thoughts

batch brewing

Disclaimer: Though this pertains to a product category manufactured by my employer, Marco, I am not writing it on their behalf. The opinions here are my own.

I am just back from Copenhagen after 4 interesting days spent at the Nordic Barista Cup. It was in fact my first Nordic Barista Cup, having only watched previous iterations from afar, sort of enviously. I applaud a well organised and run event that succeeded in being truly worthwhile (and thought provoking).

There were a few interesting trends among some of the speakers, particularly those from a pure coffee background (as opposed to some of the academics or people from other industries presenting). From my vantage point at least there was a certain sense of dissatisfaction at various aspects of where the industry currently finds itself. From James Hoffmann’s critique of espresso technology (and its scattered, tangled road to the current state of espresso) to Tim Wendelboe’s damning assessment of Nordic coffee culture, and Kyle Glanville’s experiences from Intelligentsia’s own evolution, there was a biting tone to much of the commentary.

…especially on the retail side coffee is so broken… [Kyle Glanville]

The dissatisfaction extends across various aspects of our current landscape, notably including technical beverage preparation and efforts in changing customer expectations. The latter of course translates into presenting the coffee in such a way to accentuate to the customer that it is not a normal, average coffee. To paraphrase Kyle, it is not dressing an amazing coffee in the same clothes as the run of the mill commercial stuff down the street.  Part of this has to do with the environment, how your retail space is laid out, how you present or don’t present information, but it extends all the way to how you brew the coffee. If you want to highlight how different you are from Starbucks, you want to create an expectation in your customer that, whoa this is different, then you hardly want to brew your coffee using the same technology they’ve been brewing for the last few decades – ie batch brew.

Hence, single cup, to order methods for the production of delicious handmade coffees. This, however, is where the two sources of dissatisfaction are pulling away from each other. On the technical side of the dissatisfaction argument we want to make brewing easier, consistent (this was the major point of James’ presentation – though in relation to espresso – I think the same principles should apply in brewed coffee).

There was much acknowledgement that we who view ourselves as “good at making coffee” value this as a character trait, and that making it easier would in some ways be a threat to our various egos. This is probably true. To paraphrase another coffee thinker, Colin Harmon – it’s not (or shouldn’t be) about the barista. So we want to make things easier so we can all make good coffee all of the time, potentially at the push of a button. There was much nodding in agreement from all quarters following James’ argument.

This to my ear potentially sounds like a bean to cup machine that actually delivers. It loses points on romance, but I would argue after every disappointing cup of coffee I’ve had somewhere any romance gained from the process of brewing was quickly lost. So perhaps we could all learn to love this new push button machine.

In batch brewing we have a method that can produce consistent, excellent coffee that some sort of mid-tier mammal could be trained to operate. Whether it is Bunn, Fetco, Marco or others they all can offer machines that will deliver water at a defined temperature, over a defined time, to a basket that often has a more even geometry than a single cup, time and time again.

I some what stumbled and mumbled through a defence of the technology,(in the Q&A)  after Kyle said that everybody should be moving to exclusively brewing by the cup, because (a) it does not resonate with people, and (b) does not taste as good (as a very well made by the cup coffee).

My experience differed so dramatically from his conclusion (at least on the latter), that I made a hamfisted attempt at explaining my reasoning.

Here’s the hopefully less hamfisted version.

I don’t drink batch brewed coffee on a daily basis, not because the quality is lesser, but because brewing 3 to 6L of coffee at a time is rarely needed. So I brew by the cup. Then there are times when we spend a lot of time using the batch brewers. I don’t want to fundamentally come out and say that one approach is always better than the other, but I’ve had coffees that have absolutely sung from both sides. However, I know that if I dial in a coffee on a batch brewer I can in one sentence communicate those to a colleague and expect with 95%+ confidence that the next brew will be identical to the last.

The same (being kind) is not always true of single cup brewing. It is not impossible to do a pretty good job of it, and I certainly think equipment manufacturers could work to make it easier to do so, but as of now it can be challenging.

