On Loyalty Cards

This post is not going to be particularly kind to loyalty cards. Let’s start off with the first problem: we’ve got the name wrong.

Are we really creating “Loyalty”?

They aren’t really loyalty cards, they’re more accurately described as discount cards. They are a fancy and convoluted form of coupons. Great coffee shops tend not to think of themselves as the sort of places that offer discount coupons but that is what loyalty cards are.

Let’s not fool ourselves: no one is loyal because of the card. No one is going to avoid other coffee shops simply because of the fact they carry a single loyalty card in their wallet for their favourite cafe. Chances are they have several, and are just slowly working the system to earn the free drinks.

What upsets me more is the idea that a discount on coffee is the best way to create loyalty. Loyalty programs came from companies with a commoditised product who were looking for a competitive edge. The whole point of speciality coffee is to make the point that we have a differentiated product, rather than a commoditised one. If we’re earning loyalty on price, then we’re likely to lose it on price too. If we earned that loyalty through quality and through experience then it will be so much harder for a competitor to win that customer away from us.

The discounts

Coffee is sold, in most of the world, on pretty tight margins. The only way to generate considerable return is to increase your scale as typical coffee business will achieve 8-12% of their net sales as pre-tax profit. The discounts we offer on our core products through loyalty cards are pretty astonishing.

Let’s compare:

Number of drinks to fill card Discount
5 16.7%
6 14.2%
7 12.5%
8 11.1%
9 10%

Those are pretty staggering discounts on a product that doesn’t have huge margins to begin with. If you have a buy 7 and get your 8th free and a well intentioned barista throws an extra stamp on there the average discount for every drink bought using the card becomes 25%!

Now a ten percent discount only translates to a 3.8% increase in cost of goods (as a percentage of the drink), but an already squeezed business just has its life made much harder. For staff who want to be paid more, there is simply less money in the pot.

If you want to get into the detail you should probably cost out the cost of the cards, the ink and the time taken to do it (all of which do add up over a year).

Big Data

This isn’t to say that there are no redeeming features in loyalty programs, but I don’t think many independent businesses are entirely comfortable with some of the opportunities. For many larger companies a loyalty program gives access to data about the user that can be exploited for increased profitability.

The Harris and Hoole iOS app is an interesting inbetweener in all of this, and I think is worth paying attention to. I should state now that I know next to nothing about future plans for the app, or about what data is being collected and analysed. This is speculation mixed with experience.

When you download the app you’re informed you get a free coffee (essentially the digital loyalty card has already been filled once for you). The app asks you what your favourite coffee is. I picked a small, black filter coffee.

When you arrive at, or near, a location you check in and can send your order to the till – you don’t have to be inside, just close. By the time I got to the ordering point the barista asked if I was James. She then asked if I wanted to use my free drink, which I did. She then told me it was already being made and I could collect it from the second of their two coffee stations. Impressive.

Interestingly they brew a specific coffee for black filter coffee drinker – I didn’t realise this until I asked someone afterwards, but the fact they gave me a naturally processed coffee was interesting. Knowing I wasn’t going to add milk allowed them to showcase a more interesting and risky coffee than they otherwise might have. The experience was fluid, and once they add payment then they’ve removed a great deal of hassle from the entire experience. For locations with time constrained people (i.e. the financial district), I could see this making a lot of sense.

As I said, I don’t know what data they’re collecting. Simply putting a digital, location aware loyalty card in your customer’s pockets yields interesting opportunities. As Harris and Hoole are connected to Tesco I hope they’re doing more with the data. I certainly would want to!

I’d want to look for trends in customer behaviour and ordering patterns. Do they visit the same store every time? Do they always order the same thing? Do more customers order black coffee drinks on Mondays, allowing me to drop my milk order a little bit – or be prepared if people tend to drink larger beverages midweek? If I alert a customer to a newly opened store when they walk past it, coupled with a reminder that they’ve nearly hit their free drink, can I capture a sale that might have been lost to a competitor?

I’m sure there are huge limitations on what we can currently do with data, and how accurate we can be, but there is no doubt that the collection of information about us and our habits is hugely important for many businesses. Whether we approve or knowingly consent to this data collection is a large, but separate topic.

Get rid of loyalty cards?

I want to make this clear: I am not criticising people who have those programs in place. If I had opened a cafe in the last 5 years I would undoubtedly have thought long and hard about doing one. Opening a business is terrifying and it is natural to look for every opportunity for success.

Nor am I saying that people should get rid of them. Taking something away is incredibly difficult to do, because it is hard to reward a customer for a behaviour and then tell them you think this behaviour is bad. This makes people confused and angry. We don’t want that.

I would urge people to consider them carefully, if only from a fiscal perspective, and be fully prepared for their impact on margins and opportunities for lost revenue. I don’t want us to think about price and discounts driving loyalty, because it takes away focus from what we should be good at.

I expect lots of people won’t like this post. Lots of people will accuse me of criticising their business, which I’m not, or tell me that their program is very successful (which, on the condition that they’re ok with the discount, I hope it is).

I wanted to write this because Simon from Electric Coffee wrote to me about them, and got my brain thinking (thank you) and I thought I’d share those thoughts here.

Handing Over Control

I was talking about Rene Redzepi’s talk at the NBC last night and had a realisation, that perhaps is not staggering or new but was probably worth writing down.

