the type of person who was interested enough to read this far you will love this grinder.

The last post I wrote made it clear that the EK43 was not an end point and in truth the Clima Pro is probably a few steps away yet. There can be huge leaps again with a few design tweeks, burr testing and a more wide scale analysis of what it does. In the meantime we at 3fe will continue to make more and more daft mistakes and let you know how we’re getting on.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. – Beckett

*I am not.

**we are all individuals

EK43; Tales from the bar.

We’ve recently employed someone at 3FE who had absolutely no experience making coffee. This pretty much coincided with the introduction of the EK43 grinder to our coffee bar for all of our espresso drinks. Yesterday I remarked that this new staff member was perhaps the only barista on the planet to have learned to make espresso using a pre-dosed EK43 service system. Her only response was “whats the other way of making espresso?”. Touché.

I’ve received a lot (A LOT) of emails from people in the last few weeks asking about how we use the EK, why we use it, whats different about it, why they should get it and a myriad of other questions. The first point I’d like to make is that everyone needs to calm the f*EK down. This is not a flawless, perfect system. It is definitely a progression, but a progression that brings a bit of pain with it too

Lets start with the basics. The EK43 is essentially a bag grinder. I’m not sure if thats the technical term but its what we in Dublin call them. Its designed to grind a lot of coffee fast, probably for roasters, supermarkets in Germany and shops that sell a lot of retail coffee.

I first encountered one at Square Mile Coffee last year when James intimated that I was an idiot for not having one. He’s like that. After speaking with himself and John about the potential for higher extraction yields (that tasted good) my interest was piqued. We were at that time using the rather excellent Uber Grinder for our filter offering but the prospect of a new toy is a very hard thing to resist.

Its also worth noting that every now and then I visit David Walsh (formerly of internet fame) at his Marco lair and we sit down for coffee. Its become a common thing for him to make me filter coffee through an espresso machine and sit there smuggly while I enjoy it. Enjoy it a lot. This pretty much goes against everything I’ve thought about making coffee and it is both exciting and terrible to witness. It just looks wrong.

Following on from this came Mr. Matt Pergers incredible performance at WBC in Melbourne this year. You must promise me that you don’t read this statement incorrectly, as I’m NOT saying he deserved to win. What I’m saying is that it was the best Competition routine I’ve ever seen. They’re two different things, I’m sure you don’t need me to explain why.

Matt, for those of you that don’t know, did his whole routine using one coffee grinder, namely the EK43. He used it not only to pull his espresso shots but also to make filter-style drinks that he called “coffee shots”. This sparked a massive interest in not only the EK43 but also the extract mojo and everything that goes with it. Regardless of whether you think the EK is a good thing or not (which is entirely up to you, remember) I’ve definitely been happy to see a lot more discussion both here in Dublin and on the World Wide web in general. This is a really good thing for coffee and especially for espresso which to me has been dropped by a lot of folks who feel it can go no further.

One of the less sexy reasons we decided to use the EK for espresso was the amount of coffee that we waste at 3FE. This is for a number of reasons;

  • Dialling in before service
  • Dialling in during service
  • Clearing “dry throats” (especially on the less-used grinder)
  • Changing coffees over (we use about 4-7 different coffees on espresso per week, waste occurs with both incoming and outgoing)
  • Re-pulled shots (we throw away a lot of coffees if they’re not right)

When I did costings for coffees at the start we expected to yield somewhere near 50-60 beverages per kg. Once I looked at cups sold vs kgs used over the course of 6 months though it began to approach 40 beverages per kg. This was quite a shift.

Aside from the cost of the coffee itself the more important issue is the amount of hard work and effort it takes to produce this coffee and we then go and throw a sizeable chunk of it away. There was a time when it wasn’t uncommon to see people finger-swiping the excess coffee out of the portafilter and into a bin (A BIN!!). All of these many things combined to return home from Australia and place our recently purchased EK43 onto the coffee bar for full coffee service.

I’ve embedded a video below that outlines how we go about pulling espresso but just to clarify, here is the process in more bullet points;

  • We pre-dose a days service as close to 18.3g as possibles (one bean tolerance ) which takes one man-hour
  •  We grind into a stainless steel cup and then into a portafilter using a jam funnel (its a thing)
  • The dose in the pf is weighed in this process. This is a double step but we like to be thorough.
  • Our target yield for the espresso is 35g. This represents a ratio (not a percentage, Ben) of about 1.91
  • Our target extraction has risen above 20% and the TDS has dropped towards 7.5%
  • We have made our own incremental dial for the EK as it comes without one, the best one we have is not in the video
  • We see very little movement of the dial. Pacamara to Bourbon would be 3 tiny notches different. Quiet to busy and back again would see a single notch difference (approx 1mm) and back again.

