Craft, for me, has become a bit of a dirty word. It should be a positive word. It should indicate a degree of skill and care, the mark of a skilled professional in tune with his task. However, it seems to have gained a somewhat widespread use in coffee circles as a defensive argument against the adoption of more scientific control of parameters, whether brewing or roasting. While I accept that certain individuals can achieve good degrees of consistency through acutely tuned combinations of their senses, a greater majority seem to use the craft argument as a convenient opt-out.
Take brewing for example: we have all seen the huge rise in popularity of brew to order filter coffee. It definitely has the “craft” vibe. Done well, it can be excellent, not only in terms of theater, but also in cup quality. However, it requires a huge amount of attention to detail that is not always achieved or even appreciated.
A typical workflow would be – take hot water out of some sort of boiler (outputting at what temperature? – is it consistent?) – into a second receptacle (maybe a Hario Buono Kettle) – preheated or no? – how much does the temp drop by in the kettle (5 degrees? 10 degress?) – how long does it sit out until you brew? What’s the temp at the kettle spout? Is your filter cone ceramic or plastic – how does that affect temperature? – what’s the temp in the bed?
Even assuming the boiler is outputting 100C water (which is unlikely), by the time the heat is sucked out of it in the intervening steps you’d be lucky to be brewing in the 80s. Add to that, dosing water by eye, and inconsistent duration and dispersion of pour, equates, without too much of a jump in logic, to a hugely variable end product. The result of so called craft.
I’m not here to defend the much maligned auto drip brewer, but a good one delivers consistent temperature, consistent water dose and consistent brew time. Do these factors actually matter to us, or do we just pay lip service to them, instead opting for the touchy-feely perception of craft? The Uber Boiler for instance looks to address these, of course, by putting all of these parameters in front of the barista. There isn’t to my knowledge a coffee shop that has yet to adopt one for full time use (ahem – correct me if I’m wrong Mr Stack), but is even the Uber Boiler a step too far from the reductionist aesthetic for some?
I do get the whole perception argument. The visual feast of a supposed expert doing everything by hand, all this meticulous work, culminating in one cup made especially for you appears worlds apart from the unseen machinations inside a Bunn, Marco, Fetco etc. While in some cases it may truly deliver on the promise, more often, I would wager it is to a large extent, just that, a perception.
Take another example, the feeding frenzy on Coffeed after the unveiling of Bunn’s new brewer (the Trifecta). After a couple of middling reports (with little indication as to whether the coffee was brewed correctly – anyone check extraction / dose etc?) the brewer was roundly obliterated. The aesthetics didn’t fit the craft sensibilities and it didn’t produce something stunningly new. Some (not all in fairness) missed the point. The concept does not seem geared towards producing something that tastes different per se, moreso that it would address a couple of problems:
- stale brews from auto-drips after 20mins (so – per cup brewing) and
- the lack of speed and repeatability of per cup brewing.
If the Trifecta can deliver an equatable cup to its auto-drip brewer which takes 4-5mins and is doomed to diminish over time in 1 minute – then surely that is mission accomplished? It may well turn out to be inadequate in some ways, time will tell. The immediate reaction to it, however, speaks volumes about priorities and perception in speciality coffee.
On the roasting side, and here I am on much shakier ground in terms of my knowledge of the area, I have heard similar arguments directed towards the Loring Smart Roaster. Again, it seems to be the introduction of automation that is most irksome to some, supposedly detaching the roaster from the process. I would argue that also seems to miss the point, which is economy, and potentially a cleaner cup profile due to less smoke in the roasting chamber.
Based on the Loring roasted coffees that I have tasted (from Maruyama and James Gourmet), though they have been excellent, I couldn’t conclusively say if the latter holds true without side by side assessment with the same coffee. Nonetheless, is there a perception that ostensible push-button roasting diminishes the role of the roaster? I would say that perhaps it frees up the roaster to refine how that roaster is programmed, and also to rigorously QC the output – achieving consistency? Delivering a better product perhaps but deviating from romantic portrayals of the roaster.
Certainly, whether in roasting, or more likely retail it is nothing revelatory for me to conclude that inordinate consideration is often given to the perception of something rather than the delivery of it. The entire field of marketing is built on that idea. I would like to think that these considerations could be made after having determined how to deliver the best cup. Then again I am a naive fool. Of course, a change in these priorities probably rests on the ability of the consumer to discern past the aesthetics. I am sorry to say to my fellow consumers, in this I have little faith.