The Evolution my Espresso Thought

I’ve read quite a lot of Richard Dawkins recently. One of the things that were illuminated for me was the idea that evolution will only go as far as it needs and no further, using marsupials as an example. Their use of the pouch is by no means perfect, and when in competition with mammals the marsupials are often edged out. (There is an example of this in South America, but I don’t have the book to hand!) However, in Australia there is no competition and marsupials have had no cause to evolve further.
I think nothing could be truer of a great many people trading on their espresso knowledge in the UK. They have learnt enough to succeed, enough to get by, and enough to make a living but have gone no further. No one has pushed them to learn more, to ask more questions, to develop their understanding. I have been shocked by the number of occasions that people have made bold and definitive statements but been completely unable to back it up. I am constantly amazed by the amount of people who can tell you that your espresso machine needs to run at 9 bars without having any idea why. Scratch the surface of their knowledge and there is nothing underneath.
I have always strived to be different to that but sifting through some of the papers on flavour chemistry and olfaction I’ve gotten hold of I began to wonder what use this knowledge was to me. How was this going to help me do what I do better? What did I hope to learn? Did I think that out there buried was one piece of knowledge, one idea hidden away, which would change my thinking entirely and clarify my understanding?
Now this isn’t to say that I could sit back and say that I know all I need to know to be a good barista – that would be incredibly arrogant and ignorant. Yet I can’t help but be attracted to searching out knowledge on unusual and unexplored aspects of what I do. I realized recently how little I know about grinding. I understand how to use a grinder, but I don’t know why burr teeth are the shape they are. I don’t know the relation between burr size and output of coffee per minute (beyond the basic understanding of larger contact space = more coffee). Is it a direct relation – if so why aren’t we all using really big burrs? I know a little about moisture changing how a coffee grinds, the influence of water quenching for example, but I don’t know why hot grinders seem to grind coarser. I don’t know a lot of things. I spoke briefly to the people at Malköhnig and they themselves said that very little is published on grinding (let alone espresso grinding) but I shall be attending a class put on by them in the near future which I look forward to.
I’ve gotten a little off track here. I think that in my knowledge hunt I am not just looking to be better at what I do but what I am searching for is the sense of wonder. That suddenly sounds a little philosophical but I think it is basically true. I think any barista who enjoys people drinking their coffee would love to inspire wonder in them. A customer getting excited over a good rosetta – “how did you do that?!?” – makes us feel great. I’d love to put together a signature drink that makes people wonder how on earth I did that. All the little inspirations in espresso that have come my way in the last couple of years have come with a sense of wonder, awe and curiosity.
To go back to Richard Dawkins I think that much of my current thinking on this stems from his book “Unweaving the Rainbow”. The title comes from a poem wherein Keats accused Newton of destroying the poetry of a rainbow by explaining where the colours came from and thus dispelling its mystery. Dawkins argues that an understanding through science inspires our imagination and enhances our sense of wonder of the world. I could not agree more.

3 Comments

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  2. I’m a neuroscience phd student, and this is exactly how I feel about my field. The more you learn about a topic, the more interesting and amazing it becomes (if the topic is worth learning about). I think you should get round to that coffee phd James. A phd is a uniquely focused pursuit. Even in academia, there is no other time in one’s career when you just do research on something you want to do, and that alone.

    Find a topic, get some funding, get it done. You’ll never regret it

  3. Yes, then we could call you, “Dr. Coffee!”

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