Below is a video of Juan pulling shots on bar to demonstrate how we do this. Please bare in mind that I stuck a camera in his face and told him to do it right. I know a lot of you will want to time this, its probably a fair reflection of how long it takes but I see him do it faster every day once he’s in full flow

Overall we’ve seen an increase in the quality of the espresso. It is definitely cleaner, sweeter and more aromatic than what we were producing before. We also have less waste, spend little to no time dialing in/redialling and have the ability to have any number of coffees on offer as espresso at any one time.

This brings me to a rather selfish bonus in that we now serve kenyan and washed ethiopian coffee as espresso quite regularly where as before it was something I rarely did. The acidity in the more floral/tealike/delicate coffees we have access to often manifested itself as soapiness and sourness once it hit an espresso machine. To me the EK brings a sweetness and clarity to these coffees but mellows out the sourness as the TDS drops.

Its not all been sweetness and light though, there have definitely been problems. We made bad espresso before intermittently, everyone does. Unfortunately the bad ones from the EK are pretty much awful. They taste dry, roasty, acrid and just nasty. Bad shots from the anfim were drinkable but these are definitely not. What makes it worse is that they are very hard to spot visually which was a real concern. We’ve found however that they’re becoming less frequent to the point that they’re pretty rare now. This may be down to burrs or technique or even coffee fairies. Who knows?

The workflow has been a challenge and its only fair that I lay all the credit on the team at 3FE for pushing this through. Even though it made their jobs very very difficult, they went with it at full tilt. Essentially it was like learning to make coffee all over again for them but they stuck with it and the extra movements are a bit of a workout on a busy day. After 2 days they had it down, the 3rd day there was a bit of a freak out and then after that its been day on day improvement. We have workflow issues at 3FE that we hope to resolve very soon (who doesn’t) but I can assure you that they are fit-out related and not EK-centric.

The pre-dosing is a bit of a pain but not as much as you’d imagine. We’ve been doing this for filter coffee for quite a while now so you get used to it (this is coming from someone who never has to do it by the way). My gut is that specialty coffee will move this way. Excellent kitchens practice excellent portion control and I feel as more and more specialty shops make less and less money there will be a shift towards treating our raw product they way we should treat it and an aversion towards the mass waste of expensive beans.

I’m not going to get away with writing this without touching on the subject of “Coffee shots”. Right now we are not serving them at 3FE, although we are looking into it. We’re also awaiting an EK with “coffee” burrs as we understand this will improve the coffee shots dramatically. I’ve definitely had excellent, tasty, aromatic examples at various different times but I’ve also had intermittently awful ones too. The potential is massive in terms of taste, wastage, consistency and speed but for now we’re not quite sold. I accept a large part of this may be just down to the fact that it looks ugly as hell and seems so so wrong but I’m adamant that it needs more testing/tasting first.

The final point I’d like to make is one that I feel I need to make with every blog post. This system is completely context-based. I’m not saying you should do this, I’m saying 3FE should do. Its the right step for us and we’re happy it works well in our set up. Everyones context is different so please don’t go doing this out of fear/excitement because you may well find its not for you. Just for the sake of it, our particular situation entails;

  • Aurelia T3 Competizione
  • Water at approx 105ppm
  • Using Nuova Simonelli “Competizione” baskets, not VST.
  • 250-400 coffees per day
  • All coffee roasted by Hasbean
  • Access to MoJoToGo
  • An excellent staff of baristas ;)

I spoke to Jeremy at Prufrock who wrote this excellent post the other day about the EK, Ben and Prufrocks plans. What I said to him is what I will say to you too; This is not an end point, this a step in the right direction. Its a positive step for coffee and espresso but in a years time we shall look back on this and cringe, as we always should. Onwards!

Passing it on

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Its about time that I let you all in on a badly kept secret that Saturday 26th January will be our last day at the Twisted Pepper on Abbey Street after a little over 3 years making coffee in the iconic venue. Its been an amazing place to work, we’ve met so many wonderful customers over the years and it also gave us the platform for all the plans that we’re rolling out at our Grand Canal Street shop.

