Thresholds of deliciousness

I’ve been thinking more and more about the tiers of tastiness when it comes to not only coffee, but any food or drink.  I think this was probably triggered by the whole aerating thing.

Having tasted coffee that had been aerated, as well as coffee brewed with aerated water, against a standard brew there had been a noticeable difference: an improvement.  Surely, then, this would be something to do in a cafe setting?  If it is going to improve the experience for the consumer, then one would be foolish not to, right?

What my brains keeps asking is whether or not they’d notice?  Without the comparative brew, how would they know that it was incrementally better than it otherwise would have been?  If all theatre of preparation was removed and they were served the finished product on its own, would they notice something was better than it had been before?  Better than expected? Maybe even the best ever?  This has left me thinking about the divisions or tiers of sensory experience in coffee.  I was very happy drinking slightly underextracted,  somehwat updosed cups of coffee because my memory of taste was poor and this was – as far as I could tell – tasty.  Out of isolation, compared to a fuller extraction from a slightly lower dose, these cups suddenly faired very poorly.  I couldn’t really understand how I had enjoyed them so much.

When I visit a cafe, sit down and drink a cup of coffee – how good does it have to be to be enjoyable?  More importantly – how much better does it need to be for any and all consumers to notice an improvement and to have a better experience.

We can all agree that espresso machine technology right now is chasing the next increment, and it seems to be pressure that is being looked to to deliver it.  It will need to be a big jump, because our human shot to shot variation tends to remain within the window of tasty for most customers and we know how big that shot to shot variation is.

It has been, in my short coffee career, the raw product that has taken the most noticeable leaps forward – be it in exploring different varieties or improving processing.  People have had distinctly, remarkably better coffee and as a result have (by and large) been willing to pay a little more for it.

The same is probably true for most foods.  Reading through a Heston Blumenthal recipe you can be in no doubt that the method behind creating the ratio of aged to fresh pizza dough is based on rigorous comparative testing but if you skipped the step of resting half of it for a day to improve flavour, at the expense of elasticity, and just used fresh there is a good chance that it will very delicious.  It is perhaps doubtful that you would, in an isolated instance, get  distinctly more enjoyment out of it without a better or worse benchmark.

This doesn’t mean I think we should give up.  On occasion we manage to make planets align, all the details falling into place, and we have a truly memorable, exceptional experience.  I suppose with the Trifecta looming we should evaluate exactly what we expect from it – because I don’t think it is designed (from my very, very limited understanding) to create better tasting coffee any more than the Clover was designed to make better tasting coffee. 1 The customer shouldn’t be looking for signs that say “Trifecta brewed coffee here”, because it isn’t going to be the machine that creates a new tier of deliciousness.  This is in no way meant to be negative about the machine – I look forward to the opportunity to play with one, to experiment and to drink some coffee from one.  I don’t really think a lot of false hype will really help here either, but hopefully you get the point I am trying to make before I somehow dig myself into a hole…

Back on topic – for all the love we have for technology as an industry, if we look outside it seems to be that service, engagement and interaction are better avenues to explore to yield a noticeably better experience for the customer in our cafes.

  1. It looks like it is built for speed, repeatability and control but at best we can only hope that it makes the resulting liquid taste like the coffee we started with.  ↩︎

28 Comments

  1. “…it seems to be that service, engagement and interaction are better avenues to explore to yield a noticeably better experience for the customer in our cafes.”

    To say I support this statement is a huge understatement.

    Our tiny incremental technique and technology driven improvements are valuable for us (or more accurately for each other). But they are only valuable for the consumer / customer in the long term.

    Given this – I would plead for increased focus on engagement, communication and service – especially over technology and even technique. Not only is this likely to improve customer experience, it is likely to change the economic parameters of the industry, enabling a more fair pricing model – fair for everyone involved.

  2. We’ve all probably been guilty of being a bit angry and dismissive of a customer who waxes lyrical about an espresso they had in Italy, because we know that our espresso is better (better greens, better equipment, better brewing technique) – instead of trying to work out what it was about the whole experience that they enjoyed more. To that customer our coffee is probably within the same bracket of enjoyment for them as the coffee in Italy and we totally miss a trick.

    That said – we are all talking about improved service more and more, but there is still a lack of discussion about exactly what that might entail. I guess this is probably a good thing, to see some more diversity in the marketplace.