I feel in dismissing batch brew we are too hastily giving up on readily available consistency and quality.

Expressed in the simplest terms all we are doing is mixing water and ground coffee. The water that comes out of a batch brewer is no different from that coming out of a Hario Buono Kettle… or an Uber Boiler. They (the coffee and water) spend some time in contact with each other in the basket before passing through the filter into some kind of receiving vessel.

The process is the same.

I believe both can be used to achieve an excellent brew. If they taste different it is most likely the result of a variable that is generally in the control of the user. Arguably the batch brewer is blessed with a bed geometry and ability to more evenly distribute the brew water that promotes more even extraction.

I would like to believe it is the quality of the beverage in the cup that is ultimately what the customer will value. This may well be extremely naïve on my part. Kyle is a pretty smart guy, so I can accept that for Intelligentsia at the least this approach has shown great value. Here in Ireland I would be pretty sure if I go into 3FE tomorrow and get a Chemex it is going to be pretty good. Is it right for everyone though? Should everyone be moving to brewing exclusively by the cup?

Starbucks is also made up of a lot of pretty smart guys. We often treat them with contempt, deride their model. Certainly their coffee in no way resembles “our coffee”. Does that mean that we need to reject every aspect of their model? Throw the baby out with the bath-water? Their coffee doesn’t taste bad because they use Bunn batch brewers. Their coffee tastes bad primarily because they roast the bejesus out of it. It reminds me of this:

Until there is a solution that enables more easily achievable by the cup single cup brewing, telling everyone that they should rip out their batch brewers and fill the bar with V60s will do more damage to speciality coffee than good. An inconsistent, poorly made coffee will very quickly diminish any expectations you may have engendered in your customers, and serve only to reinforce the notion that coffee is coffee. Nothing to see here.

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15 thoughts on “batch brewing

  1. Colin Harmon says:

    This week we install a filtro shuttle at 3FE for 3 reasons; Its fast, makes economic sense and it tastes great (the best cup I’ve had this year has been from a batch brewer)

    Im unsure what the specialty community will think but I’m happy to put the emphasis on service and taste.

  2. Wholeheartedly agree, and I think you’ll see a lot of people agree with you as well.

    I can say, however, that from a quality standpoint, the push towards single cup brewing is that the onus is on the barista to pay close attention to all steps of the process, and to keep the coffee freshly brewed.

    Batch brewing breaks down when little attention is paid to the process, the barista doesn’t understand the whole process, and the coffee sits for too long. In Sweden, the better cups of coffee I had were from small batch brew systems, and one of the arguments for that was that labor was expensive, too expensive to train and have people brew by the cup exclusively or at all.

    I also recently did a training where the Fetco 2042 I dialed in had a really high consistency and quality of brew as the the pour over brews I was training people on. However, I can almost guarantee that after about 20-25 minutes, that Fetco brew is going to start turning pretty rapidly. The trick, then, is to highlight the qualities of both — the process of coffee brewing and the push to consistently brew freshly via single cup pour-over, and the overall consistency and quality of the batch brew.

    Too often I feel that one or the other is ignored, but an understanding of both is integral to the overall understanding about how coffee is brewed.

    -Jesse

  3. Pat Russell says:

    Consistency is critical for chains like the one I work for, and delivering consistency is, frankly, only remotely possible with a small volume batch brewing delivery system.

    Given the rate of turn-over of cafe staff, the volumes of filter coffee our cafes go through daily, and the speed of service required by the average North American consumer, by-the-cup brewing is just not in the cards as our standard brewing method.

    Agreed with some of the sentiments above, in that a good brewing system, with the right types of user-adjusted controls and programming, should deliver a repeatable result that translates much more readily than training single cup techniques and recipes to individual baristas, cafe-by-cafe, to deliver a consistent result accross a chain.

