Learning Project: An update and the next topic

Today I closed submissions to the January topic and I’ve updated the blog post to show a full list of further reading links you lovely people submitted. Some people’s submitted links didn’t work, and I haven’t had the time to work out what they meant to submit.

The voters have also chosen the next topic. In the next couple of weeks I will write and post:

An introduction to coffee roasting

This is going to be tricky, and I know that when I call for links to further reading that there isn’t a lot of stuff online. However, there is more than you think…

I just want to make clear that what I will write will be designed as an introduction. It won’t be too superficial (I hope) but I will be leaving out some of the fuzzy stuff that is full of half baked opinions, pseudo science and conjecture. It’s actually quite an intimidating topic to write an introduction for…

There’s some great reading to be had back in the acidity post – so I hope people enjoy getting stuck in!

An admission of failure

Maybe I set the bar too high in my own mind, maybe I wasn’t sufficiently clear and maybe (the most likely explanation) it just wasn’t that good of an idea to start with.

UPDATE: Twitter has informed me that the problem is my expectations, and that I should stop being churlish for what many would consider a good result. I have since reviewed my expectations for this – there’ll definitely be a part two… My expectations are likely skewed by the last two times I requested reader participation which each generated 500+ responses.

The idea behind the collaborative learning project was that if you gave a little you got something more in return. The first post on acidity has had 10k+ views, excluding the several thousand who subscribe to the RSS feed. I had hoped that even 1 in 100 page views might yield a submitted link, but for all the views and the thousand of people who read the post I’ve received (to date) 29 viable links on the subject of acidity. (Less than 1 per 400 views)

Let me be clear: I’m not really blaming anyone else but me for this, and I’m not really moaning about it either. This isn’t an “oh poor me!” blog post, I promise you. My predictions of how this would go were based more on my own hopes, rather than evidence or historical precedents.

I’m not yet sure if I am going to continue with the project, or certainly continue it in its current form. I will definitely update the existing blog post with the links submitted on acidity so far, but as for starting a new topic – I don’t think so. Failure is fine, it should be accepted, and sometimes it is ok to let things go and to move on to other projects. There are a few other ideas in the pipeline, so hopefully they’ll come to fruition soon!

An Introduction to Acidity

This is the first topic in the learning project series of posts. Please click through at the end to share a link for further reading on the topic.

Acidity is an important part of coffee, and weaves its way through the entire supply chain of the industry from variety to picking, from process to roasting and from brewing to tasting. I want to start with the basics, cover some of the tasting aspect and then look at acids specific to coffee.

We tend to define acids as having a pH lower than 7, or as having a sour taste, but these aren’t particularly scientific. In fact there are three different scientific definitions of an acid: The Arrhenius definition, the Brønsted-Lowry definition and the Lewis definition. I think the Arrhenius definition is going to serve us best here which is:

An Arrhenius acid is a substance that dissociates in water to form hydrogen ions (H+) that is, an acid increases the concentration of H+ ions in an aqueous solution.

The important part to note here is the presence of H+ ions, as we’ll discuss this later. It should be noted that his definition specifies an aqueous solution, so you could argue that pure hydrochloric acid, or pure sulphuric acid wouldn’t count as acid but this would be nitpicking.

The measurement of the level of acidity is done through measuring the number of these H+ ions,  and is usually communicated through the pH scale. While there is some disagreement on exactly what pH stands for but the Carlsberg Foundation (tied to the Carlsberg Labratory where Søren Peder Lauritz Sørensen did the work to first introduce the scale) claims it stands for “power of hydrogen”.

It is important to remember that the pH scale is logarithmic. This means that each whole value below 7 is ten times  more acidic. Thus a pH of 4 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 5, and 100 times more acidic than a pH of 6.

Tasting Acidity

Acidity is often described as being one of the 5 tastes, which is deeply unfair to other tastes such as pungency, astringency, piquancy or metallic tastes. (Much like saying we only have five senses ignores senses like balance or the sensation radiant heat). It is a critical part of the foods we taste, though it doesn’t have the same functionality as sweetness (the suggestion that something is good to eat) or bitterness (the warning that a food may be poisonous).

We have a very good idea of how taste receptors, in our mouths, detect sourness. That doesn’t mean it is particularly simple though. What happens is that a hydrogen ion (H+) enters the cell and essentially triggers an electrical response that fires the nerve that sends the signal to the brain that we are tasting something acidic.

Types of Acid in Food

There are a variety of different acids in food that influence our perception and enjoyment of it. Adding acids to foods (either more traditionally by using an acidic liquid like a juice, or in the more modern way of using them in powdered forms as food additives) is likely as old as cooking and the ideas of recipes. They also play a crucial role in preservation as well as providing some anti-oxidative properties.

