Pushing Buttons

As professionals– both baristas and cafe owners– we’re chasing three basic concepts in coffee preparation. The first, and many would argue the most important, is quality. Nobody wants to make crap coffee, and the best shops seek to continually push the envelope of great coffee. The second is consistency; all the quality in the world does you no good if you can only produce it in one drink out of a hundred. Additionally (whether this is desirable or no) the general expectation of a shop is that it will produce a similar product across time– both day-to-day and barista-to-barista. The third is efficiency: customers are, by and large, impatient (again, whether or not we would like this to be the case); and waste costs money, in a business whose margins are already notoriously low.

The balance between these three expectations is key.  As an industry, we spend a lot of time talking about pushing coffee quality. What’s in the cup, we say, is everything. As business owners, cafe managers and barista trainers, though, we understand– acutely– the need for consistency and efficiency. How, then, can we have it all, or at least a satisfactory balance between the three?

There are two ways in which we usually answer this dilemma. The first is training. By giving baristas a consistent set of tools and techniques with which to prepare coffee, we can give them the means to efficiently and intuitively produce excellent, consistent work. By sharing theory and knowledge of coffee and its preparation, we can give them the means to improve their technique and push the envelope.

The second answer is automation. Automation (in coffee) is usually employed in two ways. In one, we automate processes over which we cannot expect fine manual control, in order to give us that control. The easiest example of this is the adoption of PID temperature controllers in espresso machines– though timed grinders now give us a similar granularity of control over dose.

In the other, we automate processes and techniques, in order to save training time, improve consistency (nominally, at least), and free up the barista’s attention for other tasks. The most extreme example of this is the super-automatic espresso machine, but the La Marzocco Swift grinder and even volumetric-dispensing espresso machines serve just as well.

These approaches highlight two significantly divergent philosophies about what, exactly, the role of a barista is.

One approach is to consider baristas as technicians– skilled machine operators. The training foundation of this approach is prescriptive: come up with a repeatable routine, and drill until the barista can do it perfectly (or near enough) every time. While some shops which adhere to this philosophy include extensive background education in their training, it’s essentially beside the point. The goal is consistent, repeatable production of a specific product.

This training philosophy is often accompanied by automation of certain aspects of the brew process. Again, the super-automatic espresso machine is the easy example, but there are many subtler and easier-to-gloss-over ways in which this is accomplished. The basic idea is this: the shop-owner decides what the ideal process for brewing a certain coffee is, and programs their hardware to ensure that process is repeated. Many modern espresso machines and grinders are designed with this philosophy in mind; they have lockout systems or needlessly complicated menus between the operator and control over automated variables like temperature and dose.

The other approach is to consider baristas as experts– students, devotees and exponents of coffee. The training on which this philosophy is based is continuous and exploratory. At its root is a question: “Here’s what we’re looking for, and here’s how we understand it at the moment; how can we do this better?” The perceived problem with this approach is consistency. With the right people, consistent quality isn’t a problem– indeed the coffee should be consistently stellar, and consistently improving. The trouble is that the shop will, by the nature of the process, be serving a different-tasting product day-to-day. Additionally, embodying this philosophy is difficult; it’s a constant effort, a pursuit of an inherently unattainable target.

Machines and grinders designed with this philosophy in mind are marked by openness and accessibility. Those variables that are automated in the service of greater control are made immediately available to the user, with as little fuss and obfuscation as possible. One clear example of this design philosophy is the digital timer on the current generation of Anfim grinders: it’s easy to access, easy to use, and provides the operator with a tremendous granularity of control over a variable which they otherwise would have to guess at and feel out.

Both of these approaches have a place in the industry– indeed, they often both have a place in the same shop. The trouble is this: ask almost any shop operator which kind of barista they want to employ, and they’ll tell you they want experts. When you examine the hardware setups and training practices of many shops, however, you’ll find that what they are really looking for are technicians. Employing baristas who challenge you– who force you to re-evaluate your assumptions and to continually learn and improve– can be difficult and even frightening. It’s certainly more comfortable to assume that one has it right, and to create a set of guidelines based in that certainty.

Additionally, not every barista is equipped for (or interested in) the kind of consistent self-interrogation required of the expert approach. What’s important is that shop owners recognize those that are, and that they nurture that willingness, dedication and enthusiasm. We’d be foolish to assume that every barista is available to take a shot at the WBC, but neither should we assume that they’re all there simply to collect a paycheck.


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Categories: Barista, Coffee, Dose, Grind, NEW, Obsessive Quest, Spro'd Out!


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2 Comments on “Pushing Buttons”

  1. Steve Glover
    05/01/2010 at 1:22 am #

    I love using the alcohol/bar comparison for these sorts of situations. Some bars are set up to provide booze in a tasty/palatable delivery mechanism as effectively as possible à la the jumbo sized daiquiri and margarita machines you see in Vegas and New Orleans. Some bartenders really pride themselves on providing a superior sensory experience with alcohol as their medium. I am a barista who has a lot of fun pushing coffee to its sensory extremes and if I can share that with a patron I will. Most people however are just trying to get a high, and that’s okay. The point I’m trying to make is that most people who will ever drink coffee will drink it for effect, not pleasure, and the industry as a whole ought to elevate the baseline for effect drinkers while being cautious of sounding terribly pretentious (people don’t usually like that).

    Remember it’s just coffee, but at the same time it’s freak’n coffee! how cool is that?!

  2. scottd89
    05/01/2010 at 8:42 pm #

    Not that you asked :), but I have to side with the philosophy of training over automation, and it is not just because I make coffee and I follow coffee blogs and whatnot. I support it because training enables baristas to understand the whole production process, and this process is wrought with issues of economic justice and environmental degradation, most acutely when the coffee is produced at the lowest possible cost for the importer. I get excited when I hear baristas explain to customers country of origin, or even better region, farm, head farmer or other anecdotal evidence that the coffee they are drinking has had a long life. To me, this is more compelling and more informing of a barista’s knowledge of coffee than stabs at flavor profiles (however on point they are).
    Greater cognizance of the realities of the coffee production and supply process will hopefully lead to incremental improvements to that process.
    Needless to say, automated machines can do little to teach about this subject. To take the Clover for example; the cafe where I work utilizes the clover to sell incredibly fine quality coffees, with life histories to be proud of (good production). Most customers that taste our clover-brewed coffees admit it is the best or most unique cup they’ve ever tasted. Even with an explanation of the machine’s mechanics, they can only minimally appreciate why. A two minute conversation with any of my co-baristas would reveal much more.
    Go Train!

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