After brewing filter I empty the filter (throw it away if its paper, wash it if its metal), rinse and clean the apparatus, place a clean filter, (rinse it if its paper), add the coffee and brew. The aim is to brew with a clean, fresh apparatus. Pre-heated if desired.

When brewing espresso, I remove the portafilter, dump the puck, wipe the basket so it is clean and dry, dose, tamp, purge, insert portafilter and brew.

When I consider these methods side-by-side I am surprised by my apparent lack of concern for cleanliness when I brew espresso. If, after brewing a filter, I simply wiped it dry and neglected to wash the filter (metal) or replace it (paper), I would consider that rather sloppy work. Needless to say, lacking in quality.

Another observation is the concern for a dry filter when brewing espresso but not when brewing filter. Is a dry basket for espresso a well-founded requirement based on solid research or another espresso myth? Should I be more concerned with washing the basket and portafilter every time?

This probably just gives me a research idea. Extraction yields: dry, wiped basket vs washed, wet baskets.

Watch this space 🙂

The more I think about music and coffee, the more I feel i can learn from the music industry.

I’m not a musician, or knowledgeable about music in any way. All I can say is that a good mate plays in a band and i’ve been to a few shows.

But from what I know about him as a musician and the industry, I feel I can learn a lot about approaching coffee from their approach to music. The music industry is layered in quality. From garage bands, to pop stars, to experienced session musicians. And when it comes to live shows a lot of time is spent on geting it sounding just right. Rehearsals and sound checks. On the day of a gig, my mate will show up hours before the gig to make sure its sounding just right. Think of all the variables!! His guitar, the other guitar, the keyboard, the drums and percussion. Tuning is just the start. Getting the amp levels just write so that every instrument is heard and is harmonious with the other. Hours and hours of tweaking, so that when it comes time to play, you just play. And if something goes wrong? You’ve got backup within a few seconds.

Cafe opening times are like the gig, and the baristas like the musicians.

Sometimes I wonder if I don’t take coffee seriously enough, being my chosen profession. Spending 15 to 30 min of a morning dialling in until it tastes good, and maybe cupping a few profiles and picking one, isn’t that a bit like showing up a half hour before a gig, playing a few chords, agreeing that it sounds “good” and leaving it there? But you couldn’t get away with it in the music industry. Fans know what sounds good and when something sounds off. Are they just more educated about their field? More so than coffee people? Maybe I get away with it in coffee because peoples expectations about what’s “good” is far lower? Maybe we’re all just used to the coffee equivalent of a garage band and we don’t realise how clean and schmick it all could be! Imagine the difference if I spent hours and hours on a single coffee. Exploring it’s potential and then getting the technique down so tight that it was just second nature that I could interact with customers as if I was a rock star in the crowd. And do this every time.

I wonder about the potential there. Maybe it’s a bad link. But it’s nonetheless inspiring to wonder at the possibility of improvements with that kind of dedication.

 

“She served lemon Bundt cake, baked that morning, and poured strong coffee”.
– Kinfolk, Vol. 6, p58.

Specialty coffee is the minority in coffee. Well…, duh. Haha I know. But think of it like that, rather than seeing it as the “top of the pile”, and it feels a bit different.

All of a sudden we’re the silly ones. The ones that measure everything, and tweak everything, and slurp, and say it tastes like mandarin and cherry pie. But far from calling this silly, it’s amazing. It’s a world of passionate, driven people who know this product and its potential very well.

Coffee is a huge industry. We are a tiny part, but a great part.

Got fish and chips for dinner last night. Got out of the car, crossed the road and before even entering the shop we had chosen exactly what we wanted. We had never been to this particular take away before but hey, they’re all the same, no need to look at the menu.

It hit me at that time that this is how the majority of people think of, and order, their coffee. We see a coffee shop, know what we want before entering, and order the usual. After all, aren’t all coffee places the same? (interesting to note that this might explain the frustration some customers have when they’re chosen item isn’t available).

If specialty places are to work, (that is, those offering a variety of high quality coffees with little to no additives), we should address this by ensuring that our customers don’t enter our shops with a preconceived idea of what they want, but rather an attitude like “lets see what they have today”.

I think this is down to us. Thinking of new and different ways to portray our product in the minds of our customers. I think it’s an exciting thought!

Lets be frank, with our product, we can’t compete on price. Great coffee costs too much to sustainably match regular coffee prices in a coffee shop.

If we try, my guess is that we’ll either compromise our quality or go broke. Neither of which is a good thing.

So what to do? Firstly, why do business’ compete on price in the first place? From what I understand, it’s one way of targeting a particular market. People like cheaper prices, so, if the same product is available from a few companies people will most likely go for the cheapest option (unless something like convenience outweighs this).

Thinking back to great coffee, a market looking for the cheapest option is not really the market we’re after. Agreed? So what then? Well, what else do people want? Well that’s where knowing our own individual markets comes in. Is it quality or something else? Either way, I think we should make it clear that cheap prices are not something we care about, in fact, paying more for better coffee is something we are proud of. And this is reflected in per cup prices.