Here are some of the key acids in food:

Acetic acid – We are most familiar with this acid as vinegar (though only acetic acid produced through fermentation can be called vinegar). This is an acid that can be extremely unpleasant (it is awful when present in coffee through defective processing), but we do like to add it to fried potatoes a lot.

Citric acid – This is the acid found in citrus fruit, and if you give most people plain water with citric acid added to it they will describe as tasting of lemons. This is an incredibly popular food additive – it is the acid used in sour sweets/candy – and it is no longer efficient to extract it from citrus fruit. Instead it is now often produced by fermenting a carbohydrate (like molasses) using a mould called Aspergillus niger.

Fumaric acid – This one doesn’t really occur in common foodstuffs (unless you enjoy eating lichen and Iceland moss), but it is used extensively as a food additive and acidity regulator. It is often used in soft drinks and can also be added as a coagulent in things like stovetop pudding mixes.

Lactic acid – Most of us are as familiar with the pain of lactic acid build up in muscles, as we are with the taste of it in sour milk products like yoghurt or cottage cheese, or with the sourness it brings to sourdough bread. Outside of food it also is used in things  like detergents and as an active ingredient in mosquito lures.

Malic acid – This is the acid found in fruit like apples and pears, though for a more explicit experience of malic acid then the delicious tartness of rhubard is an excellent example. It was first isolated from apples, and as such takes its name from the latin malum. Despite being a little more expensive than citric acid, it is used in many similar products such as sodas (particularly diet ones) and also in the sourest of sour candies.

Phosphoric acid – This isn’t really a naturally occurring acid, but we consume huge amounts of the stuff, mostly in one particular form: cola. This particular type of acidity is often described as being relatively harsh compared to other acids, but it seems to provide excellent balance in cola drinks specifically.

Tartaric acid – This occurs naturally in many fruits like bananas, grapes and tamarinds. I confess I am probably most familiar with it as the primary acidity found in wine (along with citric, malic, ascorbic and many others).

Most of these acids can be bought easily in powdered form, and simple (low concentration!) solutions can be made for tasting. The tasting, and blind identification, of acids has become a staple part of coffee tasting tests for a variety of certifications.

Acids in Coffee

There are a great deal of different acids in green coffee, byproducts of a cycle of chemical reactions called the Calvin Cycle. Some of these survive the roasting process intact, but many don’t. The longer and darker that a coffee is roasted the lower the perceived acidity tends to be when that coffee is brewed and tasted. This seems pretty simple – but when you dive into the chemistry a little bit you will see that it isn’t quite as simple as that.

A variety of the acids we’ve already mentioned (citric, acetic, lactic, malic and phosphoric) have been identified in brewed coffee, but two others have as well (at higher concentrations than those already mentioned). They are:

Quinic Acid – While it usually is in crystalline form, quinic acids melts at around 160C and coffee that is being roasted will comfortably exceed these temperatures.  It is considered to add a positive acidity to the cup, and give coffees a “clean finish”.

Chlorogenic Acids (CGAs) – Chlorogenic acids (a group of acids, rather than just one) contain no chlorine. The name comes from the Greek χλωρός (light green) and -γένος (a suffix meaning “giving rise to”), because of the green colour produced when chlorogenic acids are oxidised.  These acids play an important role in the generation of flavours during the roasting process.

CGAs degrade quite dramatically during the roasting process, with around 50% of them gone by the time a medium roast is reached. As CGAs break down the byproducts are both caffeic acid and quinic acid.

This is designed as only a brief introduction, but we all want to go deeper…

Now it is your turn! Submit a link to further reading on acidity, and vote for whichever topic you would to see focused on next. The link can be about acidity in coffee specifically, or about acidity in general. It can be examples of tastings to try, or more about how we taste and how acidity interacts with other tastes and flavours. Anything and everything!

Further Reading

Here are the links submitted by readers, for those interested in learning more about acidity:

General Acidity

Taste: The sour and bitter story
Acidity (jpg)
Brewing Sour Beers at Home
What is the difference between tannins and acidity?