  3. Good thoughts, James. Inspires two little thoughts.

    1) Incrementally positive effects in taste and such, summed together with other such incrementally positive effects, can be great… but only when unfettered by negative issues that hold back the whole quality effort. In other words, I hate seeing a barista who’s obsessed with 0.1 degree water temperature stability when they’re dosing haphazardly. Maybe I’m snobbish that way, but it drives me crazy. I feel like you have to earn your right to nitpick minutia.

    2) Technology is great. If the design is sound, and if employed properly, they can be great tools toward your goals of “service, engagement, and interaction” to indeed provide a better customer experience.

  4. “…it seems to be that service, engagement and interaction are better avenues to explore to yield a noticeably better experience for the customer in our cafes.”

    I’m have to say that I support this statement in a big big way!
    I will cut straight to the point here. I have been to every speciality coffee shop/cafe/roaster in Melbourne and I believe that the best cups that I have had were at places that put service, engagement and interaction as high as they place their coffee. I really want to name names here (but I won’t) of some very popular roastery/cafés who have ruined a cup sent to me due to the attitude of staff and the barista. If a customer want’s to know about a particular “single of the day” or “COE” that is on offer, the eyes of the staff should light up rather than roll!

    My point here is that those who have concentrated on attitude and service in the workplace as much as their coffee, in my opinion, have served those very special cups we all enjoy. Drinking coffee is an experience. So all should consider that next time they are wanting to buy the next best machine thinking it will make a better cup.

    Good post Jim!

  5. Great thoughts James. I think we all owe you a huge note of appreciation for doing alot of this research we don’t either have the time, knowledge, or ability to comprehend. You’ve caused me many times to question my own thoughts on coffee and espresso, made me research and try out some of your theories, and that’s made me a better coffee professional. Cheers to you.

  6. Ones palate truly evolves over time. I remember drinking a caramel macchiato a few years ago and loving it and then drinking french roast and loving that. Now I hate both.

    We should always strive to make the best coffee we can, even if a customer may not appreciate it as much as we would hope, but I am learning that coffee doesn’t really speak for itself, you still have to do the talking.

  7. The aeration of coffee is an interesting approach and the question of whether or not the customer will notice is a good one, but how important is the ability of the majority of customers to notice?

    If one dines at per se in New York City, one can be assured that the soup they are consuming has been strained through a chinois up to twenty times. For most restaurants, that attention to detail is immense and beyond their commitment – which is why a dinner at per se can readily cost US$500 per person.

    Blumenthal’s recipe for a cheeseburger is a major undertaking. I mean, who really is going to grind the beef and lay it out in such a manner that the ground beef strands run the same way in the patty? Or prepare the roll just so that it fits in the mouth?

    All of these approaches are possible because the highest level of cuisine affords that luxury. But certainly the Shake Shack in NYC doesn’t go to that extreme, but there are lessons to be learned and applied to the more “mainstream” dining experiences, like hollowing out the rolls so the bread to meat ratio is improved. Or straining the soup through a chinois three times to improve mouthfeel.

    Luckily, a simple process such as aeration doesn’t require the tremendous commitment of the above examples. It just requires some level of commitment. Sadly, I fear that this level of commitment is “too much” for the majority of coffee purveyors. Too much work. Too much thinking.

    Tacy is right, there needs to be a greater emphasis on customer experience in our profession. We’re too heavy with baristas who pull shots with chips on their shoulders who can barely handle basic hygiene, such as shaving and bathing, much less customer service and friendliness. These are the same people who laud tomfoolery such as dick punching while berating the customer who would like to enjoy their coffee with a little milk and sugar.

    Personally speaking, it doesn’t bother me when a customer waxes poetic about the espresso they drank in Italy. The experience of drinking espresso in Italy must be compelling ( I can only surmise) and memorable. In fact, I’m very pleased when they tell me that drinking our espresso reminds them of the wonderful time they had in Italy drinking espresso along the piazza. The power of memory is immense and it is my hope that one day, they might drink espresso somewhere that triggers a pleasant memory of drinking espresso with us.

    Then we would have achieved something worthwhile.

  8. I asked a judge at the northern ukbc heats last week how you can judge the last shot of the day against the first. I didn’t really get an answer, I suppose you judge each against some shot in your head (as Gwilym described in his WBC performance).
    Our sensory systems only measure changes, they do not measure absolutes. Our experience of a taste will always be influenced by what has gone before. If you have a mouthful of orange juice between sips of coffee, that coffee will taste differently.
    Maybe the way to have the best experience is by first having a sip of terrible coffee, then your carefully pulled shot will taste divine.

