Sunday, 18 November 2012

Flexing The Brewing Control Chart (Part 1)

Suppose you boil an egg for 30 minutes and it comes out all runny-yolked and perfect for dunking your toast soldiers. That shouldn't happen, as we know. A runny egg is 4.5 minutes (in my kitchen, anyway). Perhaps it could happen though. Perhaps the egg was boiled at very high altitude... 6000 metres... where water boils at lower temperatures. So with a different perspective we can perhaps make things work that simply shouldn't. 

Some of the tastiest coffees I've ever brewed should have been awful. They should not have been good according to current brewing standards. I want to explore how this could be.

I'm an advocate of Controlled Brewing. Using specific weights and measures, temperatures, times etc, and (importantly) taking a reading of the coffee's concentration (TDS) and extraction yield % after brewing. Why? I guess it goes back to my previous career in business consulting & finance, where we adhered to "what gets measured gets managed". So I control the brew, steer it into the parking space... my target TDS & extraction. 

What is the target though? Well, I've always supported Gold Cup standards so I aim for the middle of the Brewing Control Chart at first (with a new coffee), then tweak to make it stronger/weaker/extract more/less... adjusting according to taste. Standard stuff that I often say more people should do. 

But recently I've (initially accidentally) brewed coffees that measured substantially outside Gold Cup and yet tasted so good that the memory of drinking them makes me long for a cup some weeks later. 

So this raises many questions for me, such as: 
What has changed recently?
Is this a peculiarity of the coffees I've been using? 
Is it just my tasting/sensory skills being terrible? 
Does this mean the rules of Gold Cup are somehow wrong or incomplete? 
What other factors might be at play here? 

I'm not a scientist. I can't analyse the coffee's chemical composition and identify possible causes for the great flavour... high levels of certain compounds, acids, oils etc. 

I'm not a Q Grader with the cupping skills to pinpoint the specific olfactory and gustatory characteristics that make these coffees so great. 

So all I can do is hypothesise, and hopefully test my hypotheses with a little unscientific rigour. 

The first of my hypotheses is that the 'ideal' target TDS and extraction yield is not a static box as depicted on the Brewing Control Chart. TDS between 1.15 and 1.45% is not the ideal range... or rather it is only the ideal range in certain circumstances. The same applies to 18-22% extraction yield. Having ranges is ok... the box.. but the box must be flexed up or down both axes. So the ideal range may be a TDS of 1.45 to 1.65%, and extraction yield of, say, 20-24%. 
These are the sort of ranges that have produced some stunning brews for me. But likewise the ideal range might also be LOWER than the Gold Cup range.
The second part of my hypothesis is that the parameter which makes this possible, which defines how far the box needs to be flexed, is brew water chemistry. 

Consider this. Flexing the box already happens. The SCAA box is lower on the TDS axis than SCAE, which in turn is lower than the Nordic range. 
Why might that be? We assume it is just different taste preferences in each region, but I wonder whether that assumption has ever been adequately tested. Perhaps the underlying reality is that the different water in each part of the world affects the brewing process so differently that it shifts the box... it causes people in Norway, for example, to prefer a higher TDS. If you took that Norwegian on holiday to Seatle they may find they prefer their coffee brewed to a weaker TDS. 

I know I'm probably not convincing anyone with these maybes, perhapses and unproven hypotheses. I do want to support my hypotheses somehow though, so I'm currently collecting water from various parts of the UK, each with different chemical compositions. I'll use these different waters to brew coffees with various levels of TDS and extraction yield.  I will attempt to gather a panel of tasters to rate each one. In this way it might be possible to identify and measure any potential correlation between water chemistry and preferred position of 'the box' (i.e. TDS and Ext%). I'm looking for specific factors beyond just TDS playing a part. The calcium hardness, the carbonate hardness (alkilinity), and the pH... along with any other ingredients such as polyphosphates. 

I aim to conduct tests and post the results in the forthcoming weeks (time permitting) regardless of whether they suggest my hypotheses are right or wrong. I have no issues with being wrong. "Only through mistakes can there be discovery or progress."

Friday, 28 September 2012

Coffee Water Quality - Post 2.

Back in January I wrote my first post on this topic. Water was to me, as it is to most baristas initially, a very grey area. It is now eight months later, during which time I've tried (with a modicum of success) to gain some clarity, primarily through reading (many times!) the SCAA Water Quality Handbook. It was a complex subject for a chemistry-phobe like me to grasp, for several reasons, including:
- Words. Carbonate System, ions, buffer, hydrogen bonding, idealised icosahedral clusters(!!)
- Symbols. 