Rene remarks that people have no objections to being fed live ants, but get very angry when you stop them from having milk in their coffee. From the outside it does look a little crazy, and you would think that the best restaurant in the world should be able to serve everything exactly as they want it.

What I think is missing from this dynamic is the idea of control. When you eat at a restaurant like Noma your meal begins when you hand over control to the chefs. This is the glorious part of it – you are entirely in their hands, to experience food as they see it or as they want you to see it. You’ll be adventurous because you the experience leads you to believe that your trust in them won’t be abused and they won’t serve you something that will make you unhappy.

Then there is a moment in the meal that a restaurant hands back control to the guest. Typically the food has finished and the experience is coming to a close. It is usually signified with something along the lines of:

“Would you like anything else? Perhaps some coffee?”

From this point on the guest is in control of their own destiny and making decisions, and when we deny them milk with their coffee we are implying that we think they have made a poor decision. We are criticising them. They tend to react badly when they feel criticised for asking for something they habitually enjoy and consider to be good.

This isn’t really a post about how Noma should just make coffee a course, not an optional addition – though I think they would encounter way less resistance in getting people to experience the coffee exactly as they want.

This is about looking for moments when a guest places their trust in us, places control of their experience in our hands. It is also about realising that most of the time people feel (quite rightly) that they are in control and our objections are heard as criticisms and judgement of who they are.

The Productivity of Online Discussion

As I mentioned in my reader survey results post – I’ve been planning to write something about the viability and worth of online discussion. I’ve been through the “why I removed the comments” thing a few times. I’ve also experimented with things like Branch to see if that worked better.

People generally bemoan the state of online discussion, and often the blame seems to fall on twitter. We all spend our time microblogging (this is a stupid word) and our conversations on there are fast paced, global but ultimately shallow and often somewhat smug.

I’ve thought a lot about how online discussion could work better, and I’ve come to a conclusion that many people won’t really like: It isn’t possible.

Useful, interesting, engaging discussion simply doesn’t suit the form and fit of the internet. It suits small groups of people being in the same room at the same time. In my limited experience of life I would say the smaller the number the better. Discussions that have shaped my thinking, inspired me, astonished me or left me in awe have usually been with a 1 to 3 other people. This is the nature of genuine conversation.

The internet doesn’t work well for that. It is full of voices, and its democracy both helps and hinders. On the one hand, all voices are equal so having a certain level of reputation or kudos is not required to get your voice heard. On the other hand, all voices are equal and intelligent, experienced opinion can be drowned out by noise and nonsense. This happens all too often.

“Ah,” you interject, “but what about those really great discussions you had in your comments section in the past? What about the Naturals Debate blog post?”

I would argue that that wasn’t really a great discussion. Some very smart people wrote short essays on a subject, and kindly allowed me to host them. (Those in favour of moderation as a solution to comments should remember that I could easily have prevented any of those from being shared based on my own whims and beliefs. I don’t think that possibility really belongs in an environment for great discussion).

While the part of me that enjoys the bickering aspect of debates, I generally thought the whole thing got more confusing and less helpful as it tried to turn into a actual conversational discussion. Reading through them again it feels quite fragmented outside of the main back and forth between Peter Giuliano and Geoff Watts. There are people trying to pull the debate in all sorts of directions, those how just want to chime in with their own opinions (sometimes of dubious relevance). Questions are asked that are inevitably lost, because they are not asked to anyone in particular. When you ask that semi-rhetorical question in a conversation you generally will end up working towards an actual answer. Yes – great information was shared, but I would argue that Geoff should have written a blog post on a site he or his company owned, to have full control over his own words and opinions. Finding and read it would not have been much more difficult than scrolling through dozens of comments to find it.

Does this all mean that I see this blog as a place to broadcast my ideas from, to have them go unchallenged? I don’t think so. I think the internet is incredibly good for sharing ideas, and when an idea is good the internet will do an incredibly good job at spreading it to an enormous number of people.

I would say the back and forth on the subject of the EK43 was great when it turned into long form essays from various participants. Points could be communicated clearly, and there was none of the fuzzy confusion of the discussion on the same subject happening on twitter.

I believe you’ll learn more from discussing or arguing about one of Colin Harmon’s blog posts with a friend or colleague in the real world, than you would from reading comments about it online. (Note: Colin is used as a hypothetical example here, but you get the idea…)

Importantly, I don’t think this is particularly unique to coffee. I see the same issues in the other industries that I’m interested in. The internet is a vast archive of ideas and information, categorised and impressively searchable. It isn’t a great vehicle to drive discussion about those ideas. I believe this is an opportunity for trade associations like the SCAA, BGA or SCAE to step in. I go to SCAA each year for a lot of reasons, but top of the list is the half dozen truly great conversations I will have when I am there. That is worth the price of admission and travel to me. After all – a trade association should probably help those of us in the trade associate…

I don’t think this is going to be a terribly popular blog post, and by my own logic it is going to difficult to communicate why you think I’m wrong back to me. Perhaps you’ll write a blog post about it (which I’d happily link to on our here and on twitter). I do hope, however, that there will be an opportunity in the future where we might be able to sit down over a cup of coffee, or a glass of something inebriating, to actually talk about it in person. I think it would be a worthwhile discussion.