  9. Good post, James. It certainly sirred a few things up in my head.

    I just want to add some thought to what Onocoffee wrote:

    I feel like this quote belongs in this discussion just a little bit (from Pulp Fiction):

    VINCENT
    Goddamn! That’s a pretty f***in’ good milk shake.

    MIA
    Told ya.

    VINCENT
    I don’t know if it’s worth five dollars, but it’s pretty f***in’ good.

    [End quote]

    Just my two cents. Personally I like a café that’s kind of proud of serving really expensive drinks – assuming they’re delicious. If it’s luxury then people should be expected to pay accordingly.
    In my opinion, specialty coffee being both luxury and something everybody can afford sends out mixed signals. Maybe what needs to be done is simply taking the step wholeheartedly towards extreme luxury (I’m talking absurd, surreal, the quest for God shot) in hope that it will raise the standard that way.

    People should be ready to pay fairly for something that’s well done. Right?

  10. “…What my brains keeps asking is whether or not they’d notice? Without the comparative brew, how would they know that it was incrementally better than it otherwise would have been?…”

    It’s a good question, of course, and I believe it’s a question that all great ‘chasers and improvers’ fall upon then set off to determine in their own way. You mention Blumenthal and he serves as a great example of chasing the highest levels, I suspect he does it for his own purposes and we all gain from it. Coffee continues to be chased on many fronts and with each incremental improvement (in technology and attitude) we all gain from it.

    So we gain as chaser’s, but to your question… does the man on the street gain?

    I would say yes, case in point – consider where you were 5yrs ago James and how you got to the point you are today. You noticed. Everyone notices, if given the opportunity to notice, but the noticing is done in varying degrees of intensity. We all stumble down our own coffee path because we continue to notice. Given the right conditions the man on the street would notice. The man on the street has less interest in research and comparative minutiae, and perhaps his ‘interest in noticing’ is diminished but I believe over time he can be educated by the end result of drinking good coffee, better coffee than he drank last week.

    If 75% of all coffee shops served incredible aerated coffee and slices of Blumenthal pizza the baseline average would be high enough and the market saturated enough that the man on the street could make regular comparative distinctions in his neighborhood. “Hmmmm, should I stop in at the gas station and get a coffee and slice of pizza, or should I stop in at ‘that’ cafe and get another cup of that tasty coffee and really good pizza”. I think that’s an easy choice for the man on the street if ‘that’ cafe is right next to the gas station. Sadly, for the man on the street the rarity of distinguished coffee sometimes matches the rarity of Blumenthal pizza and all the ‘service, engagement and interaction’ in the world won’t elevate a cup of gas station coffee – whether that coffee is served in a gas station or served in a chrome and mahogany clad boutique cafe.

  11. Coffee, like all food, is emotional. It doesn’t matter how high the quality is if you feel like shit while consuming it.

  12. Perhaps Mike, but the thing to consider is this… while you are feeling like shit, would you rather eat a fresh peanut butter and jam sandwich or a peanut butter and jam sandwich that has sat on the counter top for a week until the bread is crusty and moldy?

  13. It really wouldn’t matter for me Shaun. If I felt uncomfortable in the space I really wouldn’t enjoy either sandwich.

  14. That is a rather brutal but wonderfully concise and succinct idea that I wish more shops had at the front of their mind.

  15. Fair enough Mike, and I tend to agree with your point.

    But having said that, how about you consider this… the following day you are in a much better mood and have the choice of sitting down to a fresh peanut butter and jam sandwich or a nasty week old sandwich. Know what I mean?

  16. Shaun if it’s the space or the people serving the sandwiches that make me uncomfortable, I likely won’t be in a better mood the second time I visit (if I ever return at all).

  17. “Shaun if it’s the space or the people serving the sandwiches that make me uncomfortable, I likely won’t be in a better mood the second time I visit (if I ever return at all)”

    Understood Mike.

    1) I agree, to a certain extent, that coffee/food is an emotional product.
    2) I understand that a bad experience in a location can tarnish an opinion.
    3) We all have to drink coffee somewhere.

    Point #3 is the crux of the problem, as I see it, in the little discussion between you and I. Given the choice between good coffee and bad coffee, I’ll take good. Good for me is different than good for you as we both have different opinions and coffee experience. Maybe you’ve tasted more coffee in more shops than I have, maybe you pull better shots than I do, maybe your palate is better than mine, maybe you have a deeper understanding of coffee than I do, the reality is you think about coffee your way and I think about it my way – the commonality should be that we both prefer better coffee as opposed to nasty coffee. Given the choice between good and bad, I’ll take good.