Acidity and Coffee

What is acidity in regards to the taste of coffee?
Coffee Chemistry Acids
Low Acidity Coffee Reviews
“Coffee Gone Sour”
A pinch of salt in your coffee, sir?
Brew temperature – 180 vs 200
Sourness and Acidity
Coffee and acidity: the science and experience
Coffee Chemistry – Acidity
Teaching to Taste
What’s geology got to do with it?
Prufrock – Coffee Science
I found my “roots” to coffee in Africa
Coffee Acidity

PDFs/Journal Papers

Effect of sugar on acid perception in wine (abstract)
A Structural Basis for the Biosynthesis of the Major Chlorogenic Acids Found in Coffee (full)
Alchemy in the roasting lab (pdf)
Improving the flavour of fruit products with acidulants (pdf)
Taste Receptors in the Gastrointestinal Tract III. Salty and sour taste: sensing of sodium and protons by the tongue (full)
Biosynthesis of Chlorogenic Acids in Growing and Ripening Fruits of Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora Plants (pdf full)


A worrying situation in Nyeri

Nyeri is a county in Kenya that produces some of the stunning coffees we’ve come to love. Coffee in the region is generally produced by small holders, rather than larger estates, which means we are used to seeing traceability down to the local factories (the term used in Kenya for a wet mill) that farmer’s societies choose to work with.

Recent changes to Kenya’s political structure has given more power to local counties, and in Nyeri there has been a proposed change that is  worrying. The governor of the county, Nderitu Gachagua, has announced that all of the coffee in the region shall be milled at a single mill (called Sagana) and the coffee should be pooled and sold through a newly formed company. The logic behind this is that the politicians believe that they can achieve higher prices for the coffee and pass those higher prices on to the producers. From a political perspective it should be noted that farmers are often the target of political manoeuvring in areas where they make up a large portion of the voter base, and this is very much the case in Nyeri.

While great Kenyan coffees produced by the mills throughout Nyeri can already be quite expensive, compared to many other sources of green coffee, there have long been challenges in making sure that the premiums achieved make their way to the producers. This is not a universal problem, by any means, but something that many producers are aware of. However I don’t think that reduced traceability like this, or pushing all of the coffee through one mill, will preserve the interests of growers who produce the highest quality coffee in the region. As a roaster, the idea of offering a coffee traceable simply down to Nyeri isn’t strongly appealing – and there several other regions in Central Kenya (and increasingly west of the Rift Valley) growing great coffees, with sufficient traceability. As traceability is a core tenet of my business this must factor into decision making and purchasing.

In an effort to further the political cause the Central Kenyan Coffee Mill (familiar to a great many speciality buyers) has essentially been shut down, and I’m sure I’m not alone in being extremely skeptical as to why and how this has been done.

While I am sure this centralising move does have some support in the farmer base, I do not think it is in the best interests of every farmer. 13 farmers’ societies have taken this to court to get an injunction, though their case won’t be heard until February 10th. That isn’t the best news considering the harvest has started.

As I’m based in Europe I suppose I should be looking to my trade association (SCAE) for advocacy and support in a situation like this, but I don’t think this will happen. Realistically I am hoping that the SCAA may have some opportunity to support the idea of retaining better levels of traceability. I’m sure we’ll see more information on this shared soon, but I thought spreading the word was a good idea.

In summary, I’m concerned that we’re going to lose some traceability (and potentially quality through separation) from some of the best coffees in the world. I’m concerned that legal wrangling, even best case scenario, could several delay the export of those coffees (not something anyone wants), and that this decision is being made my people who don’t really understand our sector of the market.


Mette- Marie Hansen also sent me this link. The whole thing is worth reading, but it is hard to ignore this bit.

The county government envisages a situation where once the coffee is milled, they can approach buyers and negotiate to supply either milled or roasted coffee at a premium price.

County Secretary for Agriculture Shadrack Mubea said earlier in the week that the governor was keen to explore potential markets, especially in non-traditional markets such as America and China.

Wilson Karime, the chairman of the Gititu Coffee Factory, which is under the four factory Aguthi Coffee Farmers Society, urged Nyeri farmers to give the governor a chance to prove his worth.

“The past model has favoured middlemen and buyers,” said Karime. “I see no harm in trying a new set if it finally benefits farmers.”

Emphasis added is mine. This is undeniably an approach that doesn’t understand the needs of speciality buyers, and doesn’t truly value quality.

Active and Passive Learning and a Project

I meet and chat to quite a lot of baristas and coffee people from all over the world. Often one of the topics that comes up is having a career in coffee and the idea of progressing. One of the most common avenues of conversation is learning, and I confess that from time to time the following sentence has been like a red rag to a bull:

“I think I am going to look for a job somewhere else, I don’t really feel like I am learning anything any more.”

To most people this may seem like a fair comment, but I want to explore the idea of learning at work and its purpose and value.

