Technique Versus Ingredient

February 11th, 2007

When most people get seriously into coffee they tend to become immersed in technique.  To allow this sweeping generalisation to fly I am going to include equipment in technique – ultimately it is the mechanics of the brewing process that delight and frustrate us.  We worry about tamping, dosing, setting a grinder, dealing with a grinder that seems to wander from its grind setting whimsically and of course (perhaps especially) we very quickly learn to obsess over brew temperature.

This is not a bad thing, unless one’s interaction with coffee ends there.  I am not sure what prompted me to write this post but I am trying to sum up my feelings as to where I am in my career in this industry, though I do apologise for it being so wordy and not having any nice pictures.  One prompt was talking to a friend about an engineer within his company who loves to buy equipment and by any means necessary break it open and find out how it works.  Based on this I can only assume he makes a decision on what he thinks is good.  I am not deriding this, and build quality and innovation are very important things and should be quickly revealed.  I wondered about him then actually brewing coffee with the kit, whether he found that despite one grinder being a little bit cleverer than the other it didn’t produce the same kind of sweetness in the shot.

Before I learnt to cup coffee I felt like I was starting to hit a barrier.  I understood the equipment I was using and I was pretty comfortable with the techniques required to pull a good shot and pour a nice rosetta (though much of that youthful arrogance, I hope, is now lost).  Oddly I don’t think I have progressed a great deal since then – like many things I guess that getting most of the way there is pretty easy but the learning curve get absurdly steep towards the end.  Some people find this frustrating – they feel they have learnt all they really need to, and I am sure a fair few people reading this know that feeling as well.  I think that, right now, I find technique a little bit boring.  However, I am not bored with coffee nor do I feel remotely superior.  Perhaps its just studying the same thing for too long, but right now I am much happier just to immerse myself in the ingredient.  (That and I am somewhat worn out by the endless machine debate)

Obsessing over technqiue and machinery means that its quite difficult to enjoy the coffee you brew.  You pick apart each espresso looking for its flaws in the build or the brew itself.  I seem to have trouble letting go and just enjoying it.  (However, I still really enjoy making drinks for other people.)  I suppose this is why I haven’t really made espresso at home for quite a while.  Instead I’ve been enjoying either french press, aeropress or chemex.  I am not saying that technique isn’t important with these methods, its just that I seem to get in the way of the brew less – I feel like I am tasting the coffee for what it is and not just what I have attempted to create with it.

Overall I am delighted I feel this way.  I think I would struggle to stay in the coffee industry if I didn’t feel this way, as coffee feels sprawling and endless while techniques feel slow and arduous.  I like that cupping still makes me feel a bit lost and quite stupid, and I don’t think I will ever become particularly good at it though I am sure I will always enjoy it.  What I like most is a sense of anticipation – knowing when a new crop is due to arrive, or when I might get a chance to taste some samples of farms I’ve enjoyed in previous years.  I hope I keep that feeling as long as I work in coffee.

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