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!

I’ve just finished reading Oliver Strand’s and James Hoffman’s (separate) writings on “Ice Brew”. The cold brewed coffee made by brewing manual filter over ice. Both are very interesting, and well and truly got me excited to try this method. Especially Oliver Strand’s description of Handsome’s Rwandan Dukunde Kawa that tasted like lemonade!!

But in my mind the methodology brought a couple of things to mind. First, a post by Sang Ho Park titled “Just Add Water. Not” and a training night run by Matt Perger. Matt spent a bit of time dissecting an espresso, speaking of things like rate of extraction and balance. At one point he pulled a ristretto and we tasted it side-by-side with an espresso. But first he added water to the ristretto to create a drink with about the same strength as the espresso. After tasting, the point was clear, the ristretto+water lacked balance and fell away in the finish. The espresso was balanced, good flavour and good aftertaste. What I learnt was that although the last part of an espresso extraction is (and looks) weak it is still essential to a good, complex, balanced espresso.

“Just Add Water. Not.” describes his experience of brewed coffee in Korea. Essentially: high dosing, strong brew, watered down (I hope that doesn’t do too great an injustice to the write-up). The point of both Matt’s illustration and Sang Ho Park’s blog was that although TDS% ends up the same, the extraction percentage is not.

My thoughts, and they are only theoretical, is that this is exactly what’s happening with Ice Brew. Take the 50/50 method as an example (and a 70g/L recipe), brewing 70g of coffee with 500g of water over 500g of ice. Isn’t this just like Sang Ho Park’s description of his Korean brewed coffee experience? High dose (140g/L) and watering down.

I may have missed something in the whole process, this is purely theory, and I am yet to try this method.

When brewing espresso, measuring quality by the “length of the shot” is failing to understand the purpose of controlling variables.

“Length of shot” equals “strength”. A short shot will be very strong, and a long shot will be weaker. But neither is a measure of quality. It is, theoretically, possible to pull a quality 100g shot (although current technology makes this hard eg fines).

Quality comes from “extraction percentage” or “yield”. This refers to the amount of coffee extracted from the ground coffee during brewing. The arguably agreed upon range is 18-22%. At this point there is good, complex flavour and balance.

Looking back then, a short shot and a long shot can both be deemed to be good extraction if the right yield is achieved. This is why I say it’s theoretically possible to pull a shot the size of a cup and it still be delicious. Strength is simply the concentration in which the 18-22% yield is held.

Having said that, it is true that there are also general agreed upon strengths/concentrations, but they’ll all be sub-par if we fail to achieve a quality extraction.

I remember hearing Peter Giuliano talk on a portafilter.net podcast about differentiation in the coffee market. Identifying the lack of differentiation in pricing in the industry. He commented that even pizza had a regular section and gourmet section to the industry, with markedly different pricing structures.

The topic came out of the recent discussion about the future of specialty coffee. In short (and probably not doing justice the detailed topic it is), demand for specialty coffee is going up at the same time available land going down because of environmental changes due to climate change. Together, this means specialty coffee will become more expensive.

I find the differentiation topic quite interesting. The example of wine is a clear example. And today I noticed how it’s done in beer. Where I live, regular beer is sold in 6 packs for around $15-$20, and that’s how they’re displayed in the fridge. But the more expensive beers were stocked in the fridge as single bottles, for around $5. Or, in small writing, they were also available in packs of 4 (not 6!). This seems to me that they’re has been a conscious decision to price the specialty beers the same price, only changing the volume. I know i’m more likely to buy a single bottle for $5 than be forced into buying a 6 pack for $30.

So can the same be done with coffee? Does it need to? I think it does. Recently I had a conversation with a roaster who is involved in “direct trade”, travelling to source and talking to the farmer, and buying high quality, very tasty coffee and shipping it to sell wholesale and in his shop. He told me about some of the costs involved at different steps and then said that sometimes a roaster only makes a few dollars on a kilo of roasted coffee. Reason being, is that roasters like this travel a lot to source these coffees, pay a lot more for quality and also pay more for extras in shipping and storage. It costs more to get get great coffees. And right now, customers are lucky. Due to there being little differentiation in the market, there is only so much a roaster can charge, the result: we get some amazing coffee for not much more than regular coffee.

I think, like many other more experienced and knowledgeable people than me, that differentiation in the coffee market is key to building a sustainable specialty coffee market.

It can be viewed as a problem, but I think there is an exciting side to this situation. Challenges are a chance to be creative. A chance to re-think, re-brand, re-whatever. How do we re-value a product? James Hoffman blogged about the single-serve market and it’s pricing structure. I thought this was a good point imparticular: “One could infer that Nespresso’s success implies we’re way too cheap”. It’s well worth a read in regards this current topic. I think the brilliant thing this small segment of the coffee industry did was re-package, by doing so they were able to re-value the product (i’m sure i’ve heard this somewhere else).

Should the specialty coffee market re-package? And by this I just mean thinking of other ways to sell coffee other than 250g bags. If it did, I can see another advantage. Finding new ways to keep coffee fresh. For example, a regular coffee bag is 250g. It can take a while for someone making a cup a day at home to go through this. And with all the opening and closing of the bag, by the end of that time it’s not so great either. Re-packaging could be a way to re-value the product and keep it fresher.