When you start your first serious coffee job (it might not be your first coffee job, but your first speciality coffee one) you go through a very intense learning experience. Learning like this feels great. Coffee seems big and exciting, and the learning is not only rapid but generally fun. Learning like this is very addictive and we all want to learn like this all the time, but that isn’t really viable – there’s work to do! We need to split the value of learning into two separate ideas here:

1. Learning is rewarding, and a motivating factor in performing and remaining in a job. The idea of mastery was best communicated to me by Daniel Pink in Drive, which is a great read about how to retain staff and motivate them to do good work.

2. Learning is a way to increase the value of a staff member. If time/money/resource has been spent on a staff member then, from a purely business perspective, this person should be able to generate more revenue and value as a result. In the simplest terms, if I teach you to brew espresso you go from being completely useless to a successful cafe, to someone who can produce products for sale. The more I train you then the more product you should be able to produce (you get faster and more efficient) or the more revenue you can generate (you can make more expensive drinks or upsell, or do good customer retention work).

The second type of learning is the responsibility of the business, to assess whether you are ready to learn more (you have achieved some level of mastery of your existing skillset) and then to deliver more training. After this there is a period of time when you should be mastering the new skills. Then there needs to be a period of time where you return on the investment of the employer. If you take your new skills and jump into a different job then the employer has no return on their investment. This will increasingly discourage them from further investment in staff, and over time lead to a stagnant work environment. Alternatively there may be requests for learning from staff, but no way for the business to recoup its investment as the learning may not have a practical application to that business.

The problem many people have is that in the period where you leverage your new skills for your employer, you generally stop learning. So you feel uninspired, restless and you start to look for other employment. I will accept that (and I include myself in this too) employers often do a bad job of setting out goals to met and expected time periods between the periods of advancement. (And in fairness to them, this is no easy thing to do).

This isn’t the only part of this that I find frustrating. Learning does not need to be passive. If you want to learn then there is a world of information out there, and a little effort will yield big reward. Staff who are active learners stand out very clearly in any business, not simply because of their demonstrated motivation. For quite some time I suffered mild imposter syndrome, because I felt that people thought I knew lots and all I had done is read things that had been published for free on the internet – something freely available to all. I should add that while I am pro active learning, I’m not a big believer in work cultures that expect you to stay late and be in early for no extra financial reward, in order to move up in an organisation.

My point here is not to try to generate sympathy for employers, but instead to try to encourage more active learning. This leads me to one of the things I’d like to do on the blog this year.

The Learning Project

Here is what I am proposing: a monthly topic of learning that allows people to get involved with it. The plan will be:

Month 1 (this month): Write a short introductory blog post on a certain topic (approx 1000 words). This will also have a link allowing you to submit an interesting link on this topic. When you’ve submitted a link you will then get to vote on which topic we cover the following month.

Month 2: Republish the initial blog post including all of the submitted links on the topic. Publish a short introductory topic on the group voted subject. Again, submit a link on it to vote on what we do next.

My goal would be to continue this same cycle month to month throughout 2014 (thus covering 12 topics).

I have no idea if it will work, but if it does it will be fun to take a journey around different topics and to not know where we’re going until we get there. It will certainly push me, and I hope others will benefit too.

If you think this sounds fun then do please get involved. When the first topic goes live please share it (the more incoming and suggested reading the better!), and any feedback is welcome on twitter.

The C Market in 2014 – Some Speculation

I’ve tried to stop making predictions, but in some ways I can’t really help it. I’ve been watching the commodity price for coffee moving around quite a lot in the last few years, and things are currently in a pretty difficult place. I thought it was worth having a look at why things might be the way they are. Here’s a very, very short summary:

In May 2011 the C-price for coffee briefly exceeded $3.00/lb. This was a great time to grow coffee and sell coffee, and doing so could be considered profitable. This price spike wasn’t simply because of supply and demand. While consumption of coffee had risen to the point where it had briefly exceeded production, and companies were digging into existing stockpiles, the rapid rises and extreme volatility in the market were intensified by general financial speculation in this particular commodity.

There were discussions at SCAA’s symposium in 2011 about the need for more coffee, and I remember hearing Carlos Brando speak about Brazil’s capacity to increase yields and produce more. 1

Over the next two years the price of coffee dropped steadily, reaching the precarious, and psychologically significant, low of $100.95 on November 4th 20132. The reason for the drop was pretty simple, there was more coffee being produced than was required. Supply had exceeded demand, and the market pushed sellers into lowering their prices.

Prices fell so low that, in many countries, it was below the cost of production. We saw strikes in Colombia3 as growers demanded more support from the government. Brazil’s government talked about trying help its producers through finance, to enable them to withhold coffee from the market until the price had recovered, which it didn’t really do4.

