thoughts

Consistency Vs Craft

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.

Woodworker_s_Hands

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:

  1. stale brews from auto-drips after 20mins (so – per cup brewing) and
  2. 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.

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14 thoughts on “Consistency Vs Craft

  1. The first installation of an Uber Boiler in a cafe situation is in Olympia Coffee Roasting Company. Pics on this link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46901452@N05/4344564002/
    How successful is it? To be honest, I await real feedback, because the original feedback, though very positive, was regarding initial perceptions and not operational realities.
    Two more have gone to Coffee Mania in Moscow, but are yet to be installed. All other sales have been for cupping labs.
    Re. the post. (and congratulations on another good one) I am consistently amazed at how biased the speciality coffee world is toward ‘art and alchemy’ eschewing the steadier ground of science and extraction.

  2. Well balanced post. I’m in agreement with some opinions, opposed to other parts of your argument. I would consider myself an old school roaster, no program roasting, just time, temperature, colour, smoke and sound. The noise, smoke and “hands on” method is why I fell in love with roasting and I’m unwilling to give it up. I don’t think I want to be involved with coffee if I think my gut plays no part. I appreciate the scientific rigour and benefits, I just don’t think it’s for me. For the same reason, I sincerely doubt that I would ever prefer a scientifically sound espresso extracted from a super-automatic over what may even be characterized as the “hit and miss” of a hand pulled shot. I do agree that too many espresso bars rely on possession of cutting edge equipment over mastery of the same. Nothing is more disappointing than observing a poorly trained barista hovering over a beautiful piece of machinery delivering the inevitable disappointment. The machine does not make the drink. Sort of like an old dude driving an expensive sports car, the only qualification is a fat wallet…no driving skill required!

  3. Dale says:

    on the Trifecta…

    chatting to some of the guy’s from Bunn over Hotelympia we discussed the ideas behind the T, with the design goal being producing single cup brewed coffee, with a little theatre, minus the ‘flaws’ they felt were present in the clover, cleanliness, repeatability of agitation and one more factor my memory is failing me on.

    When one arrives in the UK office I’m popping in with Gwilym and John Gordon to have a play and stick some brews into mojos – I’ll let you know if we find out anything interesting!!!

    As to craft- most ‘artisan’ workers I’ve met are slavishly devoted to their rulers, protractors and mathematics – craft is knowledge based not feeling based???

  4. I reply to Dales post I feel I have some experience which may illustrate my point of view. In addition to founding a roasting company 12 years ago and two espresso bars since, I hold a Stone Masons Certificate earned through a dozen years of practice of that craft. The shop drawings and architectural drawings were always prepared by the “rulers, protractors and math” guys, engineers and architects. The craftsmen interpreted those drawings and cut the stone. When putting a chisel to stone, the sound which the stone makes speaks to the cutter and he adjusts his approach accordingly. I have never met an engineer who would consider himself a craftsman, nor a craftsman who would consider himself an engineer. I may be deluding myself, but I believe that there most certainly a place for feeling and gut in roasting and espresso extraction, along with a tonne of knowledge.

    • Dale says:

      Sorry – your point makes perfect sense – think I was referring to crafts done by one person rather than a team – from my experience instrument making- that involve a blend of both engineering and artistic skills, working in synergy to create the end product

  5. fwiw, I’d love to be able to buy a Loring. I work with an Ambex 30 with ProfilePlus software and a Toper 10 with a gas valve as the only control. There’s no question here that being able to visually follow a profile on a computer screen makes roasting a billion times more repeatable. If I can get something that provides even more feedback, I’m all for it.

    As the other points, I’ll suggest there are those of us (myself among them) who will use “craft” as a defense because we’ve made our investments in equipment several years ago and they’re not all the newest toys. It’s a heckuva lot easier for someone starting from scratch to buy shiny stuff with gauges than for an established operation to junk it’s (still productive) capital equipment for more expensive stuff using only existing cash flow for those purchases.