    I also agree with Jesse that the control points necessary to manage consistency in small volume batch brewing are simple and easy; and would suggest that when ignored result in muddy and uninspired cups (at best). Fortunately, training someone on basics of weigh, grind, brew, rinse, clean, sanitize are pretty simple, and I would argue easier to teach than how to dial in on most by-the-cup brewing systems.

    When I have the time, when the barista is inspired & skilled, and the coffee is delicious I love by-the-cup brewing. When I’m driving through, and want a delicious cup of coffee, with a flavour I can count on… I go to a place that doesn’t burn the s&$% out of their coffee and does small volume batch brewing.

    I’m also equally likely to whinge/whine and complain about coffee I don’t like regardless of brewing technique.

    Pat

  4. Geoffrey Glees says:

    As a consumer and amateur brew geek, I’m in two minds about this. I really enjoy filter coffee from Taylor St. I don’t know how they brew it, but it comes from one of those big thermos-type dispensers (can’t remember the proper name) and it’s usually pretty damn good. I also like the speed at which it arrives, and the fact that it is perfectly extracted and just the right temperature. Around the corner, on Brick Lane, Rough Trade use v60s to do one cup pourover brews, to bad effect. They use an espresso-type grind, and the coffee is not stored correctly and sometimes overroasted. The baristas never seem to understand pour methods and they don’t seem to make any attempt to judge ratios either. On the flipside, I remember my true coffee awakening was years ago when I first went to Monmouth in Borough Market. Seeing the filter “production line” bar was really exciting, the coffee was good, and I noticed on repeat visits that the pourover brews were just as popular as the lattes. So I think as long as there is consistency and education amongst the baristas, this system is very appealing to the customer (it’s interesting to watch, and it’s nice to feel what you’re drinking has been made just for you) but at the end of the day good coffee is good coffee, and my dream is to one day be able to get a good cup of coffee no more than 10 minutes walk from a given spot in any city. So however we need to get there I guess.

  5. Sé Gorman says:

    Hi Dave,
    completely agree with you analysis and have found the most effective way of delivering consistency (well or badly) is by using a batch brewing system effectively operated by an “mid tier mammal”.
    2 things i believe would help. 1 Batch grinders could be modified to only dispense weighed doses, rather than currently timed grinding and 2 extraction times could be more controllable.
    However more importantly would be a a shift in marketing emphasis to make the choice of batch brewed coffees more attractive to the customer and an industry wide effort to enhance their image.

  6. There’s really a relatively simple solution to all of this. If there are any brewing equipment manufacturers who are interested on embarking on such a project, I’m ready, willing, and able. 😦

  7. Dale says:

    My biggest problem with by the cup brewing is exactly the same thing that most people seem to feel is the selling point- the theatre of brewing a cup

    I don’t want anyone to think that the coffee I served them was tasty BECAUSE of the equipment, or the clever way I used it- I want people to think the coffee tastes good because it’s good coffee

    Bulk brew offers a way to remove distraction and brew many cups of deliciousness, described and labelled by the menu or barista not as a V60 of or a Syphon brewed—– but as coffee from this place, these people that tastes like this

  8. Jeff verellen says:

    1 good barista that knows the coffee and device can make a big batch for more people to enjoy. If you can, as in a good restaurant, have a good raw beanflow, 1-1/2h resting time max, than why not. You can save costs and maybe invest in greens. Also defects are smoothed out.

  9. Lalo says:

    Although I agree with much that is said in this post and the comments produced from it, I feel like there is a lot of blame going towards the equipment (or single cup brewers). The reason batch brewing is more consistent is because we are removing human interaction from the process. I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that the solution isn’t to simply rely on batch brewing because of its consistency or fix single cup brewers. Why not instead do we focusing more attention on the education of people interacting with the process? Ultimately, I think it would be a much better investment (time and money). Not only would it have better effects on single cup coffee brewing but it would also hugely increase the amount of knowledgable people able to transmit what we are trying to accomplish as industry.

    In summary: My intention is not to discourage batch brewing or the improvement of single cup brewing equipment, but I just don’t think that the problem lies in the technology.

