(This one was tasty)

But, I’ve been noticing a few things about how speciality coffee shops all over the place are brewing. Of course I have, I’m opinionated and fussy. I’m talking about filter coffee, manual brewing. I’m aware that many places brew based on their understanding of what their customers like, some brew coffee how they themselves like to drink it. Many places seem to have jumped on the bandwagon of brew bars, some it is simply to have a filter option on the menu, and some it is a focal point for showcasing various coffees..

.

Why do we cup coffee? Of course roasters cup coffee to choose which coffees to buy, to determine roast profiles and make tweaks, quality control, et cetera. Why do coffee shops cup coffee? (Or do they actually cup the coffees they serve?) For a coffee shop serving filter options, cupping is the best way to get to know your product, particularly cupping the same coffee frequently. It has been a constant eye opener to me throughout my coffee adventures.  There are times I’ve been disappointed by how unimpressive a filter coffee served has been. Cupping it, I’ve realised it’s quite a delicious coffee.

.

In a nutshell, I just like brewed coffee to taste like the coffee in the cupping bowl. (By this I mean the coffee as received from the roaster, once they have decided on roast profiles etc) My question, put bluntly, is why would we brew any differently? I completely understand the need for various brew methods and tools, and am not advocating that coffee should only be served as a “cupping bowl” – this isn’t commercially practical, time-wise; neither is it particularly an enjoyable way of drinking a cup of coffee, given that the bottom of the cup would be full of ground coffee. I’m questioning the brew profiles. Why would we not stick to the exact same ratio as is universally used for cupping? Why would we not aim to serve the coffee in a manner which showcases that coffee in its completeness, as we would judge in a cupping? Why wouldn’t we brew to match the cupping bowl as closely as possible, by whatever methods or techniques will best achieve that?

.

Is it because of perceived customer preferences? “Our customers don’t like coffee that light.” Or because “they might not understand it?” As a little challenge to that way of thinking, are our taste buds really that different from our customers’ taste buds? Why would we understand it, but not the customers? I was just a customer once. A customer who thought that a good coffee should be smooth and rich, full of dark chocolate and nutty flavours. I wasn’t actually wrong – there are great coffees that can be simply described like this. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what “good coffee” was; I just hadn’t experienced anything to make me think beyond that – until I visited a place that brewed coffee differently from anywhere else I had been. There were only three coffees on the menu, and each was brewed using a separate method. The three coffees were each very different from the next, but each was brewed in a way that best repeated what that particular coffee was like in the cupping bowl. I actually discovered through this, that I do like chocolaty, nutty coffees – but that I really love light, bright, highly fruity coffees. The first time I tried the Yirgacheffe from Ethiopia, I didn’t think I liked it, it seemed sour and I wasn’t used to coffee being almost more like a tea. I stuck to the Capao, a coffee from Brazil, for a while because the flavours were less stunning, but very tasty.  After a few visits I branched out and gave the others a try, and I began to discover that coffee is so much more diverse than I had realised, and that there were incredible taste experiences to be had in just one simple cup of coffee.  Of course, I probably visited The Penny University far too frequently, but it really did change this customer’s perception of what coffee is and can be.

.

Why try to manipulate a high acidity coffee bursting with fruity notes, attempting to tone it down? Or try to somehow add body to a delicate coffee? Why not let each coffee shine as it is, and instead offer another option – a different coffee that naturally has lower acidity and a bigger body or heavier mouthfeel? If customers were given the chance to see the innate contrasts between different coffees, then our understanding of customers, and theirs of coffee, might be very different.  This, in my opinion, requires allowing the flavours to be as transparent in a filter coffee as in a cupping.  (Of course, I’m aware that slurping from a spoon presents the flavours even more obviously than sipping from a cup, before someone gets all smarty-pants)

.

Perhaps our perception of customer preferences isn’t the reason. Perhaps it seems too difficult to achieve the same results through brewing, as are found in cupping? It is actually possible to brew a very similar cup, although it might require some care and attention. Delving into this possibility opens up a whole realm of learning and discovery. Attempting to match the coffee in my cup, to the coffee that was cupped, forces an educational journey into how coffee reacts and responds, both in the filter and in the portafilter. Coffee is a constantly changing product, and adjustments to grind size, method, even equipment, are needed daily to ensure the integrity is preserved. Again, in my opinion, why it is essential that coffee shops cup their offerings frequently, as the best way to stay completely in tune with their coffees.

.

Maybe there is another reason altogether that can be given, which I have just missed or misunderstood – in fact I’m sure there are many other reasons. However, at the end of the day I reckon that, as baristas we are really just curators, presenting a work that is the culmination of others’ efforts. Of course, great care must go into presenting another’s work so as not to misrepresent it, or in case we compromise the integrity.  Perhaps too many baristas esteem their role higher than it is. I think if we try to re-interpret or alter a coffee, when presenting it simply as a filter coffee, we devalue the hard work of the growers and the craftsmanship of the roasters.  If we really think that a particular coffee should taste so different as a brewed beverage, perhaps we are in the wrong area of the industry.  I think various coffees do survive better through different brew methods – every brew method has its flaws, and as baristas we need to navigate the coffee through these, so that its “flavour package” remains as intact as possible.
I think that the experience of the cupping bowl should not be an industry secret, particularly as we happily describe tasting notes when offering a brew of the coffee in question. Have we ever considered what customers are thinking when they do participate in a cupping, spitoons and all, and they realise that the coffee they’ve been drinking all this time tastes quite differently like this?  Why shouldn’t they be able to have that taste experience, at their table, in a cup they can drink from (free of coffee grinds)?  Customers might actually value their daily habit more if they could clearly taste, in their filtered coffee, the plethora of flavours we hold in such high regard on the cupping table. We all know that there is a low ceiling on what customers are willing to pay for a cup of coffee: perhaps, just maybe, the customers are not the problem.

One Response to “YEAH, YEAH, BLOGGING IS SO 2011…”

  1. Nath says:

    ‘curated coffee’ is a stroke of genius. Earlier on in the post you touch on the profitability problems everyone faces when they’re trying to serve great coffee; that sometimes you’ll simply make more money by chucking some vanilla syrups in the cup, whether you think it’s a good idea or not… but it’s really interesting to draw parallels to the business models of art galleries and curation – art is, like great coffee, best when it’s made out of a passion for the object and for undiluted expression rather than calculated moneymaking.

    In fact in art it’s important that the viewer never perceives that you’re trying to make money out of your art. Even a slight notion that the artist is capitalising on a profit opportunity completely changes the aura of the work of art and in most cases completely devalues it.

    What I’m saying is that we should get all Walter Benjamin on this coffee shit yeah

Leave a Reply