To further compound the woes of our industry, the impact of coffee leaf rust was dramatic on many Central American producers with massively reduced yields from many farms. This scarcity did nothing to impact the commodity price of coffee, because the reduction in coffee exported from Central America was more than made up for by Brazil, Ethiopia and Indonesia. By definition, the commodity market doesn’t really care where the coffee is from as long as it is coffee. The International Coffee Organization (ICO) estimates that from October 2013 to September 2014,  supply will exceed demand by 4 million bags.

So, here begins the speculation5:

– We’re going to see less coffee from Central American producers ongoing. This reduction will come not just from leaf rust, but also from producers moving away from coffee. It is important to remember that no one is obliged to grow coffee, and I don’t think it is right to push people into doing so if it is not in their best interests. On a somewhat related note, despite massive efforts to the contrary the number of producers of coffee in Bolivia is shrinking. It simply makes more sense to grow coca – the price is more stable, it harvests more often and there is little threat of criminal repercussions. This is a decision that is absolutely contrary to the developed world’s best interests, but can we convincingly argue that it isn’t a better decision for those producers than growing coffee.

– Hopefully the demand from speciality will drive the prices for high quality coffees up, ideally to the point where growing good coffee is sensible and sustainable.

– We’re going to see more coffee from Colombia. It seems like the rust resistant varieties are starting to kick in, and Colombia’s production is up. What is interesting is that the differential for Colombian coffee, the varying premium that certain countries get above the C, has decreased recently. I am not saying they are directly linked, though differentials are as much about reputation as they are about quality, and some would argue countries like Costa Rica got undeservingly high differentials once quality from other Central American producers caught up.

– Brazil’s production is going to be sufficiently large that it will continue to squash the commodity price. The 2013 crop is considered to be an “off” year in Brazil’s biennial production cycle, leading to speculation that the 2014 crop will be very large. There is, inevitably, a sort of public denial of this because confirming it will only keep prices low. Most banks and financial agencies seem to be talking about it being a big crop, and the presumption seems to be that the market will stay low.  I would say that it is unlikely that the price will sink below $1.00/lb, but I’m sufficiently aware that no one has ever really been successful in predicting the movements of financial markets to not be too sure of myself there. 6

What does this mean for speciality (again, more speculation)?

– Supermarket/grocery store coffee is going to remain pretty cheap. I would expect it to increase with inflation/cost of living but to look increasingly cheap compared to speciality. Cheap drip coffee, cheap espresso, will still be around.

– Wholesalers of lower quality coffee will once again be able to leverage free-on-loan equipment more aggressively, as it will be easier to hide the margin necessary in the price of the coffee. Good news for businesses who don’t really care about their coffee program (by which I mostly mean restaurants – for which I don’ t really blame them), and I suppose good news for espresso machine manufacturers…

– Roasters, and coffeeshops, will have some decisions to make. With the gap between speciality and commodity likely to widen then the choices may be to go premium, to go mass market or to try and bridge both. The latter is the approach tried by many in the past and it seems to be difficult to genuinely achieve – with many ultimately doing the bulk of their business on a lower quality tier.

– Those involved in making decisions about green coffee buying need to decide on their short and long term strategy when it comes to buying. It is possible to buy cheaper right now, and make more money on roasted product. It is also possible to invest in the future too, and those companies with long standing relationships with producers look, to me anyway, to be in a stronger position than others.

– I don’t think we’ll see the wider industry embrace certifications again. It is pretty hard to feel positive about certifications like Fair Trade at the moment, when it becomes appears that the best they achieve is an alleviation of a symptom rather than any sort of solution to the root problem. There is still brutal fluctuation of price, and when the prices were high it was not unusual to see Fair Trade producers default on contracts because they could get more money for the coffee elsewhere. The idea that there was some of loyalty owed is somewhat laughable in the context of coffee’s trade history, but this is a topic for another post entirely.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though I’m aware that what is written above seems very negative. I still believe it is a great time to be in the business of high quality coffee. I think that with sufficient planning and anticipation, most problems can be avoided or turned into advantageous solutions. It will require that we perhaps do a better job on converting raw product quality into better customer experience, to charge what we need to charge to keep doing this for years – but I’ve also been saying this for years so make of that what you will.

