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Coffee Brewing: Science, or Art?

Is brewing primarily the science of extraction, or the art of balancing flavors?

Trends come in waves.  How many waves, or which wave we are currently in is of no consequence.  What matters is that coffee is being carefully considered, roasted, brewed, and allowed to be enjoyed.

The current trend of measuring mass in -> mass out is nothing new.

It most certainly has its place for verification, for training, for calibration, and for developing brew parameters.  However, can it be crippling to use regularly?


The left image is how we often come across to customers when we measure and time everything in the open. The image on the right is how we look when we don’t measure and appear to not be paying attention.

Neither of these is how we wish to be portrayed. Neither of these contribute to a balanced professionalism of service and hospitality.  Let us remember that specialty coffee retail is primarily about service. Without customers, we would be nothing but a mass of penniless coffee addicts with too many toys.

What we wish to portray is the image of a professional craftsman (or craftswoman?)

Sure, there is a need to calibrate our skills.  Yes, we should understand brew ratios based on mass in and mass out.  Yes, we should be specific on just how much dwell time correlates to taste (by way of extraction rate).  Yes, we should strive to understand as much as possible about what is behind the pseudo-scientific veil of producing a truly great cup of coffee.

The thing is, to be über geeky is kind of cool to those who are fellow coffee geeks.  Believe me when I say that I understand.

Why do I roll my eyes when I see it on display?

Look, just because a luxury car has a complex wiring network to drive its automatic seat adjustment, heated seats, ambient floor lighting when getting in or out, not to mention the computer to control the direct injection fuel system that self-adjusts constantly at a fraction of a second, doesn’t mean that the luxury car customer wants to see the evidence of all that.  All they care about is the experience and comfort that comes as part of the expected package when buying a luxury car.

Do specialty coffee customers like theater?  Why, yes!  Yes they do!  This is part of the experience of going to a niche specialty coffee haunt.

I submit to you to consider that theater and geekery are NOT the same.

Most customers aren’t baristas.  They recognize that there is “a lot to brewing coffee” (whatever that means), or they wouldn’t bother exchanging their money for yours.  They understand that there are details to keep track of to ensure quality.  What I don’t understand is why people feel like you have to continue to use every crutch at every step in order to get repeatable results.

Dare I say it?  This is unprofessional.

The true craftsman has repeated his craft and practiced it so often that it is nearly automatic.  Do measurements still need to be made?  Of course!  Do you need to measure every step of the way?

That depends: are you a professional?

Put The Scale Down.


Leave it by the grinder (or wherever your layout is set up to weigh the dose of coffee before grinding).

Yes, weigh your coffee mass.  Yes, time your saturation, dwell time, and brew cycle.  But please don’t weigh your water.   Don’t weigh the post-brew mass.  If you take any pride in your work, you won’t need either.  This is where art meets science.  If you truly understand your coffee, you will be able to “feel” your way through the extraction to yield a specific result.  You have instincts: trust them.

Make eye contact with your customer.


Specialty coffee retail is primarily in the realm of service.  Have you ever been given a great product coupled with bad service?  How about an okay product coupled with great service?  Which do most people tend to prefer?
This is not to imply that we should be serving mediocre products, but to show a priori how significant service is to the customer experience and, therefore, to the profitability of your business.

For most of us, the morning is the busiest time of day.  Customers often have not been previously caffeinated before gracing your counter with their welcomed presence, so part of your job (I might argue the most important part) is to make them feel valued, appreciated, and to generally just make their day.  Basically, show them love.

Reminder: coffee is about people, not about roasted exotic tropical fruit seeds.  If you are giving your customer’s cup of coffee more attention than your customer, it’s time to re-evaluate your processes.  This is much easier to do if you are freed from needing to keep checking a scale.  This is why it is important to learn to brew by instinct and experience.

How do you know if it’s consistent?
You do practice, don’t you?  You have experimented every which way you can and tasted each result, right?  No?  And you call yourself a professional?

If you really do practice your craft, you will have a feel for correlating brewing with taste.  Back when I used to work behind the espresso bar on a regular basis, I was able to determine exactly how an espresso would taste just by piecing together what I knew about its specific preparation and from watching its extraction.  (I know, *gasp*: no scale!)  It’s worth it.

I’ll leave you with an assignment of sorts:

A famous coffee personality holds the belief that,

a good barista can produce a decent espresso with any machine, any coffee, any time. 
(he admits that there are limitations here: you can’t produce gold out of garbage, for instance)

How can you reconcile this philosophy with needing to constantly measure everything as though following instructions rather than being master of your craft?

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