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?

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

John talks coffee #4 - Tasting - Understand Why

The reason you taste and adjust, is not simply to make it better. It's to understand why the new version tastes different than the old version. Don't just ask why, know why!

Monday, June 05, 2017

John talks coffee #3 - Knowledge of Craft

Understand the coffees that you are using, understand how they work at various roast levels and different profiles. The more you understand how the depth and breadth of your coffee, the more you will understand - and create a great espresso.

Friday, April 28, 2017


When I first started to explore the world of Specialty Coffee in the early 2000's, and we started visiting the places everyone considered to be the best roasters, coffee shops, and purveyors of espresso, I was delighted, and fascinated. And through it all, I had one mindset.

Whatever they were doing, whatever level of sublime tastiness they had achieved, whatever level of mastery they were showing in their craft -- whatever it was had already been done. That meant it was possible. And because I knew it was possible, and that someone had already been doing it at that level, then that was my minimum standard.

My minimum standard, my starting point for coffee excellence was measured by what the best of the best were doing. And until what I was doing was on par, or better than what they were doing, it never saw the light of day. Whether it was learning how to roast or understanding that siphon brewing has everything to do with philosophy first, technique second.

There's always someone who will be doing something great. And to whoever you are, I applaud your genius. Thank you for showing me that, now I'm going to do it better.

That's my mindset.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Being an Artisan: the truth is in the cup

I would like to thank everyone for the overwhelming support I've received regarding my thoughts on “The Ethics of Being an Artisan”. But there's an obvious part of that we have yet to discuss...

Words like “specialty, artisan, craft,” and the oh so popular “third wave” are thrown about too loosely. There is a moment where adopting certain language and terminology advances a specific set of ideals or standards within the industry. But as it is for most industries, once these words are adopted, they have little truth to them beyond carefully crafted marketing.

There are those within the coffee industry with an astounding level of knowledge when it comes to coffee science and specific minutiae in regards to the chemical breakdown during the entire roasting and brewing process. So how does one illustrate and differentiate between the concepts of Theory vs. Practice compared to Practice vs. Execution? Utilizing mellifluous phrases and dropping a bit of scientific jargon sounds impressive – maybe you can conduct seminars, and impress a number of industry folk, but are you an artisan?

Being at the top of your craft is not a statement about experience or knowledge, nor is it an indication of your passion or a reflection of the quality of ingredients you source. It is a statement about execution. Scientific sounding speeches and clever marketing cannot hide poorly executed coffee. What you deliver in the cup tells a story about what you do and what it took you to get there...but it's only the beginning.

Article on LinkedIn

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Ethics of Being an Artisan

I posed the following in an Instagram post, but I will explore it further here.

Fact: Ground coffee begins losing flavors and aromatics immediately after grinding and with every passing second.

So... what's the value of pre-ground coffee? Tick. Tick. Tick.

Let's think about this. If you are an artisan (craft, small-batch, third wave, progressive, high-end, etc.) coffee shop and you sell your coffee for $30 lb, you certainly can't charge the same for pre-ground coffee. [Now, of course this is hypothetical because we all know there aren't any high-end coffee shops that sell pre-ground coffee.]

The value of the pre-ground coffee would decline by the hour, by the minute, by the second. What are we looking at? Thirty hours? Thirty minutes? Thirty seconds until the relative value of that coffee is zero? Remember, the baseline is the whole bean, so you are not comparing it to other coffees, you are comparing it to itself. If you are selling single origin, small farm coffee for the reasons a coffee shop or roaster sells that quality of product, then by all measures, isn't the value approaching zero as soon as the bag lands on the shelf? Even if it were ground on the spot, the relative value would essentially be zero when it reached the customer's home.

It's your job as a seller of artisan goods to educate your customers, it's not on the customer to come to you already educated. Selling high-end ingredients assumes that you are not trying to sell to everyone, but rather you welcome everyone who is looking for something better.

The science is clear. It comes down to words many are afraid to use, and fewer actually embody. Ethics. Principles. Do you have them or not? Once you ask to be recognized as being at a higher standard, you have to operate at - and be held to - a higher standard. And as a practical matter, since everything you are brewing is by the cup, why would you have bulk grinders anyway?

I originally posted this article on LinkedIn 

Monday, January 02, 2017

My Conversations with Coffee

When I started roasting a little more than eleven years ago, I knew that it would take some time for the coffee and me to speak the same language. There were secrets. Lots of secrets. And if I didn't become coffee's friend first, I knew that getting it to reveal its secrets would be difficult. So I took it slow.

I had a conversation with the coffee. We got to know each other, and slowly but surely, the coffee had something to say. The coffee gave me a little insight on how our conversations were going. I paid attention to what the coffee was telling me. And I knew I could improve our relationship by listening carefully, by learning about where the coffee came from, and what made the coffee I spoke with a little bit different. Sure there are similarities between coffees, but learning about what makes each coffee unique is where the best relationships are formed.

And after carefully listening, writing and reflecting upon our conversations together in my journal, I began to understand what the coffee wanted to tell me. I knew a trust had developed and the coffee was ready to share its innermost thoughts. 

Coffee can be brooding and contemplative, it can also be lively and jubilant. Sometimes coffee has a few simple ideas to share, but it's very clear in its statements. Other times, coffee speaks poetically and whispers softly in your waking dreams – playing the part of both devil and angel and telling you about things you never thought possible. And then, it will reveal its soul. These are the mysteries that must be cherished.

Coffee can be your friend. You can't force the coffee to be your friend. You can't bribe the coffee with shiny equipment and expect it to tell you everything. If you treat coffee harshly it will be bitterly disappointed. And if you try to move the relationship too fast, the coffee will laugh at you. But if you treat the coffee with respect, and you take the time to listen to the coffee, then maybe the coffee will share secrets with you too.