    Others may disagree. But that’s up there with the reasons we’re not running a Slayer and a 4 siphon bar with halogens (location/demand being #1 and #2). That time will come. But for now “craft” will have to do!

  6. michael Phillips says:

    My grasp of proper definitions for words is slight at best but I didn’t realize that the term craft meant eschewing technology. In our shops we have an interesting perspective on at least the retail part of your argument. Our silver lake store was the first of ours to begin brewing by the cup with clovers. We loved the control it gave us over brewing parameters and the cups that came out of it. So much so that we eventually changed over two more of our shops in Chicago to brewing every cup to order on clovers. The theater around the technology to an extent became a problem of its own. People were so fascinated with it that they were not coming in for a cup of Finca Matalapa from El Salvador, they were coming in for a cup of clover coffee. We have recently changed over one of our Chicago locations that was using clover to pourover V60s. I assure you this was not done to increase the theater of it all. One reason for the change is that high technology has high maintenance. When was the last time you had to call a tech out for your pour over kettle breaking down? The other more important reason is that one of the things we are doing with coffee is trying to make it approachable yes? While we love people coming to our shops for drinks we love even more when that learn that they can make amazing coffee at home. High tech or even low tech brewers that deal with mass production do nothing for this cause. It keeps the whole process a mystery that is unattainable. We prove to people everyday that with a few low cost tools and great beans they can make an excellent cup of coffee. The clovers (the trifecta as well) will never do that. I think you also may be a bit off base in insinuating that pourovers are so inconsistent in the hands of a properly trained barista. Those that have a fetish for that other techno wonder the extract mojo would be far more satisfied with what they get out of V60s compared to clovers. Add on to that how burned the industry felt when we all embraced the last wonder and I think its understandable that something fresh on the market needs to prove itself before it attracts hordes of adoring followers. Perhaps I’m being Naïve but I think more so now than ever a critical mass of people are interested in making a better cup. Granted we are not all taking the same road and some are certainly more successful than others, but I will at least give credit for good intentions.

    • Michael – of course craft shouldn’t suggest eschewing technology, but it is used (in coffee) in a way that implies something done by hand, using your own senses, as opposed to a series of measurements or something done with some automation.

      I take your point about a homebrew class and brew rolled into one, but I’m sure you have some methods to maintain temp in your pourovers?

      Or does it matter (in your opinion)?

    • AndyS says:

      David:
      As you know, there is, and always will be, a tension between automation and manual control. Automation should allow the barista to concentrate on just those few parameters that he or she would like to concentrate on, while entrusting the machine to accurately manage everything else. This is a huge advantage.
      But I think most folks realize that automation encourages a powerful and insidious tendency to lull us into complacency: “The machine is doing its job, so I can relax.” To the extent that automation dulls our perception, it hinders us as craftspeople.

      Michael:
      You make an excellent point about using a cafe’s standard prep method as an educational tool for spurring quality home brewing. Ditto re: the frustrating breakdowns that come along with the high-tech approach.
      But I think you exaggerate the consistency with which most baristas can brew using manual single-serve methods. When a cafe gets really busy, the single-serve coffee often suffers the most.

      Oh yes, and here we learn that it takes 30 years to perfect one’s technique for pourover with cloth filter. 🙂

  7. jason says:

    I prefer to brew coffee in a pour over cone because it’s easier to control the brewing parameters. Like pre-heating, dose, water applied, extraction yield, volume, and pressure profile (!!) – all those things that are extremely difficult to measure in espresso. That’s the craft right there: carefully measured and repeatable cups.

  8. FYI, the Loring Smart Roast Kestrel S35 has no more automation than is available on pretty much any other roaster, namely PLC (programmable logic controller) roaster controls.

    Similar to its cousin, the Sirocco SR35, the unique features of the Kestrel are that it’s a convection (air roasting) system in a drum configuration, and the cyclone/oxidizer that increases energy efficiency.

    I have a similar topic’ed blog post brewing in my head for portafilter.net. Glad to see these sorts of ideas out there! Thanks!

