Weekly Musings 1/22

Unfiltered and unedited, here are some stream of consciousness thoughts from this week.  Take them with a grain of salt and feel free to talk with me about any of it.

Automation in coffee

The topic of automation in coffee has been a trend in my reading this week.  As coffee technology takes a lot of the human error out of the process, it also takes out a lot of the human.  This leaves baristas and coffee professionals concerned for their futures.  We can argue that the barista (in its current form) will always be around, but I think we would be ignoring the signs of change.  The very reason baristas exist has been to provide a quality and expertise that automated equipment could not.  Not that technology has progressed to a place where the machine does most of the work, this cornerstone of the baristas role has been eroded which means we will need to redefine their role in the future.  Read Hoffman’s Automation And Espresso or Perger’s The Death Of The Death Of The Barista for more information on this;  I’d like to explore instead what we lose with automation.

My experience in craft coffee started in my dorm room back in 2011.  I stumbled across a coffee forum online and read about how locally roasted coffee was so much better than the pre-ground stuff you get from the supermarket.  I went and bought a hand grinder and some beans from someplace in exotic then brewed it up in my Keurig.  Since that day, I’ve continued to research and try new things.  I tossed the Keurig and got an Aeropress then eventually added higher quality kettles, scales, and grinders to my setup.  Along the way, I saw the quality of my coffee dramatically improve.  The revelation from using the Aeropress for the first time floored me.  I had a different drink entirely.  Once I started working in a coffee shop where I had commercial level resources and ingredients in bulk I began to experiment with the tools I had.  What happens if I pull a shot for 60s on a coarser grind?  What happens if I break up the extraction into 3 mini shots based on extraction time?  The answer in both of these cases is you get something really nasty.

I think that if we work in a world where every shot is perfect and every pour over highlights the tasting notes to a T, we will lose an entire half of the coffee experience: the bad half.  I learned more about coffee from what I did wrong than from any of the things I did right.  I learned exactly what over-extraction is when I let a shot run too long, I learned what under extraction is when I ground too coarsely for my v60.  These experiences taught me more than any coffee blog or book.  It’s the same reason we require med students to go through clinicals and  aviators to have flight time; theoretical knowledge of a field is nothing without actual experience.

It goes for any field really, I’m just talking about it in the context of coffee here.  While automation is the future for the commercial side of the industry, the hands on practice will be essential for continued development of the technical skills and understandings that will push innovation, quality, and , most importantly, service.

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