Its a strange decision admittedly to walk away from a successful business but what it allows us to do is to refocus all of our efforts on one premises and grow the wholesale business in the coming year.

We’ve got a really excellent network of businesses that we’re supplying and now we’re on the look out for the next set of wholesale customers who want to improve their coffee offering. Most of you are aware of our ambitions to open a roastery here in Dublin so recruiting more wholesale customers is central to realising this.

The shop at Twisted Pepper will of course keep going and we will continue to supply it. In fact we’re passing the mantel on to one of our own and gaining a wholesale customer to boot.

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Tom Stafford has effectively been running the place for the last 18 months for us and has always harboured ambitions of opening his own place some day. It made a lot of sense for us then to pass the business on to him and give him a leg up the same way that Bodytonic did for us way back in 2009. Since the first day he started with us Tom has shown a huge dedication to the 3FE cause and has worked tirelessly to ensure that the Twisted Pepper shop maintained and even improved its standards over the years.

Tom’s got some great plans in store for the place after they close for a bit of refurb. We’ll be open until 6pm on the 26th of January and I’m going to make sure I’m there to see the last coffee served. It seems like a life time ago that we set up in the lobby but although I’m sad to be leaving I know Tom will do a great job looking after all the regulars on Abbey Street.

Thanks to all those who’ve supported us over the years, especially Trev and Eoin at Bodytonic and hopefully you’ll all be able to swing by and lend your support to Tom when he sets up shop.

Col

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Water and taste

We all know water is very important in brewing coffee but its also crucially important in tasting coffee. When you think about a filter coffee, most of the time we’re looking to deliver something thats nearly 99% water whilst espresso is almost 90%. The water we brew with is not just a vehicle for brewing but actually the main constituent of the product we make and sell by quite a substantial distance.

To put that into context, there is more water in green coffee by percent than there is coffee in a drip filter. There’s also pretty much the same amount of water in green coffee as there is coffee in an espresso*. Applying one logic to the other we could get away with calling green coffee “water”. We won’t though.

Water is undoubtedly important in terms of extraction but the impact it has on flavour is a completely different issue that is often lumped into the same category. They are separate issues that should be addressed independently and one should always bear in mind that you can have many different waters with the same TDS that impart very different flavours on the water.

The water itself can have many different chemicals, minerals and additives and can also be affected by how its heated and dispensed. Aeration of water through a dispersion screen will have a big effect on the flavour in the cup, especially where the water has remained stagnant after boiling.

This post is about 2 years too late in a way as its based on some experiments I did in 2010 leading up to the 2010 WBC. I ended up designing a signature drink that comprised of the same espresso diluted with 2 different types of water in order to highlight different flavours in the coffee.

The two waters I used were actually distilled water I bought in a Pharmacy (TDS 0PPM) and a bottled water (TDS 470PPM) that I bought in Tesco. The distilled water highlighted the floral, fruity and acidic flavours whilst the bottled water made it earthy, woody and viscous. It was a real eye-opener to me and when I came up with the idea I didn’t fully expect it to work as well as it did.

This was undoubtedly my favourite signature drink I’ve ever made, though undoubtedly an unnecessarily risky one. In my finals round I scored a 5, 4.5, 4 and 3.5 as well as a 2 from the head judge. In truth it probably would have been better to use it as a blog post instead of a sig drink. Mia culpa.

Until this point I always believed before this that water should be neutral when you’re brewing but I now believe thats actually impossible. Water will always have a flavour and that will always be reflected in your final cup. You should treat water as an ingredient and not just a flavour conduit.

The idea of this experiment is to taste the effect that water has on coffee and not the effect it has on the extraction. Therefore what you need to do is to brew a coffee and with a high TDS and then dilute it with different waters to see the flavour it imparts. The beauty of this particular test is that its one you can try tomorrow while you work without much prep at all.

The best way to do this is to heat the water in non-metalic vessels (I use a syphon bulb and burner) so as not to impart flavour on the coffee and then use the various waters to dilute the high-TDS coffee. I’m sure you could also use a microwave but I haven’t tried this yet. I know someone who has though.

The easiest way to do this is by brewing espresso (one for every sample cup)  and mixing all the espressos in a large jug so that all the sample cups have the same coffee. The chances of brewing identical espressos 4 times or more in a row are unfortunately unlikely. I’d also recommend you filter the espressos for more clarity.