I will be interested to look at the ICO’s production data at the end of the year to see if any of the above is accurate. I guess I really did a bad job on stopping with the predictions…

  1. We did also see various articles about new places, such as Yunnan in China, planting coffee. I’m not sure if significantly more coffee was planted though. If anyone knows of data collection of land under coffee then do please let me know!  ↩︎
  2. Source  ↩︎
  3. More info here and a summary by Michael Sheridan here  ↩︎
  4. Summary here  ↩︎
  5. This is obviously another term for “guessing”  ↩︎
  6. For good reading on the science of predictions then I strongly recommend Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction  ↩︎

Planning for 2014

I’m not a New Years resolutions kind of person, but I do like a little planning. Years are as good an arbitrary unit as any other, so it seems appropriate to be looking ahead to what I want to achieve in 2014. I don’t plan on sharing every single goal but I can probably summarise things as: 2013 was a year where I talked a lot, had ideas (enough that a few might even be considered good) but I did not do. In 2014 I want to follow through on things, achieve things and feel productive. We shall see how I measure up or whether I fail publicly on that front…

As for this blog, I have some thoughts too. I know I seem to vacillate often, and have angst ridden moments about writing on here but answering the question “Why do I write on here?” can be tricky when the answer changes as often as it does.

My biggest worry is that I just use this place as somewhere to complain about things. Looking through the last year of posts this isn’t really true, but looking through my half dozen unpublished posts the fear returns.

I’m at the point where the negativity around coffee online has started to bother me, and I have to decide whether I want to contribute to the snark or be more positive. I don’t want to get to the point where I join the other cowards in the industry in starting an anonymous twitter account so I can berate people who I think are “getting away with it” when it comes to quality or the like.

This blog started as a vehicle for my own learning, and in 2014 this blog will turn 10 years old. My learning hasn’t slowed in the last 10 years, in fact it has accelerated every year. This blog doesn’t reflect that properly, which seems a shame but something that is entirely within my control to change. Let’s see how I do…

Coffee Blogs I’m Reading

There was a question on twitter the other day asking what coffee blogs I’m reading, and I think the answer probably requires a blog post. In the past I’ve posted enormous, long lists of blogs that I subscribe to but that probably isn’t helpful if you want to add a couple more to your reading list or go back through the archives of a couple to learn some stuff.

I’m going to presume that most people are following both Sprudge and Dear Coffee, I Love You.

Edit: I should have included Roast Magazine’s Daily Coffee News in this. (An embarrassing omission!)

Cafe Owners:

I would recommend following along with Kaffeine’s blog, a cafe in London whose weekly menu blog post has evolved into an ongoing insight into the world of running a busy, successful cafe.

Colin Harmon’s blog straddles this and as well as wider industry stuff and should be followed too.

Maxwell at Colonna and Smalls also writes often about the ideas and challenges of communicating and serving great coffee, so subscribe to this.

Edit: Forgot to add the Prufrock blog to this list.

Coffee Industry:

After a brief hiatus the Coffee Lands blog is back. Subscribe. Learn.

Kevin Knox’s blog is great, because it is opinionated and challenging. Do I agree with everything he writes? Actually a surprising amount, but calling it Coffee Contrarian wouldn’t be the best name for it if everyone was supposed to agree with it.


I also enjoy the rants in between the trip reports over at TheShot, I disagree with him a lot, get exasperated and annoyed by it occasionally but what’s the point of reading things that simply confirm your views rather than challenge them?

On the review front – a different approach and a stunning blog worth following or hunting through if you’re travelling is frshgrnd. An eye for design, great photos.

Finally I’d recommend following Mike White’s tumblr, which contains simple reviews and brutal honest about the coffee he drinks each day.

What did I miss?

I miss the days of google reader, which would allow me to organise my list by how regularly they posted and then I’d unsubscribe from dormant blogs. These days my list of blogs in the RSS reader has dropped massively from the days of 150+, but it feels like there just isn’t that much being written out there.

If I missed something then tweet me a link! My only request is that you link active, not dormant, blogs that write interesting stuff. If I have missed someone painfully obvious then I will update the blog post and apologise profusely…

I’m not calling it theft

A hypothetical situation: You’re visiting a nice coffee shop in a different city, and you get recognised as a coffee person. You’ve queued up and you’ve got your $3 in hand ready to pay for your coffee. Instead your barista, seeing as you’re industry, gives you the coffee for free. You do what you think is the honourable thing and you put your $3 in the tip jar – you’re trying to be a good person (and you don’t want to look cheap…).

Now imagine a slightly different situation: this time the barista takes your money, but doesn’t ring the drink into the till and when you’re not looking just puts the cash in the tip jar.

