Small details, predictability and surprises while working with coffee

I think specialty coffee is about the good balance of predictability and surprises. In recent years the industry has been chasing CONSISTENCY, working out gravimetric technologies for both brewing a grinding, stabilising temperature during grinding and brewing, brewing in larger batches to eliminate human errors. Both customers expect predictable good results from coffeeshops, and baristas , roasters, owners strive for more control on the process to deliver these results.  On the other side we are all like being surprised by a coffee, a new brewing method, and we all accept the fact that we are working with a very sensitive raw material, and none of us (hopefully) give up drinking coffee or going to their beloved coffeeshop because one day the coffee was surprising but in a bad way. We love this part of unpredictability in coffee, we love that we can’t fully tame it. This will always be a cat and mouse game, and it’s okay.

But rarely do we realise how much work it takes for a coffeeshop, and the people behind it, to keep balancing between these two extremes. You don’t want to be a boring place, serving the same coffee for months, but you don’t want to change the espresso  or reinvent your workflow every day, because it can deter your loyal customers.

In our shop, we always keep thinking about changing something. By now, the “Early November Reconstruction” has become a tradition. By that time, every year we get to the point, we have to close the shop for a few days, move things, rebuild counter, install new equipment.

Between these big November renewals, we do small things, look for minor details in our workflow or routine that can enable us making better coffee, easier. Just to bring some examples: for months now, we have been unsatisfied with the water temperature we are using for brewing filter coffees manually. (don’t bring up batch brew here, that’s a different things, we use that as well it has it’s own imperfections, that we might discuss later) So you either go for a temperature controlled kettle like Bonavita, Brewista, and deal with the not so precise flow rate control, and the hassle to fill it up and wait until it comes back to temp, or go for a larger water boiler to fill a smaller, more precise kettle, but loose temperature, because no matter how much you preheat the kettle it will still be colder than the water, ending up 8-10 Celsius differences between each fill. Never thought it is so radical until you plug a thermometer into your kettle, and you will be shocked how cold water you are brewing with, even though your hot water tower is set to 94-95 Celsius (water in the kettle can be as low as 86-88 Celsius right after filling) We’ve been testing different kettles, which can be preheated faster, how long they keep the heat, how precise you can pour with it. No perfect solution yet, only combining the two worlds. Grab a less bulky temp controlled kettle like Fellow Stagg EKG, and keep it at temp all the time, and refill from a hot water tower, and cope with the not so precise pour abilities.

So you might say, why worry about these, just pour that water on the coffee and you are done. Yes, but we need something to keep us moving forward, and in the end these small things people were not satisfied with, moved larger researches and developments.

So what happens when you found a solution for one of these problems. You probably found it in an ideal environment, replicating the process in a quiet hour without many guest you need to serve. Does this work in a busy bar as well, how much extra stress will it put on the baristas, will it raise further issues to investigate?

These are aspects that people working in R&D consider as part of their job. A car manufacturer can’t just change one part of the car during production without having a huge impact on the whole process and risking a bad experience, not to mention a failure at the customer. So they have to go to different testing phases. And here is something what we all can learn from them.

Coffee industry is moving forward quite fast, year by year new technologies appear on the market. These technologies are tested by the manufacturers, and I’m happy to see recently more of them gets tested by coffeeshops before the final release.

But we tend to jump on the latest and greatest technology, put it on the bar, and expect it to produce the predictability part of the above mentioned balancing game. But it only brings us surprises, bad surprises. Then we ask the question: did we waste the money on this new technology?

The answer is : not! We just did not learn how to integrate it in our workflow and environment.

In the next post I will discuss how we do it.