Book Review – Espresso Extraction: Measurement and Mastery

I don’t review many books on here, not only because staggeringly few are released on coffee. This isn’t really a super in depth review, not because it doesn’t merit one, but more because I don’t think I’ve ever found myself more in agreement with the content of a book on coffee.

Scott Rao’s previous books should be considered essential, though I should remind people that ownership does not result in knowledge transfer – you actually have to read the damn things. (I know that sounds cynical, but I’ve had way too many conversations that reinforce this particular belief.)

His new book is currently available only as an e-book from amazon here. 1

While relatively short, it covers espresso extraction, grinders, roast development, refractometry, pressure profiling and more. I think it is worth reading, and I think that if you want to excel as a barista then (in an ideal world) knowing this content inside and out should required. (Note: It does not cover roast development from a “how to” perspective for a roaster.)

In short – the information is worth the ticket price, and I like the ebook format, and I very much like the content. I hope cafe owners use the ebook format to get it into the hands of more staff around the world.

Photography is done by a very good friend of mine, Liz Clayton, whose book I am going to presume you all own…

Disclosure: Scott sent me the book for free. The above link is not an amazon affiliate link, and I do not profit in any way from its sale.

  1. A kindle isn’t really required, I read the book the first couple of times with the Kindle app on my desktop computer  ↩︎

Reader Survey Results

Thanks to more than 500 people who took the time to respond to the little survey I put up, the results were pretty interesting (and certainly helpful for me).

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first, the raw data:

I don’t think I’m particularly surprised that two thirds of the readership here are the coffee industry (present or former), though they might just make up the regular readers who were interested enough to comment. I suspect a fair amount of traffic is casual, information hunting, non-coffee people. (Or so my search term analytics suggest)

Content that interest you?

This surprised me a little. I thought there was more interest in green coffee and roasting, but it may be that those comments are just a little louder. I am reassured at the number of people whose interest line up pretty closely with mine!

The data on how you keep track of new posts isn’t too surprising. Twitter topped the poll, followed by visiting the homepage and then lowly RSS in third. (The other two options had barely any responses which was interesting.)

General Feedback

Then we get to the general feedback that many people left…

Some of you wrote things that were incredibly kind, and I thank you so much. I’d buckled down for the worst, as the internet + anonymity of comments generally doesn’t go too well. I was stunned by the lovely things people wrote, and again – sincerely thank you.

“Post more!”

I confess the frequency can be somewhat erratic. I have a large writing project underway that soaks up a lot of my spare time and, when combined with the amount of time spent writing emails etc at work, I often just don’t want to sit in front of a computer to hammer away at the keyboard. (I will post up some details of the project if I get it to the point where it looks like I might actually finish, but not until then.)

Writing does help organise my mind and generate new thoughts so it is likely down to discipline, and making the time. There are half a dozen ideas half written posts in my head, and half a dozen more languishing awkwardly in the drafts folder on here .  tldr; I will try!

“Bring back comments!”

I’m sorry, but this isn’t likely to change any time soon. I enjoy the blog more without them (the experience of running it anyway). I do have a long overdue post on the subject of discussion within coffee on the internet. For a while some of the old ones went missing, but they should all be back showing now.

“Didn’t you eliminate comments? It seems odd that now you want to hear from any of us.”

I didn’t remove comments because I wasn’t interested in what people had to say. I simply didn’t want to host other people’s opinions on my personal website. Feedback via email or twitter is always welcome (though I have been a bit behind on the email side recently – sorry!).

“Bring back the podcast!/Bring back the videocast!”

I have a shameful confession. I have two podcasts recorded that I have failed to properly edit and release. (Though the primary apology should go to the people who spent the time talking to me.) I will try and edit and release one of them in the next month or so.

I miss doing videos, and should I find myself with a little time to do this stuff soon then they’re pretty high up on the list. They are monstrously time consuming things to film and edit though.

“Too pessimistic!”

This was a single comment, but it did stick out. It may well be right. I worry I’ve entered into a sort of cynicism and lost my bright-eyed wonderment and feeling of endless possibilities. On the other hand I may just have come to a point with realistic goals that I may actually achieve. I don’t think the outlook for much of our industry is too good, but action would be better than just having a moan about it.

As a wrap up – I will say thank you. Thanks for reading. Thanks for taking the time to fill in the survey. Thanks for sharing with me, I’m genuinely grateful.

A very quick reader survey

I hate long surveys. I blame a mixture of laziness and a lack of attention, plus they always feel a bit like I’m doing someone else’s work for them. Those of you who read this blog have been generous with your time in responding to previous surveys. If you have a moment I’d be delighted if you could tick some check boxes. Please feel free to ignore the text box if you aren’t in the mood for writing.

I’m not going to promise to change what I write on here to suit the audience. This is, after all, a personal blog. It would still be interesting to know a little more about the people who visit, so I hope you’ll spare me the time.

Thank you.

Alright, let’s talk about EK43s then

Dale Harris of HasBean wrote a post called “We Need to Talk About EK43s“, about the current wave of interest sweeping through our industry in Mahlkönig’s EK-43 grinder.  I understand the sentiment behind the post, but I also disagreed with a huge amount of it.

For an industry that proudly tweets about the importance of dialogue, we’re generally terrible at long form discussion of any kind.  I want to make it clear that this is a disagreement of ideas, and not an attack on Dale or HasBean (both of whom I think are rather wonderful.)