- Abbreviations.  NaHCO3.    Na+.    CaCI2.    MgSO.  WTF?

In addition, whilst many coffee topics have been discussed in great detail over the years in forums, blogs and articles, there seem to be very few predecessors who have written about water. Jim Schulman's Insanely Long Water FAQ is quite a seminal post, with fantastic info, but I found that again the words/symbols/abbreviations made it difficult to understand.

Now that I've gained a basic understanding, I realise that there is a need for a beginner's guide to water quality, written in a way that helps simplify some of the chemistry. A caveat here though. It is impossible to properly understand coffee water quality without learning some basic chemistry, so what I'm about to write is certainly not everything you need to know, and the simplification process requires some key information to be omitted. My aim is just to share enough info to help others make the first step, so they can then continue to learn more on their own.  Also, my own understanding is still incomplete & probably inaccurate, so if anyone would like to correct anything please do so. To understand this topic more fully, please buy and read the handbook from the SCAA website.
OK, here goes.

What is water?
You've heard of H2O. The abbreviation refers to the two components of completely pure water, hydrogen and oxygen. Nothing else. So immediately many will think "hang on, hydrogen and oxygen are gases". Correct. Actually, we need to think smaller. They are atoms, or rather bunches of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. And when those bunches meet, they stop being a gas and become a liquid. Water.
But you've probably never come across pure water. It is probably the most recycled substance on the planet.  The water we drink has picked up lots of other things along the way. What things? Good question. The simple answer is, things that change the flavour of your coffee. Some good things, some bad things. And those things appear in different quantities depending upon where the water came from and what has happened to it.  Some water is quite pure, with very few things, other water is full of the things. And the things appear in different proportions too. So no two waters (from two different sources) are the same. Hence no two coffees will taste the same if you use different water.

Let's call these things 'solids'. 

Some over-simplified definitions.
So what are these solids??  OK, a little basic chemistry. Atoms and molecules. Stay with me, now! An atom is the basic building block of EVERYTHING. Put a few atoms together and you have a molecule. So everything is made up of atoms and molecules, bunching together like magnets. That's an important concept. There are different combinations of atoms and molecules, and each different combination makes something different. For example, hydrogen and oxygen make water. Table salt is a combination of sodium and chloride. Whoah, whoah!! what are those things? It doesn't matter for now. Just think of everything in the world being make up of different structures of molecules. So salt tastes like salt because of its molecules. Chocolate tastes like chocolate because it has other molecules. etc etc.  And very small changes in the molecules can have a big impact upon what something tastes of.
Great! Now we understand why things taste differently too. But let's get back to water.

Total Dissolved Solids (TDS)
So water consists of hydrogen, oxygen, and other solids. This is probably sounding familiar. Coffee people have heard of measuring water TDS, which is a basic way of expressing how pure, or unpure the water is. How many 'things' are in there.  And recently in the UK some baristas have begun measuring their water TDS, and trying to use water with a particular quantity of solids... around 150ppm (parts per million) is the target, coming from the SCAA guidelines.  The theory is that if you have too many solids (eg 300ppm) or two few (eg 30ppm) then the coffee will not brew correctly and will taste bad... or not taste as good as it could, anyway. (More on why this would be the case later.)

Quality-focused baristas seek to improve the water they have available to them, through different types of water treatment. But in truth few of us currently understand what kind of treatment we need. If TDS is high, we seek ways to reduce it. If TDS is low, we generally just accept it. Reverse Osmosis systems have been developed, which purify water very effectively.  I have not found anyone who has published details of their RO setup... what exactly it does to the water, which solids it removes, which solids are left behind, which additional pieces of the puzzle they have incorporated etc. It remains a bit of a secret at this stage, which is a little unhelpful to the barista community, who are still trying to get their heads around TDS.

So this is about as far as baristas seem to have got in the UK.

A closer look at Total Dissolved Solids
TDS is actually a very blunt way of describing these things in our water. It is a catch-all. I wouldn't say it is meaningless... that would be going too far, as it is a helpful statistic... but two waters could have the same TDS and still be completely different. One would make an exceptional coffee, and the other would make a cup of brown swill. This is due to the different ratios of all the different solids in there.

So we need to break this down further, if we really want our water to be perfect for brewing. And the SCAA have already done that part for us.

(NB some units of measure can be used interchangeably. One mg/L - milligram per litre - is exactly the same as one ppm - part per million.)