You can also opt to brew a “regular extraction” but high TDS filter coffee and use that as the sample. I wouldn’t attempt this method without an Extract Mojo or TDS meter so that you can check the TDS as you go. It is also vital to use an accurate digital scale when diluting the coffees so that you add the same amounts of water to each sample.

So, once you’ve got your coffee sample the basic idea is to take the same coffee sample into a a number of different cups (e.g. 6 cups for 6 samples) and dilute the sample with different waters to see how it changes the taste. If you can use scales, temp probes, mojos, TDS meters and other gizmos then great. If you can’t then don’t worry about it, just have a go and you’ll definitley learn something.

Here’s some suggested waters you should add to coffees to be cupped;

Distilled water

Various bottled waters (The TDS is usually displayed on the side panel or can be calculated easily)

Water heated to 85c

Water boiled and cooled to 85c

Water from your espresso machine hot water fosset

Water from your boiler

Filtered water from a different city heated to same temperature

Water poured carefully and slowly

Water whisked, splashed and stirred (aerated)

Pre-filter water

Post filter water

I’m sure there’s many other types of waters that you can try and each will yield different results. If you want to keep it simple and get dramatic differences I’d go with distilled vs high TDS bottled water. Enjoy and let me know how you get on

Col

*estimated at 10.9873987598798398% by one particular coffee maverick

Re-envisioning the retail experience

I came across the the video above on Twitter the other day and I recommend you watch it if you work in retail coffee. A lot of the points that James makes are excellent and there’s one particular bit where he mentions ‘vinyl’ that almost broke my heart. You’ll see when you get there.

Anyway, James is a one man dictatorship, although a lovely one, and doesn’t allow comments on his blog. We attempted a chat on Branch but that quickly turned into a conversation about, well, everything really. I therefore decided, under duress from the dictator, to post some thoughts on here.

I definitely agree with James in his assertion that the way coffee is sold should/can/will change and I see that this is a good thing. I’ve always said that on my day off I’d pay a fiver for a cup of coffee if it was good value and I believe a lot of people reading this would too.

The word value here is crucial because it can’t be just an expensive coffee, it needs to be worth every penny. What you pay for has to include everything from the drink to the service to the setting and everything in between. I’ve paid €12 for a glass of wine and not thought twice about it because it was good value in that particular context. The best value meal I’ve eaten this year was also the most expensive. Last year it was somewhere in the middle of the price range. Price and value are not the same thing.

The question I really began asking myself though was about the viability of a “low-volume high-price” coffee bar where people like me would come to drink coffee in its best case scenario. We’d enjoy the service, have great coffee, avail of the free wifi*, nibble on petit-fours and generally have a €10 luxury half hour.

The implication that James makes in his talk is that the current specialty model involves selling the traditional way, but with higher costs. I see this everyday at 3FE when I wonder is it worth re-pulling shots, spending more on coffee/machines/equipment and doing things in a quality-focused way that take twice as long as they do elsewhere. Is it worth it?

Can we make money selling the traditional way but with better coffee and higher standards. I still think we can, given the right skill set.

Admittedly, our prices are slightly more on the expensive side at 3FE but for a long time they weren’t. Did I make any money? Nope, not at all. I was pretty much broke to be honest but we did get a name out and build a reputation. Its a strange feeling to own a coffee shop that people all around the world are talking about but still have to search the back of the couch for train fare. This is sadly a reality for a lot of startup specialty coffee shops and it definitely was for me.

I also know folks that have investors behind them pumping massive funds into a startup and they too are broke. There is no easy route into this industry. Everyone’s context is different and there is always a sacrifice to be made. Anyone who runs there own business and is reading this will know all about the consequences and sacrifices to be made, both personal and financial, and wonder from time to time if they were worth it.

In saying all this though, is this any different to the rest of the food and drink industry? I’ve met a lot of F&D business owners in the last few years and I’d be surprised if any more than 20% were actually making a wage that they were happy with. The catering industry is an expensive one to start in and even more expensive to keep going in.

If we drop coffee into a larger food and drink category you’ll find that very few of them are actually profitable and it would be unfair to suggest that other F&D businesses are doing better than we are.

To suggest that charging more per cup will make you a more sustainable business is just fooling yourself though as all the variables that are static at a low-price business begin to shift up the curve. Standards begin to move if people are to pay more and the barrier to entry begins to rise with it. You suddenly have a smaller market, less visits per customer and higher unit costs.