    If every cafe in town serves coffee with an attitude, or makes you feel uncomfortable that you won’t go there again, what does that leave you with? Either you accept the attitude and poor service or you don’t enter another cafe, I think the million dollar question in our little discussion is this… if places serving great coffee made you feel uncomfortable but a place serving mediocre coffee made you happy do you prefer to be content in your happy cafe while knowing that you consume mediocrity?

  18. One more thought…

    I suppose with the Trifecta looming we should evaluate exactly what we expect from it – because I don’t think it is designed (from my very, very limited understanding) to create better tasting coffee any more than the Clover was designed to make better tasting coffee.

    Zander stated repeatedly when the Clover launched that he didn’t want people talking about “Clover coffee,” but instead have the opportunity to talk about the coffees themselves. The interest and hype around the Clover brewer, however, spiraled out of Zander’s control, and folks all around were indeed talking about “Clover-brewed” all over. In other words, whether it was designed to or not, the marketplace will decide how retailers, baristas, and therefore consumers, respond to the Trifecta.

    Aeration aside, I’m still fascinated by the potential of controlled, consistent agitation/turbulence for filter brewed coffee.

    On a side note, I’m still constantly amazed by a great deal of the punditry from the coffee blogosphere; so eager to extol or tear-down certain technologies, tools, concepts, companies, or sometimes individuals, in what ultimately seems to be a desperate attempt to distract the world from their own insecurities and shortcomings. It’s easy to feel like a keyboard-hero from the comfort of your parents’ basement, lobbing insults in between the name-dropping. What’s hard is raising interesting, compelling, but generally open-ended ideas the way jimseven.com does, that inspires others to explore ideas and revisit their prior assumptions.

  19. Shaun:
    “I think the million dollar question in our little discussion is this… if places serving great coffee made you feel uncomfortable but a place serving mediocre coffee made you happy do you prefer to be content in your happy cafe while knowing that you consume mediocrity?”

    Actually, I’ve heard many people, being loyal customers of one particular place, admitting that they’ve never liked the coffee they get.
    I’m talking about one of the oldest café in Reykjavik, Iceland, the first one serving espresso. After more than fifty years, the café is still crowded and it serves also as a cultural medium and a miniature gallery. Still, many of them don’t like the coffee. But they’re no longer surprised by that.
    The strength of the café is it’s always been the same, so to speak. It’s still moslty as it was half a century before. In downtown Reykjavik alone, I’ll find so many types of cafés, each of them attracting different costumers.

    Loyal costumers are happy as long as the main concept behind the café isn’t drastically changed. They sense pretty quickly if something isn’t right, if the café isn’t true to it’s concept.

    Maybe it’s not realistic trying to design a café focusing on so many factors, so that the customer, whoever it could be, will be satisfied. Maybe the best thing one could do is appealing to the types you like best making coffee for. As we’re all so different, that way everybody wins.

    It would be a big mistake underestimating atmosphere.

    I’m being a tad naïve now. I know.

  20. “…What’s hard is raising interesting, compelling, but generally open-ended ideas the way jimseven.com does, that inspires others to explore ideas and revisit their prior assumptions.”

    It is hard.

    It’s hard to raise interesting, compelling and open-ended ideas on a frequent basis because it’s not uncommon for opinionated ‘professionals’ in the coffee industry to quickly discount new approaches or fresh ideas – at least that’s my feeling. And it’s for that very reason that I was hesitant (as a ‘non-professional’) to contact any ‘professional’ and explain my experimentation regarding the Vinturi. Rightly or wrongly I nearly kept the idea to myself.

    James was my first choice as a consummate professional while I contemplated who to quietly discuss my Vinturi-madness with because I believe he can see beyond his own pre-conceived notions of what’s right and wrong, and I trusted he would give my goofy idea a fair shake. True to his nature, James kicked the idea around and reported fairly, a pattern I’ve seen him repeat over several years and I expect the pattern will continue for many years to come.

  21. If all the shops in town create a terrible customer experience (some with good product and some with bad) then the correct answer is to open a shop that serves good product and focuses on great customer experience.

    The quick and easy shortcut to success.

  22. “…Actually, I’ve heard many people, being loyal customers of one particular place, admitting that they’ve never liked the coffee they get…”

    I too have heard the same thing and I completely understand your point, and general thrust. Atmosphere counts, community counts, service counts. But does it count more than the reason I walked into the coffee shop for… a coffee.

