Technique Versus Ingredient

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.

18 Comments

  1. I think we all get to a similar point in our coffee careers.

    I’m finding myself hitting a wall at the moment because I feel I’ve grown as far as I can in my current position, and now just frustrated over differences of opinion regarding roasting styles and management of the cafe (I’m both barista and sometime-roaster). The only thing that keeps me there is that I know that elsewhere I won’t have the same opportunities to experiment and play with loads of different coffees – most cafe’s in NZ just use a single espresso blend, and don’t serve any filter coffee.
    I’m just waiting for someone to come along and give me loads of cash to start my own venture…

  2. What about how the competitiors were doing? I´d like to know more about that.

  3. ….probably it is written somewhere….and I’m just being lazy… But do you also roast, James?

  4. ..oh, one more thing. I really like your photos. Like , really. Do you mind when I use them for my personal purpose – like…desktop background, or messenger photo…..or I don’t know…just for me, sight for my soar eyes (I think the saying went like that)…?????????????

  5. Hey Paragon – yeah, feel free to use the photos for anything you like (apart from making lots of money with them – though I’ll be damned if I know how you could!).
    As for roasting – I don’t really roast. I’ve used a sample roaster a few dozen times but nothing serious. I know a little, tiny bit about it but I daren’t post on here about it cos there are too many knowledgeable people who read this to call bullshit on me (should I start spouting nonsense).

    I’ve kind of steered clear of it, I think I could probably get totally lost in the process and another set of infinite variables!

    Imma – did you mean for that post to go into the other thread about UKBC coverage? How are you btw? Are you competing again this year?

  6. Funny thing.
    II am working on an article about similar questions.
    I still find myself interested enough to discuss technical matters for hours with the right people, and I seem to have periods where this is very interesting.
    Coffee as an ingredient is far more interesting though. I feel we are at a stone age period and that we have just started to discover all aspects of coffee..

    Good luck James!

  7. Yeah, I´m like Tim there. Because the baristas have diff. styles and maybe something new and interresting cought you´re eye? Or maybe not, still want to hear how the kids at the UKBC did.

    I´m really good, thank you! and yes I am competing. We start the 4th of march. And I´m going on my first coffee plantation trip on friday to El Salvador! Just fealt like sharing that. What about you? How you do and are you competing?

  8. Every time I drank a cup of coffee, it always made me to stop doing anything but thinking how and why this coffee tasted like this.
    Of course the techniques are part of the thinking topic, but just part of what I thought. During the long journey from beans to a cup, percolation techniques are just located at the last section of the trip. That is the part that most people get involved in the coffee industry. And that’s why, in my opinion, most of the people like to talk about the techniques. If you open the book “Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality” and check the contents pages, you will find out there are only two chapters (7 and 8)are really focus on the espresso coffee, the rest of the chapters are the common foundation for coffee. So I think, when you get clear about the whole process from trees to roasted coffee beans in your hand, then discuss the percolation techniques. After stayed in Yale for four months, it just about the time for me to consider stopping being a lab rat and jump in the coffee industry. Jim, this article is just in time for warning me not to immerse in the techniques. Maybe I will find out someday, the best percolation method for me is throwing the hot roasted beans in to my mouth, then I will discuss with you about the technique that how I chews the beans.

  9. HI Jim,

    Like the thread – I agree that I increasingly tend to cloud over when it comes to technical issues on machines. Its not that I am uninterested but feel that there is far too much emphasis on the equipment and not the coffee. Coffee itself offers limitless scope for learning and advancment – its a food ingredient in its most basic form but more like grapes that come in varietals and have the great effect of terroir (soil, climate etc) that affect the end product. Though Wikipedia defines ‘terrior’ as below we tend to use the term for wine and not coffee. The more you drill down to origin and location the more you can appreciate the effect this has.

    Terroir (/tεʀwaʀ/ in French) was originally a French term in wine and coffee appreciation used to denote the special characteristics of geography that bestowed individuality upon the food product. It can be very loosely translated as “a sense of place” which is embodied in certain qualities, and the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the manufacture of the product. Terroir is often italicized in English writing to show that it is a French loanword, although many now regard it as a word naturalized into English.

    While on this subject what is sadly lacking on forums is ‘best practises’ from a coffee retailer perspective. I dont mean retailing green beans but pulling shots and foaming milk. What’s the best layout? How do you manage a queue effectively to cope with the morning rush etc etc. When I speak to retailers this is what they are looking for. Anyone agree out there? I would be interested in feedback.