The above chart isn't perfect but it gives us some key info.  So there's the 150ppm right in the middle. I'm going to ignore odor and colour because the majority of drinking water in the UK comes via a regulated mains water supplier, and they ensure that there are no smells or colour taints. The 150ppm is broken down into:
(a) Calcium Hardness: 68ppm
(b) Alkilinity: 40ppm
(c) Sodium: 10ppm
(d) Other: 32ppm
Total = 150ppm

Item (d) is the reason the chart isn't perfect, in my view. 32ppm is quite a big unexplained number and if anyone could enlighted me as to why the SCAA have not commented on it then please feel free to comment below. I would imagine that 32ppm of other solids would affect the brewing process somehow.

What about pH?
It's all about balance. Think of a see-saw in a playground. On one side is Acidity. On the other side is Alkalinity. They are opposing forces. This is pH, and it is measured on a scale of 0-14.
- When they are evenly balanced then the water is neither predominantly acidic nor predominantly alkaline. Neutral pH is at the centre point of the scale, and measures 7.0
- If Acidity is greater (than alkalinity) then the see-saw tips in its favour. pH drops below 7.0, and the lower the pH the more acidic the water is.
- If Alkalinity is greater, pH is higher than 7.0 and the closer it is to 14 the more alkaline the water is.
So the SCAA Guideline is 7.0, right in the centre. 

Acid? Alkaline? This is water, isn't it?
Don't think of it that way. As I said above, no two waters are the same. Some waters are acidic, some are alkaline. The coffee will taste different for each.

So what makes it acidic or alkaline?
It comes back to the balance of items a, b, c and d shown above.
- Calcium Hardness contributes to acidity. Infact it is not just Calcium contributing to acidity. Magnesium is another factor, and others. But Calcium plays a bit part in drinking water. (Calcium is a metal mineral that we can ingest in small quantities, like iron.)

- Alkalinity is self-evident. Several things contribute to alkalinity, including hydroxide and bicarbonate.
- Sodium also increases alkalinity.

Do the math(s)
So on one side of our see-saw we have 68ppm of acidity.
On the other side we have 50ppm of alkalinity (40+10).
But we know that the SCAA Target water has a neutral pH of 7.0, so there may be another 12ppm of alkalinity within the 'other' things in there, coming from something else. (But see note 1 below.)

How we can use this information
If you own a TDS meter, great. But how do you know what your Calcium levels are? Perhaps your Calcium is 90ppm, which is too high. You certainly don't want to add MORE calcium to your water.  So we need to be able to measure the acidic Calcium Hardness part of our TDS total. We also need to know the amount of alkaline solids.

Thankfully there are ways to measure these. A simple (if not the most accurate) solution is to use test strips like the ones used by aquarium and swimming pool owners, readily available at low costs on ebay. Search for Calcium Hardness Test Strips, and also KH Test Strips... KH is an abbreviation for Carbonate Hardness, which is just another way of referring to those solids mentioned above that contribute to alkalinity.

Then we look for water treatment that fits the bill. For example, I have in the past used water with a TDS of around 90ppm, and a pH of around 6.8 i.e. slightly acidic. A Calcium Hardness test strip revealed around 60ppm of Calcium, which is close to the SCAA Guideline of 68ppm, which is good. So if I wanted to increase my TDS to 150ppm, I would NOT want to add more calcium, as that would make the water more acidic, when actually I wanted to make it LESS acidic... i.e. get closer to a pH of 7.0 by adding alkalinity. So I would need some sort of water treatment cartridge that increases hydroxide or bicarbonate by around 30-40 ppm.  That's the theory. I hope that makes sense and that I haven't lost you in the words and abbreviations.

Why do these ratios of water 'things' affect coffee brewing?
Many of us think that brewing coffee is just using hot water to wash off coffee particles from the beans, but that isn't the whole picture. Remember those molecules bunching together like magnets? Well the hot water causes chemical reactions to occur. Molecules in the coffee and the water become 'lively' because of the heat, and they begin to jump from place to place, magnetising themselves to other molecules of water/coffee. This creates a variety of different structures of molecules, and as mentioned earlier in this post, different groupings of molecules create different flavours.
So the 'ingredients' i.e. the solids that are in the water, affect this process.Having too much alkaline bicarbonate, for example, makes the coffee taste flat. (See the handbook for more details on this.)