    When I visit a new city and wander around looking for a good coffee shop a lot of places represent themselves as having this or that, doing this or that, being this or that, from the outside things might seem appealing but it’s common to be disappointed with the cup in my hand.

    If I walked into the cafe in Reykjavik as a one time customer and got a mediocre cup of coffee, should I be pleased to drink it, the answer is obviously ‘no’. But if I could wander into a small hole in the wall in Reykjavik which had no art hanging on the wall, no charm, but served a great cup of coffee I would be pleased as punch. I’m wandering the streets looking for good coffee (fortunately charm and atmosphere usually comes along with that good coffee) and I’m entering into an agreement when I purchase a product being represented as good coffee, I’m exceedingly happy when the representation meets the execution.

  23. That is a good recipe for success and that’s how most well meaning entrepreneurs start out, wanting to raise the bar. Yet I don’t see a lot of end-state evidence to support that success formula. Somewhere along the way a mediocre product gets poured into the cup.

    By now, after several posts, it probably sounds like I’m a pessimist and down on coffee. It’s not true. I have much regard for the cafes that execute at high levels. I understand there are coffee people who are doing everything in their capacity to grow and improve the industry. I happily pay for a cafe experience that delivers on their promise.

    A key point for me… if I want gas station coffee I’ll go to a gas station, when I walk into a chrome and mahogany cafe with promises of god shots and clover magic I expect them to walk their talk. If they can’t deliver on their promise they should start focusing on their message and maybe re-write it.

  24. i think the original post is just about calibration, to be a little mechanistic(?) i used to put out a pump pot of free zero differential coffee – something that traded at market level, but it arabica or robusta. that helps people calibrate very quickly. otherwise, flavors that are truly sapid are going to be subject to more variables than simply what is in the cup or on the plate, in and of itself.

  25. We’re a culture of personality, and want those positive interactions. If patrons are convinced that their less-than-stellar drinks with a side of Nice are worth the cost, they’ll continue to patronize. Some espresso/barista texts even mention the “life coach/therapist/confession booth” role that most bartenders, serving any beverage, take on (Schomer mentions this in multiple places).

    When the Sbux apologists explain their stance, it’s usually the approachable, friendly customer service that brings them back every time. Their next statement usually has to do with bad attitudes and hygiene, along with the name of the independent they just won’t ever visit again. Not a single word about coffee quality.

    Quality definitely has its place (on my taste buds, to be exact), but the customer service has to be there to vault it into its proper place, to make me want to place an order – before even trying the product. It’s not that we’re missing this piece, it’s just that it doesn’t get the attention that passionate coffee obsessives and all their antics get. We have to always keep both quality AND service in mind. That’s our competitive advantage.

  26. I agree Will, on all points, particularly the life coach/therapist/confession booth role. That’s not guesswork, my opinions stem from owning and also running a reasonably busy cafe nearly every single day for 2yrs, though not very long compared to some coffee professionals it was long enough to get a sense of things. Pulling shots and pushing a broom were par for the course, as was customer service.

    I stepped out of that cafe four years ago and I know more now than I did back then. With hindsight and the benefit of further exposure to increasingly better coffee and techniques I can understand the point made by James in regard to ‘tiers of tastiness’. It takes a long staircase of gradual step ups (in most things) before you can look back and understand where you came from and what good/right means to you.

    Quality and customer service require equal footing, for sure.

    I’m going to bow out of this entire thread now, although I’m enjoying the discussion, I feel like I’m defending something and I’m not sure what that is as I don’t have anything to defend; so I’ll step out of the way and let others continue to discuss. I’ll leave by saying this…

    In the OP, James asks:

    “…Having tasted coffee that had been aerated, as well as coffee brewed with aerated water, against a standard brew there had been a noticeable difference: an improvement. Surely, then, this would be something to do in a cafe setting? If it is going to improve the experience for the consumer, then one would be foolish not to, right?

    What my brains keeps asking is whether or not they’d notice?…”

    I believe the man on the street will notice the difference if given the opportunity. I just don’t believe there are enough cafes out there providing a large enough delta to reinforce the potential for a noticed difference. When good cafes gain enough critical mass to create a trend of ‘noticeable difference’ the tide may change, till then I think the man on the street will spend his coffee money on the most convenient and least costly sources for his cup o’ joe. As for me, I’ll continue to rely on my own fumbling kitchen experiments, both in coffee and Blumenthal pizza. ;-)

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