    Cheers

    Gary

  10. Hi Jim,
    As always going off or around the subject a little here. I think one of the questions you have to answer is …Is passion enough!? Recently we have added a few new methods of coffee making at the roastery, to keep it interesting. “Toys” for the boys…etc. The combination of making coffee in different ways…and the newest , freshest coffee that comes through the door..and capturing its glory some how is what keeps it being interesting. I don’t know what else I would want to do..or enjoy more…

  11. I feel like unloading a bit as this is a pet peeve…

    The old Schomer and the technical minutia vs the GHH terroir types…

    Debating over quality in prep vs quality in the bean is ironic because quality is a lot of both. Sounds simple but that would be a complex topic for someone to really delve into seriously. Where did the techie movement start and where is the green quality movement at? I don’t even think most people know what defects look like, so that would be a great post Jim. Good photos of bad beans.
    jim, seems to me you have the ‘ xinsert particular barista functionx of coffee is kinda boring to me right now’ post every so often. Maybe you need to take a long look at the coffee and find out what really drives you…

    Challenge yourself a bit more to find something beyond the barista’s routine functions. Go read that wiki defintion of a barista once again and either edit it some more or try to explore some of the roles mentioned a little more…

    Yep, I’m throwing down the PF and challenging you….

    I remember being derided for focusing on technique and machinery, hence the name of my blog. A joke about focusing too much on all the stuff in the technique and equipment. Don’t know if that ever clicks with anyone though but then again not a big deal… I got to a point where I realized the limits of my equipment, got access to better equipment or adjusted with hacks/mods. At a certain point, for coffee people, the techie stuff should end up only being a means to an end. You get to the end of the road where the last variables to adjust are the grade of the coffee and of course the varietal/origin.

    There are a heck of a lot of people who really just enjoy the technique and modding. That’s cool and where would we be without the PID and Scace thermocouple? Probably fine, but that’s not the point. how many PID’s can you put on a silvia before you can make good coffee… It’s like one of those how many XXXX does it take to screw in a light bulb jokes and you can end it however you want….

    ->Terroir. Yep, people(terroir-ists) are talking about that right now in coffee and you’d be suprised how many roasters are focusing on green quality and small lots these days. It’s growing. They are talking about changing the structure or using it more effectively to get more small lots out and working to identify better lots while defining a more sustainable market. Complex stuff all around that I don’t fully understand it all yet. Green storage projects are happening under the radar, just don’t take this conversation to the cool kid forum because you’ll get trashed by a few jokers with a bone to pick who aren’t willing to listen for whatever reason. The whole system may change in the next few years, we don’t know yet. I don’t have the energy for bickering in the forums when it’s easier to call people up and get moving on something, anything, but then I can’t update my site and talk about it most of the time. So, that’s the catch. Substance and entertainment almost invariably split at a certain point.

    Isn’t that part of why coffeed is so dry right now or maybe I’m just being rude to say that in public? Lot’s of bickering/flaming and tweaking over tiny nearly pointless tiny mods. It’s boring because in a lot of ways, it doesn’t help me find or make better coffee.

    There is so much to be done in coffee. Amazing stuff that could inspire and really change sections of the industry but not always good fodder for blogs… Maybe considering what is entertaining for the blog is a little like work because you don’t get to focus on the juicy stuff every cupper wants to look for… Go back and read Geoff Watts epic posts in the ‘Where’s my raspberry/blueberries in coffee’ and ‘processing origins’ threads on coffeed and tell me that doesn’t peak your interest and yet dry as hell for mainstream blog fodder. I went back and reread that theother day and it just blew me away again. i realize how little I knew back then and yet it makes even more sense now.

    TIM… we are in the stone age or more aptly the Dark Ages, just be careful saying that on some of our forums or people will jump on you like they did for the teflon PF thing. Something I love honestly, after COwens told me about it, I was about ready to spend money to do it but I am glad someone is doing teflon pfs commercialy. Honestly, a lot of people think coffee has peaked somehow because a few shops can pull ristretto and pour latte art. If that’s the peak of that third wave thing, I’ll wait for fourth or whatever new marketing term they come up with among the forums ranks. I know I am upsetting someone out there but hey, you never get anywhere if you don’t rock the boat every now and then…

    Coffee was still a commodity a few years ago. it’s arrogant to think(or act like) we are on the top of the mountain. More likely we are on a ridge on the way up the mountain and we still don’t know how far we have to go. I see that even more as I learn more and get better access to people I respect and make new friends in coffee. There are a lot of people on that ridge looking up for the next ridge and there are a lot of people on it looking down thinking they reached the top.

    The beauty and potential in coffee seems largely unexplored. So many conflicting opinions and ideas but not nearly enough data. I find new coffees constantly that hint at greater things to come. new flavors like this defined pineapple from a roast of Colombia tolima. I believe there are many great coffees still yet unfound and the market is still forming itself. Considering how great the coffees were from Colombia recently when not two years ago, a lot of coffee gurus wrote them off as boring or generic.

    heck, how often do you really see people looking at the effects of elevation on bean sweetness?

    When’s the last time you saw a good discussion on origin flavors, processing methods, and singling out unique flavors and the causes? Trying to tie flavors to specific processing methods, soil types, or other inputs, that’s a challenge some food science type blogger could undertake, but the photos might be a bit dry… maybe closeup on some cleavage shots of seed mucilage to peak some interest…

  12. Hey Jaime – thanks for the monster comment. I may take you up with a few challenges (I really like the idea of green defects!)