Specialty coffee is a niche market. That means that 90%* of people won’t want, or like, our product. We should expect this. Our aim is to attract that 10% who will.

* I made up this number to illustrate a point.

I’ve read some interesting articles recently focusing on a baristas customer service roll. Sometimes it’s quite polarised. If you’re interested, they’re well worth a read. There was this post entitled Coffee Shop Rules of Engagement by Ben Leventhal of Eater.com which brought on a reply from Serenity Sage. And then there was an article by Shane Barnes on The Village Voice entitled How Not to Order Espresso, which brought a response from the guys at sprudge.com suggesting he get work elsewhere, which consequently brought another response from Shane Barnes this time entitled When Coffee Snobs Attack.

It all makes for entertaining reading, albeit a little close to home maybe for those who work in the industry. For me it brought to the fore thoughts I had about working as a Barista. Not being in the US, maybe my working life experiences are a little different to my fellow colleagues. Nevertheless its all been interesting for me.

I’ll start with a short anecdote that really changed how I viewed my work, c/o contrast.ie

I was 16 years old, working in a gas station and had just received my first bollocking from my manager. I was disgusted.

What do you mean “improve”? I charged him correctly, didn’t I?

My manager looked at me, disappointed…

Yes, Des, you charged him correctly. But a fucking vending machine does that! And they show up on time; they’re more accurate; I don’t pay them by the hour; and they’re never hungover. Your job is to do something that a vending machine can’t do. Your job is to make our customers happy; to give them a good experience; to bring them back here again. Get it?

When I first read this, reflected on my own work, I felt shocked. There was no doubt about it, 90% of what I do could be done by a machine. Perspectives changed.

However, I realised that most of the Barista jobs out there are exactly that: Barista jobs. When you are employed as a barista, you are employed to make coffee. There isn’t really much discussion about what “customer service” requires in that business. Yes we should be nice to the customers, but that’s just because you should be nice to people in general, no? But “being nice to people” isn’t customer service. Customer service is ensuring that each customer we serve has a memorable experience; assisting where we can, directing if required, all the time understanding that we are a representation of the business, embodying it’s ethos and are that customers connection to it.

We, as servers, are not invisible, free to do whatever as long as drinks are served. We just need to look at a review website to see how important service is to an experience. But I think it is the employers responsibility to ensure every employee understands what the business is, and stands for, and also that they are being paid to serve the customer not just make drinks.

The above posts signal to me that there is some kind of disconnect happening in the “expectation” department. But what we need to remember, as a server, is that facilitating a great experience for a customer, being part of someone enjoying that brief time they are in in your shop, is really rewarding and uplifting. Maybe if we saw our jobs (like a spin off the old saying) as “to ensure that each customer leaves this place feeling better than when they arrived”, would this lead to a better experience for everyone?

James Hoffmann brought it up at the SCAA Symposium, Peter Giuliano discussed it on the the portafilter.net podcast and Ben Bicknell wrote an article on it for Five Senses. The technical word for it is “market differentiation”, it refers to a particular product changing in price due to something like variation in quality.

I couldn’t agree more with this idea in coffee. As Ben Bicknell wrote, it’s just not right that you pay the same for an unpleasant coffee as you do for a remarkably grown, processed, shipped, roasted and brewed one. I see two positives from differentiation: one, as consumers we want great coffee, and as roasters buy more and more expensive coffee they need to be able to charge more to help continue to do this; two, price differentiation can help set specialty coffee apart, in the mind of the consumer, from other coffee shops . Variation in price is the most obvious way to communicate to the consumer that the coffees available are different from one another.

But although I agree with differentiation, I see a possible problem if one were to simply re-write the menu to add variation in price (not that anyone is suggesting this). That is, buying a fantastic green coffee doesn’t mean that the consumer will experience a fantastic coffee. As we are all quite aware, there are many steps from buying a green to serving a cup. Even though a coffee may be graded as Specialty, this would mean nothing if the final step of brewing was done improperly. It may be a “specialty” coffee but it could still taste horrible if prepared poorly. And this is the thought I wanted to get down. As a customer, if i’m paying $10 for a coffee, I think I’d be in my rights to expect it was prepared very well, or even better. No? As baristas we have be totally on top of our game.

This is what’s enjoyable, but also inevitably more difficult, about coffee compared to beer or wine. If a Craft Beer or Wine Bar business pays more for a bottle, they can charge a price with little concern that the quality of the beverage will decrease when it is served. But, as i’ve said, coffee is a very different ball game. That final step involves preparation immediately before the beverage is served, and if we’re not careful the quality of that cup could be far lower than the green from which it came and therefore not worth the $10 we attribute to it.

I know that most places advocating differentiation have well structured training programs in place to ensure quality makes it all the way through to the final stage, but I think it’s important to remember (or realise) that some of us will need to up our game (we don’t all work for the best – haha). And if we do double, or triple, the price of a coffee, it’s understandable that a customers expectations will also double, or triple.

To emphasise the challenge that baristas face in this, read this poem by Nick Cho.

Cheers for reading my rambling thoughts!