Further disclaimers:  My company sells these grinders.  We use these grinders for all QC, and have done for some months now.  We did host Ben Kaminsky’s talks in London, but we did not profit from them in any way.  Ben Kaminsky is a close friend and someone I spend a lot of time talking to about coffee, because he often makes me feel stupid.  Which is good.

I’d recommend reading Dale’s entire post, but I am going to quote heavily from it throughout.  This is going to be pretty long, so either hit “Read Later” or let’s begin…

At the WBC in Melbourne Matt Perger, a super smart guy along with his coach Ben Kaminski [sic] (also super smart) presented a routine filled with new ideas and demonstrated a vision of how the espresso machine could be used: by using a grinder not usually associated with espresso preparation and by allowing a different control of extraction parameters. Around the same time, a few people I have great respect for have embraced some of these new concepts, putting them on bar alongside or to replace their existing menu.

Ben has run some training events in Europe, discussing the what, why, and how of these techniques and the drinks they create—I have not been to these sessions; I wish I had.

My first concern is that Dale hasn’t attended these events, and is speculating about their content from 2nd degree sources.  Some of these sources actually contain a few inaccuracies about the events, but that is by the by.

It’s been proposed that the EK43, a grinder designed years ago for the spice milling industry which exhibits improved grind particle size distribution can be the solution for poor (or poorly controlled) extraction for both filter coffee and espresso brewing.

Without giving Ben’s class away, I would disagree here.  Using this grinder and techniques allows us to increase the extraction of well roasted coffees into areas of the brewing control chart previously considered negative (i.e. above 22%) while seeing an increase in quality, rather than a decrease.

I have two issues with this:

1. Is it a good solution to the problem?
2. Is the problem really a problem?

I am not sure the problem is ever really clearly defined here.  Are we saying that underextraction of coffees is the problem?  I would argue that with many conical burr grinders extraction is a problem if you prefer lighter, but developed, espresso roasts.  Unless you’re roasting to tickle second crack you’re unlikely to easily exceed 19% extraction on a conical burr grinder.  This seems something of a shame if there is more tasty stuff that we’re knocking into the trash at the end of each shot.

Question No. 1: Is it a good solution to the problem?

The innovators and early adopters of these techniques and set-ups are getting tasty coffee with the EK43. That’s great! But, if we’re talking about it as a “solution” for both filter coffee and espresso, I’m finding it very hard to buy into as an idea.

Fair enough.  However, I’d be more comfortable with the dismissal of ideas after testing, rather than reading about online.  Before my own experimenting I had placed a hard limit on extraction at around 20%, and was extremely skeptical when told that coffee could taste good above that.  Testing revealed I was wrong, and my parameters have changed accordingly.

It is undeniable that the grinder achieves a different grind distribution and allows greater control over extraction % and different flavour properties in the cup–we can and should debate whether or not these results are improvements (only however whilst sharing the same drink, not different roasts of different coffees, brewed with different water in different time zones) but that doesn’t mean this grinder is a good solution.

It isn’t just control.  What probably hasn’t been made clear is that higher extractions simply aren’t possible with some grinders.  You can keep grinding finer, and seeing an increase in extraction, but then as you get finer still you actually start to see a decrease again.  There is a hard limit for many espresso grinders.

I don’t, however, buy into the EK43 as a grinder for espresso preparation. Here’s why:

  • New grinders are expensive – how many more cups of coffee do you need to sell (or how much more do you need to charge per cup) to cover a £1500 investment in a tool you happily lived without yesterday

I’m not really following the logic of this statement.  I lived without things in the past but their addition to my life has been an improvement, and I now consider them indispensable.  As for the cost argument, you could approach this from an actual answer – assuming most cafes make around 10-13% pre tax net, then you’d need to sell between £14,000 and £18,000 worth of coffee (including VAT). Depending on cost per cup obviously, but let’s just say 8,000 drinks for now.  This is before we factor in the reduction of waste.  For most people 8,000 drinks would take about 160+kg of coffee.  Most people’s coffee waste sits between 10-15%, and if that were reduced.  This could be reduced to significantly less waste, increasing yield per kilo.  You’d probably require 25kg less coffee to do the same amount of drinks (so multiply the wholesale price of whatever coffee you use by 25 for a bonus saving.)  Now work out the savings over the course of 1, 3 and 5 years.  I suspect the grinder paid for itself relatively early on.

I’m aware the above back-of-a-napkin maths is massively oversimplified, and can be torn to pieces quite easily – the point is that in a well run business should be able to renew its equipment and invest in things that allow it to increase its efficiency and profitability.

  • This grinder is not made for espresso service – we’re taking a tool designed for a different purpose and pushing to the limits parts of it that just aren’t made for high volume use – things will break (and will thus be more expensive) in the long run

It isn’t made for espresso service, on this I absolutely agree.  I think it is unfair to speculate on reliability without any data though.

  • The blades are sharper and more expensive—they will dull faster. Let’s say burrs for a standard on-demand grinder are £80, these burrs are closer to £350, and likely to need replacing more often to maintain the virtue for which they are being prized

I’d really like to see where the data on burr age is coming from, as in my experience the way a burr ages is a complex mixture of burr material, quality of cutting, size, volume of coffee used, grind setting used etc etc.  If there is data that is available on this then I would welcome it.