  10. Rob Smyth says:

    Completely agree with you Dave, the consistency & cup quality from a correctly dialed in batch brewer is hard to match when compared to single cup pour-over. There are simply too many variables to manage when brewing single cup pour-overs to expect a barista to ensure they are kept consistent for every brew. This is only exacerbated when the bar is busy or when different baristas are brewing the coffee.

    My own dilemma in this area is that batch brewers have an unfortunate stigma attached to them. For most consumers they have come to represent the rancid, stewed hotel style coffee that’s been served to them in these brewers for several decades. Whilst we in the speciality coffee community know what we’re serving in these batch brewers is certainly not this coffee, until we can entice the customer to taste our coffee, it’s hard to convince them otherwise. What single cup pour-over offers is something visibly different, that gets customer’s attentions, giving the impression that something different is going on here and extra care and attention is going into their cup. We know that this may not necessarily be true, but visibly that impression is being made. Asides a slow patent process of rebuilding that trust in batch brewers, can we present batch brewers in such a way that they look more visibly attractive to the customer and break the hold this stigma has?  

    Batch brewers do however only offer one particular filter style cup profile, with the only optiosn really being to adjust dose/grind. Whereas pour-overs are just one of many single cup brewing methods available that are all capable of producing quite different cup profiles. In this regard I’d say batch brewers and single cup brewing should not be mutually exclusive of each other but should/could co-exist. The batch brewers are there to offer people that ready-to-go cup of great coffee and the other single cup methods on the brew bar are for those that have the time to wait, thus maintaining that element of theatre and offering extra dimensions to the cup profile that batch brewers cannot.

  11. Devin guy says:

    All things considered, batch brewing offers consistancy yes. Sometimes that consistancy is good, sometimes it is bad. I also think that freshness, roast level/quality, bean origin, grind setting along with many other indirect variables (air temp, barometrick pressure, time of day, humidity etc etc…) all play major parts in ANY method of coffee extraction. Today at work I offered a free pour over to a customer that was simply acustomed to getting a cup of “No thanks, just a regular cup of coffee please…” batch brewed coffee. I did a side by side taste test using the same bean for the pour over as was brewed in the batch brewer. Simply the aroma, on its own, of the pour over when sniffed along side the batch brewed coffee notably awakened the senses of the customer. The taste knocked it out of the park.
    Here are my arguments in regards to Batch vs…
    I do believe that with properly trained baristas and roasters who take pride in their product, cup by cup brewing does in fact produce a higher quality “cuppa”.
    The evolution of the coffee industry is no different than that of any other fine culinary production. You have Good wine, great wine or wines that do the “trick”. You have good food, great food or food that fills your gut. Good beer, great beer or beer that, well, sucks frankly. Would it make sence for a 5 star resaurant to hire a line cook from McDonalds ? Would it make sence that a manufacturer of really great beer would hire just anyone to push a button and watch the beer come out…? Point being, why would any progressive coffee shop hire just any one to push a button and watch coffee come out. Hotels, 7-11, the local tire shop that has complimentary coffee in the lobby…okay fine batch brew the hell out of it. Train you baristas ! Hire those who are passionate. Involve the customer, teach them, inform them and offer them the highest quality product you can.
    Coffee shops, from my perspective are places for people to congrigate. To sit, hear, taste, socialize, meet, inspire, be inspired. They are not meant to be grab and go. This my my biggest beef with the batch brew. Take time, sit, relax, enjoy your coffee, listen ot the music, put down your phone, talk with people around you, experience GOOOD coffee. It’s amazing what happens when a person is convinced to reeeeally taste what good coffee is. You can see the difference in a persons eyes ! Batch brew has, is, does promote impatience, a hurried pace, intolerence, bland-ness. I want it and I want it now ! “No thanks. Just a regular cup…” ! ! ! ? ? ?
    Batch brew has its place no doubt. I hope it stays in its place.
    I could go on but that was longer than I had planned…

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