Every week in Dublin I hear about a high-end restaurant that’s beginning to creak and see a cheaper restaurant thats flourishing. The same can also be said the other way around though.

My point is that once you’ve decided on your business model you need to be professional, hard working, diligent and (a lot of the time) lucky to ensure that your business is successful. The price point itself is almost redundant in determining if you’ll be successful, its more your ability to apply the model that suits your price point.

Im not sure if anyone has managed to build a sustainable coffee business on the high price per cup model without having one of the following criteria in place, or perhaps even a few;

i) an existing successful coffee bar elsewhere to draw out the new bar’s burn rate
ii) access to cheaper coffee, e.g. as a roaster/wholesaler
iii) an existing skillset and inventory to facilitate such an approach
iv) attached to a ‘traditional’ coffee bar i.e. a brew bar
v) pop-up approach, not designed to stay longer than a few months
vi) A pot of gold

We will continue to charge a little more than most for our coffees and continue to offer value for that price. In the coming months there will also be more expensive options available but the initial feedback in the last few weeks has been hugely positive from those seeking a tasting experience rather than a simple ‘drinking’ one.

I’m excited about offering the ‘next step’ in specialty coffee and I know right now that it will be painful, difficult and result in us losing some customers. In saying that I know we’ll gain more customers and challenge ourselves in what we do, like we’ve always done. Wherever we drop the pricing pin though there is always the constant necessity to be an excellent business in every facet of what you do, whether its accounting, marketing, H&S, HR or quality control. As the industry gears up to charge more and change the way we do things, its important to remember that a higher price is not the only answer to making a business viable. Personally I’ve found the tasty coffee part easy, its the other stuff thats difficult.

 

 

Bleeding bunnies on bar

Lately I’ve become a little bit obsessed with work flow and efficiency in coffee bars which has been driven by a few factors of various importance. Barista Comps are always a great way to learn about double/triple tasking and saving yourself 30 seconds. Anyone thats competed will know how organising workflow in a routine can help you appear busier, do more, reduce stress and save time. The same logic applies to coffee bars.

An organised bar not only works faster but also gives you a huge advantage in terms of customer service. Yes, the service will be better, that is a no-brainer, but people often overlook something very important about calm, controlled efficient workflow and thats the perception your customers develop of your business.

There’s a rule in the service industry called The Bleeding Bunny rule which is based on the logic that the more distressed you appear the more likely you are to be criticised by your customers. This is true worldwide and is born out of the fact that bleeding bunnies will always be preyed upon before their more able-bodied comrades. If you appear distressed, you are opening yourself up for attack regardless of how much you deserve it.

I’ve worked shifts at both extremes. I’ve had very few orders and been in an absolutely tizzy. Drinks made badly, orders misplaced, orders made twice, customers pissed off. I’ve also worked ridiculously busy shifts in a state of near zen. These occassions often bring with them very little conversation between co-workers. everyone knows where they are, where they’re going and how they’re getting there. The system is clear and there’s no need to discuss it. Customers have waited a long time for orders without even knowing it because everything seems effortless, purposeful and worth it.

In specialty coffee we have for the last few years been caught between a place where we want to impress our customers and the constraints placed upon us by having to deal with said customers. The more people that come the harder it is to wow them, but the less people that come the harder it is to stay open. Pete Williams that works with me at 3FE once quipped wouldn’t it be amazing if we had loads of money and no customers. Think what we could achieve!”

The brew-bar in a modern specialty coffee bar is a great example of this. I’ve seen many set up that were successful from a taste/experience perspective but as the business owner in me becomes more outspoken I can only question the viability of the “brew bar” going forward. I think at 3FE we have just about found a balance but its perhaps been the most difficult aspect of what we do day-to-day.

The brew-bar has become the weapon of choice for specialty coffee shops and although I feel its value should be placed more in the marketing budget than in the Z-read analysis it’s striking that we have very little discussion about how we should make this podium of ours a little more financially viable. Profit is a filthy filthy word in this industry but its one we need to face up to if we’re going to gain the recognition that we so crave and workflow is the key to this in every aspect of finding success.

Carrying on the theme of feedback from last weeks post I thought it pertinent to skip the permission phase and skip straight to the meaty bit by posting some feedback online that sits nicely with this weeks theme of workflow.

I am however trusting that both interested parties, namely Marco (Paul Stack) and Barartza (Joyce Klassen), will forgive me going public on this one as both products do come out rather favourably and I know both as people who have no doubt already copped on to whatever it is I’ve discovered.