  • Using the grinder is labour intensive – it takes longer. Does the subjective quality of the shots produced add up to enough benefit to charge more per drink your staff make? Even if slower service is acceptable to customers, it still reduces the amount of drinks a person can make within a given timeframe

Currently it is indeed more labour intensive.  I haven’t done the maths on how the reduction in waste tallies against the increase in labour cost, and obviously every cafes relationship between price spent per kg and wage paid per hour is different.  There would likely be some offset, if not a net gain.  However, no one is really proposing this grinder in this incarnation as a final solution.  It is simply a step forward.

I can’t reiterate the above point enough, and it should be noted that those experimenting with it are pretty much alpha, perhaps beta testers.  If you are not willing to participate with some risk, and a high incidence of bugs and errors then don’t buy a grinder yet.  No one is selling this as a finished solution, and to make out like anyone is creates a logical fallacy best known as the straw man argument.

These are incredibly boring reasons to supposedly write off the future of coffee preparation; in fact, I understand deeply the argument that cost should never be the deciding factor in a business focussed on delivering quality. However, it is still part of the equation: I don’t give a shit if you sold the best coffee in the universe if you’ve closed due to bankruptcy when I follow trip adviser to your door.

Is £1500 spent going to damage an historic, famous landmark coffee bar of the speciality movement? Probably not, but it could be the margin between success and failure for a less established business, and slower service and insufficient capacity are not something customers are crying out for right now.

The endemic financial unsustainability of serving coffee drinks is a problem, that needs more work for a solution.  However, if you are taken out by a £1,500 hit then you are either grossly underfunded, terrible at cashflow management or (and this is frankly extremely rare compared to the other two) you aren’t sufficiently profitable.  Expenses like this are inevitable in business, planned for or not.

I hope I have made something of a case above about why thinking like this and experimenting like this can lead us towards increased profitability and an increased likelihood of customer engagement.

If we want a more uniform grind size for espresso brewing, or even a fully uniform one, there needs to be better understanding of what’s causing higher uniformity of grind particle size (burrs, motor, direction/angle of burrs) and then the integration of those factors into a grinder body that allows on demand dosing so we can stop pissing around making coffee and focus attention on serving[1] coffee.

Well, obviously.  No one is arguing to the contrary here.  No one is claiming this is a finished product for the applications we are using it for.

Coming back to filter coffee and moving away from the grinder, to a topic I’m less familiar with – coffees shots: do we need to be brewing filter through an espresso machine? Are the flaws in manual and automated filter brewing so high that the solution would be to brew coffee exclusively through metal baskets attached to pump driven pressurised machines because at least that way temperature stability and pouring technique aren’t issues?

There are obvious implications in using espresso machines to brew coffee to filter coffee style volume and TDS% goals:

  • Time: whilst brewing filter coffee through many methods is slow, at least you can do it away from your espresso bar

What is the advantage of that?  Increased movement in a cafe is generally a bad thing, and economy of movement should be prized as a part of workflow in labour intensive operations.

  • Water usage: cafes in many european cities using RO are quite aware of the effort it takes to produce perfect water for brewing[2] more water volume through your espresso machine means greater storage requirement of filtered water – there goes another cover

This is incorrect.  If you require 250g of water to brew a filter coffee then an RO doesn’t become more or less efficient depending on whether that water will be heated in a counter top water boiler or an espresso brew boiler.  In fact, our tendency to rinse filter papers means that an RO would need to produce more water to brew a pour over.  (I put most people’s rinse at around 100g of water).  Pour over coffee uses more water than a coffee shot, and therefore produces more waste from an RO.

The easier point to make here would be that in most scenarios the energy usage in the water boiler would be better, as they are generally more thoroughly insulated than espresso brew boilers (and the fact they are not properly insulated on so many machines drives me insane!).

  • Using tools in a way they are not designed: I don’t believe the design of any modern temperature stable espresso machine has figured for regular output of 250ml shots – some of the older ones (pre 1940) were designed for it – but PID’s weren’t included

This will vary dramatically from machine to machine, but I would argue it is significantly more repeatable and controllable than the water coming from a pouring kettle.  Again – actually testing this (hard to do without messing around with your Scace device), combined with actually tasting the results, would be better grounds for dismissal at this point than speculation.  I admit to having retained a hangover of skepticism around coffee shots, despite the fact that I’ve had several that have been exceptional and unique in certain qualities to that brew method. (In a good way.)

As well as flaws, there are virtues to the way we currently brew filter coffee. I enjoy the clarity of flavour that reduced undissolved solids allow in my Chemex, and I appreciate the difference between my consistently well brewed 6l drip brewers output[3] and the cup profile I get from my Eva solo. In fact, I adore tasting a coffee a different way and finding a completely different reason to love it.

Dismissing the clarity of a properly made coffee shot, without tasting one, is a little unfair.  No one is proposing that these methods disappear, however I’m not really sure either is suited to a typical cafe environment.

Personally – and I fight internally over this all the time – I don’t think I want every cup of coffee I drink to come from a box behind a bar, with the promise that it was ground at that point the only remaining nod to ‘prepared for you’ the same way as every other drink being served from there was. That doesn’t suggest to me great engagement between staff and their product and it doesn’t help me appreciate that making coffee involves knowledge and craft. In fact, pre-portioned doses ready for any possible menu item reminds me more of the McFlurry machine.