I think this is a great time to be in Specialty Coffee, especially if you like being creative.

I’ve been playing recently with structuring an espresso training. One of the topics of particular interest to me is wastage. If you’re like me, you’ve been trained in a way that regarded wastage and mess as just part of making coffee. Piles of wasted ground coffee was normal, to a degree. So, how to train someone not to waste? Scott Lucey once made the comment on James Hoffman’s blog, that it was harder to get more senior baristas to waste less than it was to get a new barista to not waste at all.

The difficulty in training a barista not to waste, for me, is simply not wanting to seem overly strict about it. I’m here because I enjoy coffee and I enjoy making it. So, if for some reason it’s not enjoyable, i’ve lost my way somewhere.

I think an appreciation to reduce waste (and hopefully not waste!) comes from two things. First, it’s more professional. I don’t see my work as something filling the gap between the things I really want to do, or simply paying the bills ’till I get a “real” job; coffee is where I want to be. So, if it’s my “profession” or “craft” I should aim to be the best I can be at it. And, being clean and not/reducing waste is better than the alternatives. A good barista doesn’t waste because they know exactly what they are trying to achieve and exactly what they need to achieve it. Waste, in this context, would indicate a lack of knowledge.

Second, I gained a lot more respect for reducing waste after learning about the efforts made on the farm. Each tree is carefully cultivated, each cherry is picked individually, the dud ones thrown out. Every two beans in the grinders hopper reflects the moment a coffee picker carefully selected that cherry from a tree. Therefore, for me, if I don’t take the same careful approach to the product I have been given, I feel a little disrespectful. So, if a barista is not showing the same care in reducing wastage, my resolution wouldn’t be to hound them to keep their area clean. Instead, the situation may reflect a lack of understanding and appreciation for the product they’ve been given. So my solution would be to go back to the start: cultivation, processing, roasting; in the hope that the barista may increase their level of understanding and respect for the product.

I know that for me, a better understanding and a higher level of respect for the product i’m working with has encouraged me to get better; if only to do justice to those who have produced it.

Recently in Specialty Coffee circles, they’re has been a bit of talk about “elevating” coffee. The main thoughts being that coffee is widely seen as a cheap caffeine hit and a “good coffee” is simply enjoyable, or a least palatable. Whereas Specialty Coffee is about variety: variety in flavour, in terroir, in lots and micro-lots, in growing conditions, in processing methods. It’s also about transparency; that is, knowing all of the former as well as who grew it and where. Not least, it’s about freshness. It’s understanding that coffee, like any other agricultural product, deteriorates over time and is at its peak when fresh. This understanding leads to a seasonal approach to coffee. No longer buying it in bulk to last out the year, but buying smaller lots throughout the year from wherever has recently harvested.

It seems that with all the improvement in quality and transparency, the hardest thing to do at the moment is to pass this understanding all the way down to the consumer. But “consumer education” doesn’t seem to work in the retail context; either the consumer just wants their cappuccino “without a lecture, thankyou” or the barista has 10 coffees to make and struggles to keep a coherent conversation going about wet-processing. The problem, I feel, is simply in design.

I listened to James Hoffman talk about Customer Service at Tamper Tantrum 2011. He made a comment that has stuck with me, and one that I agree with more and more. (Assuming you are a Specialty Coffee store and things such as syrups and frappucinos aren’t on your menu). He said if a customer walks into your shop and orders a Large Caramel Cappuccino it is your fault because you have not communicated to the customer clearly enough what your business is about. Does your shop look like Starbucks? If people are ordering “tall” or “grande” or asking about frappucinos, you might want to think about that. Good branding means that a customer can look at your shop, your packaging or your website and know, without having to ask even one question, what your business is about and what they should expect. It’s about differentiation too.

Specialty bakeries look different to regular ones, specialty pizza places don’t look like Pizza Hut, and specialty beer bars look different to regular bars. In each of these places, it is clear from entering that these places are different.  At a specialty beer bar, a customer doesn’t ask for (enter brand name here) but instead asks “what’s new” or has a brief conversation about what they like and is offered a suggestion to try.

Take the onus off the customer to work out what’s going on and put it on your business. What is it you want your customer to think? What is it you want them to try? What is it you want them to experience? And then go about designing your shop space to facilitate that experience, without needing words. If you want your customer to be able to choose from a variety of coffees, perhaps instead of having them line up at a bar, which may force people to make quick decisions, such as “uh… um, Caramel Latte?”; sit them down, give them a menu of the coffee, give them water, give them 5 minutes to look through the menu. Also, perhaps do something with your interior that’s different than a nice looking cafe. If you are a Specialty Coffee place, be proud of it. If you know your coffee, fill the menu with it, describe it like a fine-dining restaurant would describe it’s food; be a little romantic. And, if there’s food, maybe finish it with a very small food menu on the end, only a few lines. But all-in-all, have fun with it!

Many thanks must go out to people like Peter Giuliano, James Hoffman and Kyle Glanville for inspiring these thoughts.