End of part 2!
As always, still much more to learn. But I hope this has helped in some small way and if I can answer questions then I will. There is a lot more info beneath this that it wasn't possible to include in this post. Maybe if there was one thing I might suggest to anyone looking for advice, it would be to find out more about the different types of water treatment on the market, and what they do to the water. Some use technology that the water handbook says is detrimental to coffee brewing! What does yours do, and what do you want it to do? This information is difficult to find out from websites, but I've found the guys at companies like 3M to be very open to discussing such things.

1. I have over-simplified the way acidic and alkaline solids balance out to achieve a pH of 7.0.  There is an effect called Buffering which means that 10mg of acidity and 10mg of alkalinity do not necessarily balance out. Hence in the example above, I think (although I may be wrong!) that the 68mg/L of acidity and the 40-50mg/L of alkalinity may actually balance out to produce the displayed pH of 7.0

Monday, 24 September 2012

Stage Fright

Disclaimer: If you work in a coffee business that predominantly targets customers who are experiential, niche or already speciality coffee fans, rather than the general public, that's great but this post isn't for you. It is written with consideration for those who want to see good quality, speciality coffee reach its full market potential and be the norm with the general public and in coffeeshops across the UK.

Around 18 months ago I wrote a short blog post entitled Can We Make It Easier For Customers?  At the time I was a still relative newcomer to speciality coffee, and wanted to learn more. But it struck me that people within this niche industry were prone to using coffee descriptors that alienated customers like me.  I found it tough to relate to the use of ornate language, and was frustrated.  I also found it intimidating to order at some coffeeshops because (a) I wasn't sure what or how to order these types of coffee, and (b) the guy/girl behind the counter gave off seriously intense vibes that he/she wasn't interested in helping out people who didn't understand. Their expressions actually frightened me off.

But hey... what did I know?  I was a newbie, right?

As the months passed I became, as we all do, a coffee obsessive. As part of my learning process I worked on improving sensory skills. Early on I wrote How To Taste Coffee, which rather than being a tutorial (I was not qualified to write such a thing), was my (slightly embarrassing) attempt to work my coffee tasting and descriptive abilities into some semblence of a process that I could consistently repeat. I discovered the Wine Aroma Wheel and with it sought to expand my coffee vocabulary further. I took part in a competition, requiring me to (amongst other things) furnish the judges with a clear description of my drinks, using typical barista vernacular. I eventually learned the true nature of Ted Lingle's Coffee Flavour Wheel when I read the SCAA Cuppers Handbook, which provides masses of detail regarding coffee aromas, flavours and descriptors. I began adopting a formal cupping procedure to help develop my palate.  I became a home-roaster, delving deeper into the factors that influence the cup. I no longer felt like a newcomer. I had leapt over the bar and now stood behind it, beside my fellow baristas, talking the descriptive talk. In my quest for coffee knowledge I deliberately unlearned what it is like to be a relative newcomer to speciality coffee.

That's worth repeating. I deliberately unlearned what it is like to be a relative newcomer to speciality coffee. In other words, what it is like to be an average customer.


For anyone who (like me) has been on a coffee journey, investing time, effort and money in their passion, it is difficult to admit to having lost one's wider perspective. After all, we are speciality coffee evangelists, and we have conditioned ourselves to promote, with unwavering zeal, the path of righteousness. (Or could that be self-righteousness?)  In a bid to encourage dialogue between customers and coffeeshop staff regarding coffee quality, I set up a Facebook page to encourage sending back bad coffee - in the politest possible way.  I was so sure it would help the cause.  It didn't. No matter how tactful I was when returning the bad coffee, the dialogue was always awkward and feedback was always rejected. The gulf between my vision of coffee and their vision of coffee was so great that we could not even begin to find common ground.  Eventually I deleted the Facebook page as it was at risk of making things worse. Of making the gulf even larger.  Perhaps of making coffee afficionados like me look like cocks. In a completely unrelated incident, a sign appeared in an independent cafe window in Brick Lane. It read "No Coffee Wankers!"  It made me wonder...

But my self-assurance in preaching the speciality coffee gospel soon returned. "We know best, we self-proclaimed coffee geeks.  Yes... we know best. If only we could convince the general public. Those poor ignorant souls drinking bad coffee. " So we're back to dialogue. To communication. To good signage. To setting the stage. Surely these things will help convince the general public... the relative newcomer to speciality coffee, won't they?

As I write this I begin to see the similarities with Jehovah's Witnesses who knock on your door in pairs, like an odd version of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black. There we are, we enlightened coffee folk, certain of our message, trying to find someone who will listen, who will be readily converted to the Church Of The Third Wave.  Normal people point at us and snigger.