A few weeks back Joyce sent me an Essato to tinker with and gather feedback. The Essato for those of you that don’t know is an attachment base for Baratza’s grinders that allows you to set a target weight for ground coffee and then grind that specific amount for you at the touch of a button (there are actually 3 presets). It differs from grind-on-demand grinders I’ve encountered so far in that instead of correlating time and dose and managing the former with fingers crossed, the Essato goes straight to the point and promises you a specific dose every time. Importantly, it consistently delivers on this promise.

The Uber grinder creates the best grind profile I’ve encountered and thus is the tastiest tool to make your filter coffee with. When things aren’t too hectic you can weigh-grind-weigh and create more beautiful coffee than you can ever imagine. Lovely grinder, lovely grind profile, lovely coffee. Simples.

Then real life kicks in and the reality of weigh-grind-weigh (perhaps repeat?) will start to hack away at the time you have to satisfy your customers. The fact that you must stand by the grinder when you do this adds to the time you must commit and thus slows you down. Slowing you down on bar usually leads to you trying to speed yourself up which I guarantee will lead to mistakes, errors and angry customers. Its the twisted logic of the bar, never go as fast as you can, because you can’t.

So, back to the Essato. No, it doesn’t have the amazing grind profile of the Uber but what it does have is smarts. I hit one button and then concentrate on the other things like rinsing papers, arranging cutlery and talking to customers. When I’m ready I pick up the grounds dispenser and dose my filter.

On a busy bar its innovations like this that really contribute to enabling us to achieve real excellence on a consistent basis. In truth I know Marco are working on something to enable similar benefits in workflow but I shall not steal their thunder, this time.

The real point of this post though is a statement that popped into my head as I walked back from the till to my 18g ground dose that was waiting for me on the Esatto.

Workflow will trump grind profile in the vast majority of cups handed out.

I’m not sure everyone will agree with me but I would like to know where you stand on this and what you think;

 

Feedback and the 151,200 minutes

This is a post that has been floating around my mind for a good while now but has been accelerated by Tim Williams talk at Tamper Tantrum Live last weekend. If truth be told, I actually preferred the conversation after it even more than the talk itself but I think that was entirely the point of Tim’s talk.

I have a certain standpoint on feedback that I’m pretty sure doesn’t sit with a lot of people in the specialty coffee industry, and this post is specifically aimed at the specialty coffee industry.

Negative feedback is gold dust. Its easy to get good feedback but negative feedback is harder to come by, to your face at least. I’ve served customers, asked them if everything was ok. They’ve said yes, paid and then slagged us off on the internet. Happens a lot and always cuts.

Negative feedback helps us understand how we can improve (thats obvious) but also points out where we’re not communicating effectively. I was once told our cups were too small. We have many reasons for this and my first instinct was to disregard this as we weren’t going to change this policy.

It struck me though that most people I explained it to understood why afterwards and the majority agreed on reflection. The feedback made me realise that if you’re doing something for the right reasons and someone doesn’t like it then maybe we haven’t communicated those reasons effectively.

If a customer thinks filter coffee takes too long, your milk isn’t hot enough, your roast is too dark/light or any other common “specialty coffee gripe” then maybe, just maybe, you should be communicating your reasons better rather than just dismissing their opinions.

I do, for the record, seek negative feedback so I think its important to point out that I’m not against it, more who, why or how it’s delivered.

Twitter is not, in most cases, an appropriate medium for feedback. I agree that sometimes a business can be so unashamedly awful at what they do that they deserve a public dressing down but there is a definite line. Lets do some rough maths here for a second.

When a customer is in a shop, we are being “observed”. Say we average 20 people in our shop at any one time and we are open for 9 hours a day over 2 locations. Thats 151,200 observation minutes per week where we are being watched, analysed and judged on various different levels of consciousness.

Every week at 3FE we serve bad coffee and give bad service. Every body does. It slips through the net, it happens and it takes a couple of seconds to happen in that 151,200 minute week. I really want to find out when it does but not through twitter.

Its no different for inter-community feedback. By all means tell me but I’d appreciate an email more than a tweet, blog post or forum thread.

The other issue I have with negative feedback comes down to whether or not they are stakeholder. We owe a duty of care to our customers, suppliers, colleagues and various other people but some people that have nothing to do with what we do (besides sharing an industry with us) feel entitled to have a pop from time to time.