The second one of these feels quite explicitly like theft, an employee diverted money from the business into their own pockets. Yet in both situations the business, the barista and the customer are in identical financial positions. You could argue that the intention of the barista wasn’t to pocket the cash when they comped the drink, just to offer some nice hospitality, and I completely side with the baristas that have kindly offered me drinks for free over the years. I just looked at these scenarios and could help but notice that financially the situations are pretty much identical.

The employee’s decision to comp a drink prevented the business from earning money. There is one situation in which this is ok – where there is an explicit and clear policy for comping drinks on a bar, but I don’t think nearly as many businesses have these as they do have staff who give things away.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am not calling baristas who comp drinks thieves. That would be ludicrous. I actually believe this is a flaw in the operations practices of many businesses, and just something I thought would make for a fun discussion. The only ones who deserve any blame are those who fail to set proper policies for this sort of thing within a business.

The difficult middle

A couple of years ago I began to think quite a lot about longevity. I was seeing my own business, and many others, reach a point of maturity where it didn’t really feel fair to call them startups any more. I looked at my industry, and similar ones too, and was inevitably drawn to businesses that had been going so long that it seemed fair to call them “institutions”, for want of a better word.

What really defined these business for me wasn’t that they had simply been going for a long time, it was more that they had transcended from the requirements of a single owner. These might be businesses so old that not a single person involved in the creation of the business was still there, though the business maintained success and its principles regardless. How does a business go from being a startup to being an institution? This is what I mean by the difficult middle.

I began to read more about business longevity, and unsurprisingly there is plenty to read. One particular idea captured me, and seemed painfully applicable to the coffee industry. It was the idea that a business should be treated like a living organism, and nurtured and taught. Coffee is an industry incredible dependent on knowledge for the delivery of quality, but our focus has all too often been the education of the individual rather than the business itself.

If you’ve done any sort of barista training for a living then the following probably rings true: Training baristas is like pouring water into a bucket that has a hole in the bottom. The typical practice of most cafes is to invest reasonably heavily in training the staff, either in-house or with the assistance of a supplier such as the coffee roaster they buy from. The problem with this is simple: People leave.

This is a problem for any industry, though the relatively high turnover in coffee makes this effect more pronounced. When the “star” barista in a cafe leaves the average quality of drinks tends to drop. This is not good at all, for the business or its customers.

In any ideal world the business itself could act like a giant bathtub underneath the buckets, collecting as much of the information as possible that is being poured into the staff.

How do you teach a business?

This is a difficult question with an answer that most people won’t like: For a cafe I believe that a large part of that is structure, systems and manuals.

Every cafe should have a dialling in procedure for espresso in the morning.  That procedure shouldn’t be whatever the person dialling in learned to do in their last job. There should be an ideal method that is taught, trained and used. Having a single staff member understand a refractometer and matching software has a certain value, but having best practices available to anyone in the company as a permanent resource has a much larger value.

This does happen, but all too rarely in coffee. The places where I do see good structure tend to be the places with better than most of their market when it comes to quality, consistency and financial health.

So, will a manual fix everything? No. It is simply a piece of the puzzle, but there should be an over-arching goal of trying to retain as much knowledge as possible outside of the transient part of the business – the humans. It is about our mindset when it comes to learning, training and teaching.

Much of this applies to roasting – as we learn and explore the roasting process there needs to be more than an oral history passed down from one roaster to another. This requirement means thinking about explaining what we’re doing and, much like the process of writing this post for this blog, it forces us to unpack an idea in order to repack it neatly, with a clear narrative.

This doesn’t mean you don’t need good people, or that automation is a key to success. We have a challenge in coffee, and while we should definitely work to improve retention of staff, that isn’t a very long term solution.

Very few businesses start out to last for 200 years. Very few startups are thinking as far as 5 years ahead in terms of planning and structure. The future is a terrifying place most of the time, but I do wish that I could give this advice to myself 5 years ago. Starting good habits early, building better systems in from the beginning, would have gotten us so much further more quickly as an operation.

Three Things I’m Working On

As the second excruciatingly  long day of HOST draws to a close, I realise that I should probably write a little bit on here about the three things on show at the event that I’ve been involved with. In each case I should make clear that I’ve been very lucky to be involved with people and companies who’ve done the real heavy lifting on all of this stuff.

Victoria Arduino Black Eagle 0388

Over the last couple of years I’ve developed a close working relationship with Nuova Simonelli, initially as part of the grinder project (I’ll come to this in a moment), and then through the workshops we did together around the world over the last 18 months. I confess I had been nagging them about espresso machines for a little while, and pushing for an opportunity to collaborate with them on something. What we have on show at HOST is the first results of that collaboration.