I actually do passionately believe that effective dialogue and communication is so important to our industry's aims. Improved dialogue between the speciality coffee world and the relative newcomer/average joe customer. If done well then newcomers will flood to speciality coffee on a mass scale, rather than the dribbling niche movement that it remains to this day.  Effective dialogue and communication. This is something I think many in the industry agree upon, and the need for it has been documented exceedingly well by the 2012 UK Barista Champion in his blog.

But how can we do it well? How can we make the dialogue effective?  These are, to my mind, the big questions.  Despite some compelling arguments made by credible industry members, there is room for further debate. My view is we are still failing to get through to the public at large, still failing to make it easier for customers.  The messages are still not clear.
- We still use lengthy descriptors and flavour notes, and because we love them, and coffee-educated customers love them, we wrongly assume relative newcomers to speciality coffee will love them too. We bang on to the unsuspecting public about temperature, grind size, the altitude the beans were grown at, and how complex the brewing process is.
- We then demonstate this by pulling our a syphon with a halogen beam heater, temperature probes and squiggly stirring techniques. This makes us hope the customer will realise how skilled we are, and will suddenly realise the error of their ways & become a speciality coffee convert.
- We keep moving the goalposts. For example, last year we said that latte art a difficult thing to achieve and was a sign that your barista has devoted time to developing his skill. This year the cool kids are saying that latte art is easy to teach and should be avoided by any self-respecting barista. How are customers supposed to know which is good and which is bad?

Another reason we are failing in our communication is our over-aversion and over-reaction to the branded chains.  We all know the saying... "You can't hope to compete with Starbucks, so don't try. Focus on your strengths instead." So we focus on making good coffee, which we do exceptionally well. And we do a rotten job of various other factors that the branded chains do well, and which customers enjoy. For example,
- We spend as little as possible on environment.  We offer uncomfortable seating on makeshift or shabby second hand furniture, because we're distancing ourselves from the Central Perk comfy chair thing with its 16oz latte connotations. Little or no heating in the customer area. No background music and tweets about how annoying background music is (honestly - when did music of your own choice and played at your own volume become annoying?)
- We offer a tiny food menu, if any, thus making it all about the coffee. Admirable, but ultimately many speciality coffeeshop owners eventually either close down or increase their food focus as they realise (a) many customers like to eat something when they drink something, and (b) you have to sell a helluvalot of cups of coffee to cover your rent.

So we assume all of the above are the right things to do. And this false assumption is reinforced because we see other baristas and coffeeshops doing it too, and we tell ourselves that it must be right if that is what they're doing at that amazing artisan coffeeshop everyone's talking about. It must be right if our favourite roaster is doing it. It must be right - because if it turned out to be wrong then our egos would be crushed by how misguided we were. This highights another quirk of the specality coffee industry. We have our industry luminaries... often people who have achieved success in a coffee competition somewhere around the world. And because they have succeeded in that we listen to them. And often we trust their opinions more than they necessarily deserve or want. In a recent discussion someone said to me:
When a coffee pro, a respected one with great accolades, stands up and announces something… we should listen, then digest it, and THEN come up with a response that takes time to craft. MORE time than the professional spent on their original statement. Why more time? Because they have more experience in the field.
I agree with this statement... insofar as it refers to coffee and the preparation thereof.  But coffee industry accolades do not equate to business management success. Just because a World Barista Champ says something, that doesn't mean it is correct. Particularly if it is about marketing, or pricing, or interior design, or customer opinions across the entire nation.  It just means they have an opinion.

Like I say, we have these views regarding the right things to communicate what we do. And I admit it,   they are right - for some coffee businesses. Some customers like it. Some customers are immediately won over by what they see and experience. And some are attracted to the niche nature of artisan coffeeshops. And some are influenced by their friends and acquaintances who are already speciality coffee lovers. And some, like I was, are intrigued and interested enough to press beyond their initial confusion with this new and different way of presenting a cup of coffee.
But we in the industy are deluding ourselves if we truly believe we've found the best approach to dialogue and communication - one that will work nationwide, with the general public in its many shapes and sizes.

Saying anything unflattering about the speciality coffee industry feels weird, like I'm some sort of traitor.  But it is the opposite. I care about this enough to risk the wrath of my coffee colleagues. And I'm not alone in recognising this situation. As I type, the online coffee news magazine Sprudge have just published a piece on this subject, contrasting two US writers' views. In Time Magazine, Josh Ozersky's article The Perils Of Coffee Snobbery opening paragraph includes the statement - "The cult of coffee, at least in its most puritanical form, is deeply alienating, even to me". He goes on to say that "So-called third wave coffees...are the best coffees that can be had in America", but goes on to use terms such as "insufferably pretentious", "self-congratulatory" and "sanctimonious", and alludes to contempt for consumers.   Erin Meister's article All Get Along also recognises the jarring reaction that can happen when hipster baristas and ordinary customers meet.  Meister reminds baristas that customers are "not the enemy, and they are not 'beneath' you".

