Monday, January 29, 2018

Craft-Brewed Coffee: the truth is in the cup

If you decide to make craft-brewed coffee in your coffee shop, there are three important things to keep in mind and one simple way to illustrate all of these principles.

Respect the Process – Understanding that every step matters.

Respect the Ingredients – “Handling with care” those individual elements that make your final product.

Respect your Customer – Knowing you were chosen for your (professed or realized) expertise, and honoring that mutual understanding by combining process and ingredients to create an exceptional experience.

Learning your craft takes time.

You learn the fundamentals by watching your superiors. Over time, you understand the proper use and meaning of those fundamentals until you master them. Finally, you make the fundamentals your own and you begin your journey as a craftsman, and after years of executing at a high-level with the proper mindset, you will become a master of your craft.

As your skill in your craft increases, you will attract a more discerning customer. You should always treat the customer with the intelligence they deserve for seeking you out. The customer wants your coffee. The customer expects you to have confidence and knowledge and to display both in the execution of your craft. The customer is coming for a remarkable experience that will change their perceptions of coffee. Prove it in the cup.

And the cup – well it's highly important. It is one of the ways to clearly communicate to your customer those core principles of craft. As I mentioned to a friend of mine when talking about craft-brewed coffees by hand – coffee goes in the cup it deserves. When you are brewing any coffee using a “craft brewed” method, if you serve it in a paper cup (to go) then what does that communicate to your customer about your coffee? If you serve it in ceramic what does that communicate to your customer about your coffee? And if you serve it in a cup specifically chosen for that coffee based on flavor, aromatics, and beauty, then what does that communicate to your customer about your coffee?

The cup(s) you serve your craft-brewed coffee in says everything about what you believe as a business. Your actions will show what your core principles are. When you try to build your credibility by talking about the coffee's origins, explaining your roasting profiles, giving precise scientific explanations of your methods, or talking with passion and conviction -  whatever it is – every word of it is a complete lie if you serve your craft-brewed coffee “to go.” And you know it.

If you take five minutes to create a meticulously hand-brewed coffee for your customer and then you hand them a paper cup, what are you saying to your customer? 

You are saying, “Hey, here's your cup of coffee. Bye bye.”

If you offer coffee by the cup using a hand-brewed method, then you are making a statement about craft and quality. Think of it as a conversation. The first part of the conversation the customer “hears” is a hand-brewed coffee, and then the second part of the conversation is the coffee in a paper cup. This is not clear communication. The paper cup is the last thing you communicated to your customer, it is the statement you are making about your coffee. It communicates something completely different than what your brewing method implies. You are now saying “Here. This is the cup our coffee deserves to be in.”

Now if you do your craft-brewed coffee method and you serve your coffee in ceramic or china – what does that communicate to your customer? It says, “You are important and we want you to hang out with us. After all, Queen's china! You are special. This coffee is special – that's why it is in the fancy cup.”

The entire process matters. So quality of coffee, the skill of the roaster, your skill with that particular brewing method, and the last step is how you present your coffee to the customer. The cup is an important and often overlooked part of the conversation you are having with your customer. By serving your craft-brewed coffee in a proper cup you are showing respect for the process, respect for the ingredients, and respect for your customer. The truth is in the cup.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Make Something Beautiful

As each year passes, the accessibility of information increases while at the same time there is an equal increase in bad information. Much of this bad information comes from a lack of expertise and skill with a healthy dose of sloppiness. An audience of watchers and viewers comprised of people with even less expertise makes them perfect for advancing bad information. There is an overabundance of poor technique and flat out wrong information permeating throughout the coffee industry. There is no beauty in bad information. Bad information leads to an ugly tasting cup of coffee.

Siphon coffee brewing is near and dear to me. I'm pretty good at it - not that articles, awards, and acknowledgement from peers means anything, but... it does. There's not a lot of siphon brewing going on out there compared to other forms of coffee brewing, and most of it is being done wrong. A video from the World Siphon Brewing Championships was sent to me and it was disturbingly bad. It was no surprise when the person who sent it was told "the coffee is terrible". I have also seen countless badly executed cups from a certain company's "Reserve Bar," and it's the perpetuation of bad information and poorly executed coffees that continues... and that is bad.

Here are some screenshots from a recent video of a "professional demonstration". I did my best to conceal the identity of the subject, but it is what it is.

The first thing that clearly illustrates this barista's lack of expertise is something that I can't show because it didn't happen. Fresh grinding. I have no idea when the coffee was ground, but it certainly was not ground immediately before brewing as there was a lot of lead time and no coffee grinding. Any time before the video started would have been too long. This shows a lack of care in one of the most essential steps for any coffee brewing and even more important for a demonstration of craft-brewed coffee. Unprofessional.

This first picture below shows the water ascended into the top flask of the siphon. This is a clear indication of lack of understanding of the most basic coffee brewing principles. The next picture will show why.

The horror! The horror! If you are a coffee professional and are not cringing at this, maybe you should rethink your profession.