The machine is a Victoria Arduino, not a Nuova Simonelli, because there was an opportunity to take that brand in a new direction. Obviously the design is a departure from their other machines, though it was the same original designer, as we pushed for a different design brief. We wanted it to be as low as possible, while still stable and serviceable, though NSF does place some restrictions on how long your legs could go. The main feature we’d been working on is what they are calling the gravimetric system. Essentially we have scales in the drip tray using live beverage mass to control and terminate the espresso shot. You can program the machine to deliver 35g of beverage and that is what it will do. If you want to pull a 40g shot then you just program the button to do that through the control screen.

If you’ve read this blog for a while you’re probably not surprised that this is the direction I want to go. In all my experiments and testing I’ve come to the conclusion that beverage mass remains incredibly important to taste, extraction and consistency. Up until now we’ve tried to control beverage mass using either time, volume in the cup or volume of water sent to the group as the control point. None of these offer the consistency I’d like, or believe we need to replicate for each customer the espresso we’re excited to serve them.

What we’re showing here is not even an alpha prototype in my eyes. The technology needs a lot more development and improvement to reliability and accuracy. HOST was a great opportunity to present what we’re working on but we’re being very clear that this is not yet a finished product. It is incredibly important that once this machine is for sale that we’re not presenting a beta testing unit to early adopters at full price. Industrialisation is a massive step in creating a new machine and one that requires patience and resources, which thankfully the Nuova Simonelli guys have. I’m excited for what the future of this machine holds. Don’t expect to see this for sale for a year or so, though you may spot a few test units in the field before then… (I’m loathe to talk too much about products that aren’t for sale, but it does seem right to explain my role).

I don’t have a good camera with me, but do head over to this Sprudge article because they have some nice ones.

The Clima Pro grinder

The grinder project was my first involvement with Nuova Simonelli, and I was a late addition to the team of Colin Harmon, Gwilym Davies and Fritz Storm. I see this as an ongoing project, and this is the first product.

Up until a year ago I was of the common mindset that heat is the enemy and should be removed at every opportunity from the grinder. Yet this grinder has a small heating element in it, which seems somewhat counter-intuitive. However, heat is inevitable when grinding coffee, and heat buildup is still going to cause the grind setting to change, as it moves from cold (at the start of the day) to warm during service, back to cool in quiet periods. By both heating and cooling this grinder we’re able to keep the grind setting more stable and have the grinder act in a more consistent way through the day.

Is it perfect? No. Is it the solution for every cafe? No. Is it a step forward in helping cafes achieve better consistency, and waste less coffee during service? I hope so.

I dialled in at 8.30 yesterday morning, before the show opened. It was a pretty busy day, but by 1pm I’d only made a single grind adjustment. It’s consistency was borne out by a machine brewing its doses to the gram and showing the shot weight and time for each brew. It felt too good to be true, and at this point if you want to dismiss this as a single anecdote and not useful data then I wouldn’t protest. The next stage is now more testing in locations around the world, and a release isn’t anticipated until early next year. If it is appropriate I will write more about it then.

I must disclose that I have an ongoing financial arrangement with Nuova Simonelli, though I’m sure that is pretty obvious. If you want to factor this into how I’m presenting this information then I won’t protest.


A while ago I went to Marco and begged another favour. In the past we’d worked together on what had become the Uber boiler, and I was grateful they were up for something again. In a cafe I want to brew various coffees by the cup, but I don’t want the inconsistencies or labour costs of pourover brewing or other methods. I want to get to tasty quickly, easily and repeatably. I asked Marco if they’d build me something like a batch brewer that brewed only a cup at a time. (i.e. use the same technology for consistency). This fit pretty well with a project they were already working away on in R&D nicknamed “Splurty” and at HOST they showed 2 units of the new machine. It can brew up to 400ml in up to 4 minutes (or quicker if you want) and can use existing brewers like Hario, Kalitta or Chemex. I’m excited to get the first couple soon to start playing with.

There are some great pictures again on Sprudge over here.

The common theme between all this is not that I want to automate the barista out of a job, but that I want to make getting to great coffee more easily. I’m tired of fighting coffee, I’m tired of serving coffee that we know could be better and I’m tired of drinking disappointing coffee as a customer.

This is a bit of a quick post at the end of the day, before heading out to dinner, but I wanted to write something now. I probably have a lot more to say, and to explain, about each project but I will save that for when people can actually get their hands on them. You may have questions – feel free to tweet them at me! I may not answer quickly, but I will get there… (or if you’re in Italy then come and see me on the booth tomorrow and I will make you some coffee.)