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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 🙂

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!

Today I had the job of fixing a lock to the inside of a bathroom door. It was a rather simple job, four screws through a metal piece, but it’s amazing where your mind goes during such simple tasks. After fixing the bolt i pulled the door closed to check the lock by using a piece of wooden frame fixed to the inside of the door.  I wondered if customers would think to use this piece, seeing it wasn’t immediately obvious. Maybe they wouldn’t. I thought of two things I could do: one, attach a handle; two, write “pull here” on the piece of wood. And here’s where my mind drifted elsewhere.

A handle would be an obvious indicator of what to use/do to close the door. The wood was not obvious, so it needed an explanation. And here I go: from what I’ve read Specialty Coffee shops have a hard time differentiating themselves from others. They are aiming for quality in an industry that requires volume to survive. And so we write on the piece of wood. Looking very much the same, we write  on menus and cards and blackboards who we are and what we’re trying to do. Because, maybe we fear, that if we don’t, customers won’t get it. (Another example I can think of is the “order here”, “pay here” signs. We resort to explaining how it works because it’s not immediately obvious).

I thought to myself, while fixing that lock, what is our handle? What is it that makes what we do plainly obvious? Something that is self explanatory.

Just a thought.

Read James Hoffman’s article “A Linen Napkin” for one good example.

This afternoon I sat in my backyard in the sun and relaxed. At the same time my neighbour was playing guitar. He played it well, and I enjoyed it. I didn’t know what he was playing, didn’t know how, but it didn’t matter because I enjoyed it.

I’ve written previously about how it’s easier to say a coffee’s great than to actually pull through on that promise and make a great one. But last week at the WBC I heard Tim Wendelboe and Colin Harmon speak of the importance of taste in growing our industry. What I came away with was a renewed focus on the coffees we use and the flavours that make them unique. Briefly, focus on taste and build trust through sharing this uniqueness.

In coffee we talk a lot about farms, processing, roast styles, brew recipes and extraction yields (amongst others). All this is very important. But I’m thinking that sometimes this becomes the focus. As Tim Wendelboe pointed out, we talk to our customers about “specialty”, “direct trade” and “micro-lots”, possibly (and probably) at the expense of taste.

This brings me back to the guitar. I enjoyed it simply for what it was, what I could hear: it was nice music. I didn’t need to know anything more to appreciate it. Maybe, just maybe, when we introduce our customers to the concepts of processing and brewing methods, it’s a bit like going to see a guy play guitar and he talks endlessly about what chords he’s playing and how he’s tuned his guitar and how he’s layered various instruments to create a certain sound. All we really want to do is enjoy the music, nothing more needed. Sure there’s those who want to know the chords so they can play at home, but for most of us it’s simply enjoying great music by a great artist.

And of course, theres a lot more to coffee than just taste. But the simple message of quality coffee is pretty simple: it tastes better!