    I didn’t mean my post to come out as negative as it did. I really meant it to come out that I was just much more interested in coffee itself right now than anything else. I get a greater feeling of pleasure sipping a great coffee than I do from watching a pretty naked extraction – though a great many online seem the other way around. I am loving coffee itself right now. My day to day fight to get the basics of brewing across to people could quite easily be utterly demoralising and seen as hitting your head against a brick wall but I am slowly learning to change it around and get more out of the teaching process and get better at it – but then that is whole different subject all together.

    I’d love to know more about the cause and effect of processing, growing etc and the cup. I briefly talked to Luis from Daterra about it back in Seattle in 2005. At that time he was doing a lot of work on that kind of stuff with Illy’s aroma labs and wasn’t really able to give me any juicy information. I wonder how much they know behind those closed doors?

    PJ – I am with you all the way – I think you really said in more succinct way what I wanted to! Btw – what are the toys!?

    Gary – I think I am seeing you on Monday so I shall bend your ear then (in between crapping myself about the competition!)

  13. hey james, i liked this post. nice to hear some humble sentiments. good luck on monday! kirk. x

  14. I get a greater feeling of pleasure sipping a great coffee than I do from watching a pretty naked extraction – though a great many online seem the other way around.

    great point. in a way, the obsession with technical wizardry is a product of the online engine that’s largely behind the third wave. were it not for the internet, i and thousands like me would still be coffee luddites. so when we first stumble upon coffeegeek or whatever that first entry is, how is it that we “join” this wave? buying the right machine, working on your technicals and taking beautiful pics to prove your proficiency in the forums.

    nothing wrong with that. it’s spreading the gospel. in fact, it may be one of the most effective ways to do so, because without personal contact, the only way to spread a fever is through a series of geeked-out measurables.

    the true lovers, i would think, eventually hit that wall jaime’s talking about, where the gear-headedness has to pale next to the pleasure of the bean and its origin and many personifications. this happens, and hit me about a year ago. and so, for us internet babies, we come through the portal of technical specifics, whereas many of you industry types (the minority, in terms of numbers) you came through the interpersonal/terroir/aesthetic door.

    says a lot about the nature of this movement, really. and what its strengths and weaknesses will be.

  15. Jim,
    You, Tim, Jaime, et. al. know 100x as much as my staff and I do about coffee. And I’m OK with that in principle because everybody has to start somewhere. It used to be 1000X.

    While reading posts like this make us pause somewhat (what? Jim is getting sick of espresso???) we have to remind ourselves that it’s our journey that counts for each of us, not yours.

    I guess it’s like saying we don’t know what went into your cup. One would have a whole other perception of a Bataan Death March having walked it instead of just reading about it… (ridiculous analogy, but the first one that popped into my head).

    There’s a huge value in coming over here (or reading Barismo, et.al.) and sensing that the universe continues to expand beyond our equipment, roaster and training parameters. For every time I’ve personally been smacked down by someone I believe is just trying to come off as a demi-god (and maybe they are, but manners count), I read a post from someone like Jay talking about a 17-year old in Ethiopia and it’s like watching one of those old touchy-feely Coke commercials.

    What I enjoy about the blogging aspects as opposed to the “cool kid forum” (which is helpful and necessary, but can be aggravating at times) is that there are no pissing contests. Instead it’s more a build-up of ideas from a starting foundation.

    Because of blogs and forums, the half dozen or so “decent” shops in our local market have progressed to the point where there finally are a handful of baristas who can tell the big roaster in town to go suck eggs – because the roaster can no longer intimidate us with specialized knowledge. That wasn’t possible even two years ago.

    Unfortunately, instead of trying to work with us, they consider us a threat. They buy our roasters’ coffee and try to mimic it using lesser beans. It’s both very funny and very sad.

  16. Rich,

    you are always too hard on yourself. There are a lot of ‘experts’ who have an opinion and the truth is no one knows where things will go. it’s wide open. As far as smack downs, I wouldn’t worry so much about that, say what needs to be said and if you got a good point someone will back it up.

    maybe i’m reading between the lines a bit but hear you loud and clear.

    I do hope to swing by and visit you soon on my way to east TN. I’ll let you know, maybe I can plan a day stop over.

    I respect blogs now having run one for a while. I have gotten a lot and gained quite a bit from mine. more than I could ever have desired. I think the bloggers can have power and can be legitimate vehicles for change should they choose to. There is power in the medium. it’s a voice to the community where you can share or even muck rake should you choose.

    yo Ben,

    Excellent thoughts.

    As far as technical wizardry, i think it may be time to change my site description. Just go with the spanish definition of barismo…

  17. jim, does the extremely highly technical nature of espresso lend you to ruminate about how it all just gets lost in the techniques of it all? maybe that’s why simpler brewing methods will always win out: because they keep in mind the old maxim: the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. espresso, by its nature, has to rely on technical wizardry. but for black coffee? just gimme my aeropress and some great origins and i’m happy all the day long. i can get lost in what’s really important…the coffee.

    nice post, jim. and nice follow ups, all.

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