Here's the issue: Think about every other coffee brewing technique you know. The water meets the coffee. The coffee does not meet water. Pour over/Drip - coffee grounds in a cone, water poured over coffee grounds. French Press - coffee grounds go into the press pot and water is poured in. And the principle holds true for espresso - coffee grounds go in the portafilter and the water comes down to meet them. This is a basic nuts and bolts explanation: The importance of pre-wetting and even, controlled saturation allow for the water to penetrate and work its way past the surface of the cellular walls and bring out the oils out from within the tiny cellular structure of the coffee.Having all the grounds hit the water at once do not allow for any gradual or even pre-wetting and the immediate exposure to the full temperature of the water causes only the oils from the outermost cells to "pulse" out while essentially sealing the other flavorful oils within the deeper cellular structure. So in a nutshell, If you don't have proper order of technique, ... "water meets coffee," then because of what happens to the oil and because of what doesn't happen to the oil you create both off flavors and an incompleteness of flavors... not so much in intensity, but very much so in terms of nuance and dynamics.

In this next picture there are two problems that I notice one of which goes back to the beginning. And if you start with bad technique then you are likely to finish with bad technique.

The first problem: Look at the top of the siphon, at the haphazard mess of grounds there. No even dome. No real dome at all. So no stirring immediately after brewing which compromises the extraction that occurs during the draw down.

The second problem: look at how much coffee was brewed in the siphon. Just because you can put that much liquid in does not mean you should. In order to maximize the flavor extraction in a siphon brewed coffee, it's about understanding how each element contributes to the cup and then balancing all of those elements together to get the proper result. Due to the correlation of particle size, extraction rate, and draw down time, the ideal water level for a "3 cup" siphon is about the middle of the bulb which is approximately the "2 cup" mark.

It takes time to develop expertise. Those who have some level of expertise never seem to be satisfied with the status quo -- which is why they were able to achieve a notable level of skill in the first place. Whatever your craft or discipline happens to be, don't be blinded by fancy words, strong personalities or great branding. It's a combination of laziness and not caring that leads to the dissemination and acceptance of bad information. Take the time to use your mind to assess, to understand, and to know the difference between good and faulty information.

For a correct demonstration of siphon coffee brewing watch my appearance on FOX 13 from Memorial Day 2017.


Whether it's brewing coffee or life in general, don't be sloppy when you can make something beautiful.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Understand the Process

Process is important. “Understand the process,” I say. But what does that entail? Is “process” simply a set of steps you follow to accomplish a task correctly – In this case brewing coffee?


So, we're done then?

No, we're not. Because as straightforward as it should be, to everyone's dismay (not really) there are few professionals who get it right. What are they not doing right and WHY are they not doing it right?

Let's start with: What is the process?

In a nutshell: Start with properly roasted, quality, fresh, (whole) coffee beans. Understand correct dosing (coffee:water ratio) and particle size. Use correct dosing for chosen brewing method. Grind fresh with a good, adjustable burr grinder. Use water within (generally) specific TDS parameters. And brew! Then taste and adjust until it's just right. All of these steps are taken in order to produce a specific result – excellent coffee.

Now let's work through these “simple” things and see where the problems are.

Quality coffee – Now there are cupping scores and tasting notes in respect to the green coffee. So, as a coffee roaster it's simple to get your hands on quality beans. And I would suppose that most coffee shops who are making a claim of craft, artisanal, or “Third Wave” coffee are, in fact, sourcing quality green.

Properly roasted – Here is where we need to take a closer look. Because as I have often said, the higher the quality of your green, the more complexity within that specific lot, the more skill it takes to roast it.

So, what does “highly skilled” as a roaster mean? Is it about experience and dedication? Is it about talent?

I think if I had to list these factors it would be: talent, dedication, and experience. And when I talk about dedication, I think you can use the word “dedication” as a more serious sounding replacement for the word “passion”. You can't be dedicated to a thing without loving or enjoying that thing. And the dedication isn't simply to the craft. It's a dedication to the result of the craft, which is excellent coffee. With dedication and experience, you can always be above average to really, really good. But in my experience, without some inherent skill, aptitude or talent for the craft, you will never be exceptional.

So the first weakening of the process is with the roasting? What is the talent level of your roaster? How many hours of work have they put in? How many varietals from how many regions have they roasted? And how many years have they been doing it? Whether YOU are the roaster or your shop does the roasting, or you bring in your beans from somewhere – in which case you have to ask all these questions about their roaster – the likelihood is perhaps your coffee program isn't on as solid a ground as you were led to believe or that you are leading others to believe.

Now, I could really stop there, because the roasting of the coffee is probably the most important step in the coffee making process.

But let's assume the roasting is spot on.

Correct dosing is a known thing, so there's really no excuse for getting that wrong Look up “Gold Cup” standards or SCA brewing standards. Coffee science doesn't change.

Grind size is a generally known thing that you specifically tune to your coffee and your taste.

The same can be said for water chemistry.

Brewing technique? That takes a bit of skill. It takes some practice. And of course the goal again... excellent coffee.

So the reasons for not executing excellent coffee?

Either you don't know how. Or you don't care to know how. Often it's both.

If you care about the prestige of sourcing excellent coffees, but don't take the time to make sure you have a highly experienced roaster who can create sweetness and dynamic complexity and balance and mouthfeel in your coffee – then what?

Well, what happens is if the fundamentals of your coffee program are not rock solid, the smaller details, like brewing parameters or water chemistry are going to be an afterthought as well.

Or do you try to unknowingly take short cuts? You have a refractometer of some sort, you measure TDS to perfection... you dial in temperatures precisely, and what you do is end up chasing numbers instead of following flavor.

Great coffee, excellent coffee, exceptional coffee is not the result of following a set of numbers.
Exceptional coffee is the result of understanding the process with the end goal of a delicious cup of coffee. This means fundamentals of brewing and this means following the flavor.

It's really simple. Everyone should be able to do it.

You should be able to do it. So why aren't you?