  9. Chris C says:

    Great post David, thanks. I too find myself lining up on the side of ensuring I can make the best cup, and using whatever tech is available to do that, regardless of whether it diminishes the ‘craft’/’artistry’/hands-on nature of what I’m doing. When I work as a barista, I don’t ever really think of myself as an artist or craftsman (well, maybe when pouring latte art, and that only on a good day ;-). I see my job as bringing to bear the knowledge I’ve acquired of how coffee brews (and milk steams, etc.), using techniques and skills that I have practiced and honed over time, and then using feedback from my palate (which I have worked to develop as best I can) to help me evaluate the job I did, so as to make any improvements possible the next time. To me, this is basically a technician’s job, albeit a fun one that allows me to interact with people, to provide them a sensory experience that they hopefully enjoy, and to taste a lot of great (or at least interesting) things myself. (One area where I see art/craft sneaking in would be inventing a sig drink, but that’s not a regular occurrence for me.)

    I’m somewhat ambivalent to the movement towards per-cup brewing. Firstly because I’ve tasted some very enjoyable Fetco brews in my time, but also because, though I love working with syphons, presses, and other filter brewing methods, many of these methods can lead to less-than-methodical processes that result in substandard brews — and in particular lack of consistency between brews. Take the recent craze for Hario V60 pour-overs, for example. While it may be possible for one very dedicated barista to brew V60 pourovers repeatedly and consistently at an easy pace, what happens during a rush? And what happens when you have a staff of 3 or 6 or 10 baristas? Will your customer be happy with each cup they get, or will they start coming in only when it’s slower, or only when they see certain staff on bar? To me, an abid, which when used with a paper filter produces the exact same taste profile as a pour-over, with less drama but far more consistency, is the clear winner for me in a commercial setting.

    I think many people fear the removal of craft or the introduction of automation because they feel that while it may increase consistency and bring up the floor in terms of quality, they believe it will bring down the ceiling, limiting the taste in the cup. I don’t believe this is the case. A truly dedicated and skilled barista will apply his energies to exactly this area, making sure that they are getting the most out of any brewing method, including modifying the brewing method if necessary, or discarding it and moving on if they determine that it cannot provide the best results. And I believe that the introduction of technology that helps to control parameters (like the programmable bubbling that allows for consistently repeatable agitation in the Trifecta, for instance) or provide more accurate feedback (like the Extract Mojo) only helps this barista to have more control over this process, targetting improvements faster, and thus producing excellent results faster — and more consistently. For those who fear that automation of this kind will lead to complacency, I would say that a barista that is prone to complacency is going to brew a terrible V60 anyway — just think of all the little steps and attention to detail along the way required to do that correctly.

    And finally, regarding the customer’s ability (or lack thereof) to discern past the aesthetics to the quality in the cup (which brings to mind James’ post here: http://bit.ly/dvrLet), I would have to agree that currently I think most customers are more likely to be wowed by good latte art than they are by the espresso in that latte being brewed to 20% extraction. But I think that all of us have to believe that given enough opportunity to taste superior coffee, palates will become educated, and quality will step to the fore — because we have experienced that transformation ourselves. In my lifetime I can also look to the evolution of the beer industry as proof. When I first started drinking 25 years ago, everyone I knew thought that macro-brewed lager was very good beer. Now almost no one I know does, despite how much money those companies spend on their commercials, packaging and marketing.

  10. First: I love science I read any piece of information I can get my hands on. The problem with science is that people tend to rely on readout too much sometimes. It is like the discussion about pressure, grind, shot volume and the like. The default parameters are a tool to help you get going. If you understand how things interact (and this is a combination of science and “art” for those parts, nobody can tell you anything about) you should go freestyle. Go produce a shot with less volume and a hihger dose if it produces the result you are looking for. Since perception is a major part of this and each human perceives differently (technically, not in means of learned taste prefernces, which also comes into play) it’s hard to tell what is right and what is wrong.

    Long speech short: science is a tool and a friend, helping to improve things. Science is not the final answer to things. If you are curious about what you do, science is one aspect to consider besides many others.

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