I don’t care about how my coffee is made if it tastes delicious.  Our continued fetishisation of brewers we consider fashionable, regardless of customer experience, often in the name of “craft” is a problem for us.  Most of our customers really don’t care about the prep work, they care somewhat about the product and absolutely about the experience.  If we can spend a little less time pouring self-absorbed swirls of water over coffee, and a little more time being nice to people, then that would be great.

Question No. 2: Is the problem really a problem?

 I don’t want to be the guy who stands up for the status quo, for the good enough, and for the adequate – I don’t want to say that selling coffee is a numbers game that requires fast food style service and high volume to succeed in a market with high rent and low unit value…

 I am, however, going to question whether coffee made and served the way speciality cafes have been trying to over the last 10 years is that bad.

 Let’s start by clearly defining my bias:

  •   I’ve had delicious espresso, more than once
  •   I’ve had delicious filter coffee, more than once

These seem like really silly things to write down – I would seriously ask why anyone would passionately drink, let alone sell coffee if they couldn’t say this – but bear with me, you’ll see why it’s important.

 None of these delicious drinks needed modal grind size, or low grind size distribution – they needed good coffee, and people working hard with the goal of delivering consistently something they thought was nice tasting and worthwhile.

I have said this every year I’ve been in coffee, and every year I’ve worked to set myself a new benchmark.  I’m interested in better in every aspect of what we do.  This does not invalidate what I enjoyed in the past, but I have no intention of settling at any point.  So I do not believe the above to be a valid argument against experimentation and innovation.

I am arguing that we are able to serve delicious coffee if we so wish, and whilst different taste goals should and can be explored, there is value in what we’ve built so far.

Another straw man I’m afraid, because no one is arguing that we’re not capable of delicious coffee now. No one is making a point contrary to the above.

Question No. 3: Were We All Wrong?

 In separate discussions with two people working in bars who are using the EK43 in part of their service – individuals who I think talk a lot of sense about coffee and have served me many tasty things –  words were said that caused an almost primal reaction within me.[5]

Within one conversation  it was suggested that, ‘the coffee tastes different, I’m not sure it always tastes better, but we’re selling it because we want to extract the best we can and this may enable us to do it.’

I can’t speak to other people’s quotes.  I would be happy to go on the record to say that I have tasted shots and brews that exceed the quality of what I have experienced before on traditional equipment.

Why would we stop selling something we enjoyed yesterday and replace it with something we’re not sure we enjoy – isn’t that what the back room/ R&D is for?

As above – we’re beta testing.  Those who wish to go live with it are welcome to make that decision, but they make it for their own business.  No one is saying you have to do anything different from what you are doing now.  This may solve something you consider a problem.  It may not.  Get as much information as you can and try to make an informed decision.

Within another, ‘as part of adopting this we may need to develop our understanding of what good espresso tastes like’, that perhaps we’ve been apologising for or skirting over the fact that espresso was acidic, when in fact it was our inability to brew correctly.

I don’t really understand this point clearly.  Higher yields have resulted in increased balance and mouthfeel, and increased sweetness for me.  (There are certain other attributes that wreck my head, and how I understand espresso, but I promised not to give Ben Kaminsky’s entire class away…)

When I judge espresso as tasty it is a reaction to  flavour and texture, not a filing of it against a context we’ve established as a movement. When espresso has acidity and we enjoy it, that’s because it’s nice. When it’s too acidic, too bitter, or even too sweet, we should adjust our recipe, adjust our technique, or not serve it.

What we enjoy from coffee is up to us, and arguably some of our positions allow us to influence what some people drink and how much they enjoy it – but the market (or our chosen part of it) will always tell us what they really think in the long term.

The invitation will always be open to come and share espressos with us here, and discuss what we collectively taste.  Writing off how an espresso tastes from an EK, without ever tasting it, is a problem for me.

’m not saying that those using these new systems are wrong, or that it won’t be part of or inform our shared coffee future. In fact, I’m proud to work in an industry that has many people, trying many new things, and I can’t wait to taste them all—Innovation is good, taking (calculated) risks is good, following your nose, pallet, or gut is good.

However, I’m shamed by our rush to embrace a silver bullet to fix our problems, by our desire to be the coolest kids on the block, and our fear of being left behind.

Here is, for me, the real meat of Dale’s post.  This is something that I absolutely agree with.  Please don’t jump on the EK43 bandwagon without a thorough understanding of what is being experimented with, and what the potential ROI is.  There is no rush.  This is a new idea, this is early days.  There may be competitive advantage in it (as outlined above), but that inevitably comes with caveats.

Lets get this straight – if you buy into this now you will not be the first person to do this in a shop, there will be no first place prize, the novelty is not valuable – in 6 months lessons will have been learnt and the cutting edge will have moved on, possibly leaving scars, possibly some people gloating at my idiot naysaying and almost definitely some tidied up lessons that may or may not include aspects extolled today as progress.

Agreed again. 100%.  I’ve tried, repeatedly, to differentiate innovation from novelty (something we seem to struggle with as an industry).

 Doing something expensive, risky, and different because someone else thinks it’s the future of your industry isn’t clever—it’s certainly not innovation, taking a calculated risk, or following your nose. It’s playing follow the leader where the leader doesn’t know you, how your business operates, how your staff work, and who your customers are.