On Saturday Tim gave me a bag of coffee and asked me for feedback. I’ve had coffee from St Ali before that was passed on to me by a friend. I didn’t buy it nor was I given it (by St Ali) so I am precluded from giving them feedback for that coffee. I’m looking forward to sending the feedback on for this current bag.

Before you pass on unrequested feedback, its important to ask yourself if this person owes you anything. Sometimes, its none of your business, keep it to yourself. I don’t buy that we’re all part of the same community so we have to keep each other in line. The community doesn’t clean my toilets, pay my taxes or clear my inbox so the community doesn’t get a say before my customers do.

Tim also raised the point on Saturday (I’m not picking on Tim by the way, I actually like him) that saying everything is great shows weakness and a lack of confidence. I agree, but I also see a massive weakness in slagging people off. Usually when I see someone say that another business doesn’t do X, Y or Z its usually a concealed way of saying “We do X, Y, and Z so why aren’t we getting more credit for it?”.

If you do something amazing, and you’re slagging people off for not doing it too, ask yourself what would happen if they did start and everyone else did too. Would you still be doing something amazing? Would you be happy then? If you’re amazing be confident and happy in your own ability and success, you deserve it.

Communicating what you do and why effectively will gain you all the plaudits you deserve. Slagging someone off makes you look just as weak as someone who proclaims everything is wonderful.

My own policy on this is based on the reasoning that there is power in an ommission. I’d like to believe that if I recommend something people will take that seriously because I have a reasonable track record in doing so (I hope). There are many coffee shops/manufacturers and roasters I will never mention and I think that speaks volumes to anyone who cares to listen.

Certain negative feedback will also come down to the fact that some people like being a dick for fun. I’m not sure why but there is a small section that like slagging people off as a recreational pursuit. I’d be against this.

Yes negative feedback affects jobs but its important to remember that bad service and products do too. In terms of our industry there seems to be quite a degree of negativity being batted about but I think that if it were communicated more effectively we could benefit more.

I’ve had a long week, I’m tired, emotional and aware that this post lacks a certain structure and perhaps reads slightly ranty. Indulge me though by allowing me one ridiculous analogy.

The coffee industry is an island and its being thrashed by a gale force wind called negative feedback. Lets build some windmills and use it for the greater good.

Col

p.s. I would really appreciate any feedback from TTLIVE over the weekend from those who attended. Thanks ;)

Tamper Tantrum

 

Saturday sees the culmination of a lot of hard work, blagging and planning in the form of Tamper Tantrum Live 2012 at the Twisted Pepper. Anyone that follows me on twitter will know doubt have heard about it but I thought it appropriate to reflect via this neglected blog and aim for two birds with my solitary stone.Image

In a way Tamper Tantrum started with this hungover rant (pictured above) the morning after we managed to pilfer 4th place at the 2009 World Barista Championships, at Octane Coffee in Atlanta with Ben Helfen. Myself and Steve came away from the conversation with a sense that we’d perhaps come across something we both enjoyed doing.

Tamper Tantrum started a few weeks later and soon developed into a relatively (!) monthly video blog which drew more viewers than we’d ever thought possible. Half way through one of these recordings we had an idea to do a live version with guest speakers and so Tamper Tantrum Live was born.

Last year was a wonderful success with James Hoffmann, Cosimo Libardo, David Walsh, Gwilym Davies and Paul Stack all putting on excellent talks which have between them clocked up tens of thousands of views. The fact that all these talks are being passed on to those looking to learn about coffee is the real reward in all this. Every few weeks I get an email from someone thanking us for doing it and it all makes sense again.

This Saturday we have another great list of speakers including John Gordon, Kas Ali, Tim Styles, Rasmus Helgebostad, Ellie Matuszak and Keith O’Sullivan as well as one or two surprises along the way. We will also be beaming it out live across the internets and as always, posting the videos online afterwards on the Tamper Tantrum site.

No doubt a few of you reading this know already, but on Saturday afternoon we will also announce the next step for Tamper Tantrum live and to say we are excited is an understatement. Without letting the cat out of the bag, it will bring Tamper Tantrum to an International audience in a way that we never thought possible.

I’m looking forward to the weekend, thankful for all your support and excited about the future. I’m glad this has grown to what it is and looking forward to letting you all in on our good news ;)

Tickets are still on sale here and we’re looking forward to a great day. We hope to see you there

Col

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