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.