I’m disappointed by our lack of faith in the drink we gave to someone yesterday, and I’m pissed off that we still think a new toy will fix everything when the proven reality, not just in coffee but in every industry, is that growth and improvement come with small, boring improvements and an aggregate of marginal gains, not an old deli grinder.

Again, more agreement.  However, I believe that it is also disappointing to see something so thoroughly dismissed without proper testing or hands on time.  I agree with so much of the sentiment, but I believe it is absolutely healthy (and essential) to be dissatisfied with what we are doing now – if our businesses are focused on quality.  When that goes away we start doing stupid things like talking about “the perfect cup”, and we discover all too late that we’ve been left behind (something we see in this industry often, as well as many other industries.)


Some of us are playing with the grinder.  It is being used in a way it is not designed to be.  We believe there are commercial and qualitative upsides to this. We do not think we have a market ready solution to various problems. We are excited. We believe that we have access to a higher tier of cup quality, with a few caveats and challenges along the way.

If you aren’t ready to suffer through alpha and beta testing: please wait.  Doing this without an an understanding of what you’re trying to achieve will decrease your quality and consistency.

I will welcome any rebuttals, arguments or otherwise.  I would like to thank Dale for starting a conversation that I hope continues.  I like that he writes in long form often, publishes independent thoughts, and has his own voice and opinions. I look forward to the continuing discussions he will doubtless generate.

Cafe Imports and Roast Profiles

I seemed to spark a little discussion on twitter 1 when I said that I didn’t like that Cafe Imports were starting to publish roast profiles for the green coffees they offer.

I’d like to reiterate, here at the start, that I said I didn’t like it, not that it was wrong, or bad or stupid.  I said I didn’t like it at all.  I’d like to explain why, and hopefully take into account all the reasons people think they are a good thing.

Roaster to Roaster

Probe type, probe placement, probe depth in drum and percentage of full load will all yield different temperatures on a display for roast’s actual temperature.  We call them bean probes but that’s mostly a lie.  They very rarely are giving us an accurate picture of the bean temperatures – you can get pedantic and argue that all roast graphs should start with the bean temperature at room temp, instead of having a 60-80 second period of decrease before it bottoms out and starts to increase again.

Even the general shape of a profile – something you could argue is mappable from Cafe Imports’ roast profiles – will be different on different roasters.  I don’t really know how to translate the profile from a full batch 5kg Probatone to a Loring running a half batch, let alone to something like a Sivetz fluid bed roaster.

This is why I think that giving someone roast profiles is completely different to giving coffee brewing recipes.  In an espresso machine, with a properly machined basket, at 9 bars and at ideal temps, a brew recipe for espresso should produce a repeatable and desirable result. (Unless your grinder sucks).  I can say with some confidence what will work and what can be replicated easily, and measurably.

Profile to Profile

Profiles are very rough guidelines in my experience.  People don’t really talk about this much but exactly replicating a roast profile does not produce an identical result.  You will see variations (though relatively small) on external and internal colour, as well as roast loss and variations in the cup.  It’s maddening, and most roasters (as in individuals) don’t really want to talk about this as many feel confused, frustrated and somewhat worried that this might be their fault or something that they’re doing wrong that everyone else obviously does right.  This isn’t really a super important point, but one that I felt appropriate to bring up.

The contentious point

Cafe Imports are providing a service that lots of their customers are asking for.  Firstly, I hope that if you’re buying interesting and delicious coffees at a premium, that you are doing so because when you tasted the coffee something in it appealed to you.  You had a vision for how you wanted to present that coffee to your customers.  This aesthetic is something I’ve written about before, and something that I think is very important to the health of speciality coffee.  You could give the same coffee to various roasters and they’ll present it differently.  Heart have a different aesthetic to Stumptown, Tonx to Tim Wendelboe, Counter Culture to George Howell.  No one roaster is right about how to roast a coffee.  They like the coffees they present, and grow legions of fans who agree with them, to whom that particular aesthetic appeals.

The demand for roast profiles makes me a little sad.  It is a stark that people are buying coffees just to fill holes in offering lists.  They just need a Guat, or El Sal.  They want one that is traceable, with a good, saleable story (nothing wrong with that, I should add!). They want a shortcut to make sure they get reasonable value for money, but in many ways it is an admission that cup quality isn’t the most important thing.  You might even be more successful working this way.  Focusing on selling a story, a product, a service rather than just focusing on the experience in the cup.

The coffee industry suffers because its largest workforce (baristas and service staff) are often employed by the least experienced in the industry.  We make it very easy for people to start cafes simply because they want to, rather than expecting them or demanding they at least know the basics of what they do.  I worry we continue to set the bar too low to enter the commercial roasting business.  I’m all for people being passionate about their product.  I’m also passionate about people investing their energies in developing their skills before they try and leverage them in return for people’s money.

I’m willing to have that finger pointed back at me.  Looking back at the start of SQM I would consider us relatively inexperienced, but we could both cup critically and analytically and we were willing to throw away a lot of coffee in order to try and understand how to achieve what we wanted in the cup.  That process (sadly, including the waste and mistakes) continues 5 years later.  At no point did it cross our minds to ask the people we worked with on green coffee to tell us how to roast.  It wasn’t their job, expertise or responsibility;  it was ours.

Speaking of that responsibility, I don’t think I’m being controversial if I say that it is in Cafe Imports’ interests to increase the number of people who buy green coffee (i.e. people who roast).  Roast profiles may well tip those on the fence who lacked the confidence, experience and perhaps cupping skills to roast competently. These people may already have cafes and be buying interesting, and well roasted coffees from established roasters and are now looking for a point of difference.  Whether this is good or bad for the long term sustainability of speciality coffee is up for debate. This isn’t really criticism, as I think it is good business sense.  I expect to see the argument waved back at me that I’m just protecting my own interests, that I am trying to decrease competition by discouraging people from roasting, or trying to discredit good information somehow.  I assure you this is none of the above.

However, we’re drifting off topic and I should come to the final point:

Education and Sharing Information

Most of the responses I got were that it was good that someone was willing to share.  There is a painful absence of information regarding roasting coffee available.  There is nothing of value in books, or online bar a few interesting home roaster discussions.

Most of the best roasters in the world have gotten there through a process of trial and error, guided and accelerated by their ability to taste and to be self critical.  These profiles are reasonably intentional, but I would argue that no roast profile from any great roaster could or would be considered proprietary information.  I certainly wouldn’t treat any one of our profiles as proprietary or something to be secretive about and we regularly share them with customers who ask – mostly to be open and transparent.  However, in the past when I’ve shared profiles on the internet in various forums, it has been frustrating to be met with comments like “those temperatures are clearly wrong!” or “those roast times don’t seem possible to get fully developed coffee!”  Sharing like this just generated confusion and frustration, hence my reluctance to continue in the past.

For the reasons above I don’t consider a roast profile to be particularly educational, without a few critical factors but most importantly it means nothing without cupping the roast that generated the profile.  I happen to consider Joe Marocco, he who is producing the roast profiles,  an experienced and talented roaster who rubs his excellence in further by being an all round splendid chap, and exceedingly pleasant every time I’ve encountered him.  At no point am I criticising what he has published or questioning his skills or intentions.  I just think a much more effective way for people to learn from him would be to roast and cup with him.  That’s difficult, time consuming and expensive.

I suspect that these profiles will have the effect of bringing a few folks back from strange and isolated places in their roasting.  I’d be more comfortable with a publication of a general profile development plan.  It will prevent certain car crashes and people doing very odd things.

  1. I would say controversy but that makes it sound more interesting than the truth  ↩︎

NYC Lecture 2nd July

I shall be joining Ben Kaminsky for a lecture on the 2nd of July at the Joe Pro location and, if you are able, I hope you will join us.  It starts at 6.30pm, and will end around 8.30pm (or whenever the Q&A stops – I suspect it may end up being a pretty involved session).  Some info on Ben’s part:

Ben will be presenting some of his research on coffee and espresso brewing, grinding, and roasting, that are sure to answer some long standing questions (e.g. Is espresso brewing inherently flawed? What actually constitutes an espresso roast?). He will also be outlining how to produce a “coffee shot”, the new way for brewing filter coffee that he thinks will likely replace the industry’s best and fastest brewers to date. Ben recommends you understand the basic elements of extraction, including practical use of an extract mojo if you want to get the most out of the class, though beginners are also welcomed.

I will be talking about how some of this fits into the wider picture, where I see speciality going and the challenges ahead.  I’ll discuss wages, careers, profitability and how that all fits in with actually having a passion for coffee. I will also get to talk about the stuff that I’m generally not allowed to do at things like the SCAA.

Tickets are $75.  They are available here.

Side note:  I’d recommend grabbing a ticket in advance, rather than aiming to get one on the door…

End of The Other Black Stuff

Sad to see that David is going to stop writing.  I hope he, or someone else, archives it using a free service.  It resonated with me, as I have considered stopping writing here several times over the years.  This part particularly stood out:

As a collective (coffee geeks/specialty industry talking heads / starfuckers and starfuckees) we lend too much credence to unbridled theorists. The positive reinforcement from comments, retweets, attention perpetuates this kind of malignant behaviour. It becomes self-fueling, and unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) it can be rewarding in a roundabout way.

Thought is cheap though. Developing a compelling, yet ultimately shallow narrative is also cheap, and easy (see most TED talks). Action, work, making something, creating change is much more difficult and often less heralded. I hope to do more of the latter and less of the former.

 “Fin” by The Other Black Stuff

Ingredient Or Product

I had a vague realisation recently, though don’t know if it actually means anything. I think there are two different ways that roasters think about the coffee they sell.

Some, typically speciality and smaller roasteries, tend to think of the coffee they sell as ingredient. Similar to any other ingredient that a chef might buy in, sourced based on a combination of its provenance, its flavour and its price.

I think many of us quite like this idea, of coffee as an ingredient that can be used skillfully – though as we’re quality focused we’re probably pleased there aren’t many techniques (like brining, for exmaple) that could be used to improve cheaper cuts.

Then there are coffee roasters, who we might think of as being much larger, more commodity, who don’t really sell coffee as ingredient. Instead they create products. They have research and development teams, product development budgets and protocols.

Both sell bags of roasted coffee. The mindset is vastly different, as is the methodology. It is pretty hard to find a way for R&D and product development thinking, if what you are selling is a simple ingredient.

Maybe there is nothing in this. Maybe I’m just wrong and simplifying everything to the point of meaninglessness. However, I think that if you want to innovate in coffee then it is important to look for different viewpoints and mindsets to see if they take you to new places.