Initial responses to Ozersky's article from those in the speciality coffee industry are very defensive and somewhat savage, as expected.  Rather than take it as useful feedback, they see it as an insult and respond with more insults.

The US has a stronger coffee-drinking culture than the UK, and arguably experiences a lot of coffee-related scenarios a few years before the UK market does (for example, Intelli had customers queueing out of the doors for V60s long before pourovers were readily available in UK independents). So we in the UK have an opportunity to listen and learn from the experience of the US speciality coffee industry, and try to avoid history repeating itself - to curtail that disconnect betweeen baristas and customers before the phrase 'coffee wanker' becomes commonplace amongst the UK customer base, and Costa start using it in their adverts.

I don't have the answers, of course. Mainly because there is no single correct answer. The answer, if there is one, is that each of us ask ourselves the right questions... and come up with our own right answers rather than using someone elses.  So I can tell some of you MY answers, the ones we will adopt in my own cafe.

1. We will serve good coffee. I am happy with that descriptor. The best coffee, I hope. We will buy our coffees from a roaster who we believe is the one of the world's finest, for all the right reasons.
2. We will train our staff, and train, and train, ad infinitum, and they will self-train too. Not just in coffee, but in Hospitality... the industry in which we operate.
3. Our equipment ... I believe there is far too much emphasis on which machine a coffeeshop uses. The machines coming out these days are amazing, and make it easier for a barista do his/her job consistently well, but the machine must be fit for purpose and not just a badge to prove that you're in the Serious Barista Club. Excellent espresso does not require a multi-boiler with endless steam and a reflective plate on the drip tray for eagerly watching the naked portafilter drip at a rate so slow that the espresso tastes acrid. We are able to devote time to building love for our HX machine. Our grinders are possibly our most important fixed asset, followed by our building's water supply and treatment.
 4. We will not overwhelm customers with this information unless they ask us to. We will give them what we think is amazing coffee and let them decide. Often it will be free, as a sample taster.  I believe they will be able to taste the difference, and that will be one of the catalysts for their permanent transition to speciality coffee.
5. As I mentioned the syphon earlier, yes we will use that brew method. But judiciously, and only when it suits the beans and helps produce that amazing coffee.
6. We will use descriptors, and in truth we will not be afraid of simplifying our narrative. I would not call it dumbing down though. Dumbing down, whether in news articles, Saturday night TV, or indeed coffee, generally results in a lower quality product. Our product will retain its quality, despite being described in an accessible manner.
7. We will offer a mix of comfortable seating and reclaimed dining chairs to go with our handmade farmhouse tables.
8. We will use Extract Mojo for quality control and to help us dial in brewed coffees, but behind the counter, both literally and figuratively.
9. A significantly larger part of our net profit will come from food than from coffee. Shock horror. I said it. So does that mean our coffee will be any worse? Many will assume so before trying it, because it is usually difficult to find good coffee in a restaurant, so they will do the 2+2+5 thing. I hope I can change that.
10. There are different ways to apply it, and we will never compromise on quality, but we will consistently adopt a time-honoured principle that many coffee professionals have found difficult to reconcile with their own view of the world.  The Customer Is Always Right.  As a means of improving communication and dialogue, it's a good start I think.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A Short Break

My beverage learning process will hopefully never stop. It began with coffee. It is expanding into tea. I have always had a penchant for wines but the sensory education that coffee has provided translates very well to sommelier training, so that is another area to be explored. Who knows what after that?

But I need to place things on a temporary hold. The past few years have been building up to something, namely the opening and stabilisation of a cafe/restaurant. The opening part is now about to happen. Right now all my daytimes are spent at the premises and all my evenings/nights are spent at the computer on plans, equipment websites, writing web content, etc etc. Actually, the learning process hasn't stopped, it has just been redeployed. Today my wife stared at me quite dumbstruck at the various new language I've learned. "Low pressure gas meter running at 21 millibar"... "a dot-and-dab is no good, it needs framing and a kingspan board"... "we need a rodding point up by that alkathene pipe".  When you open a cafe/restaurant there's a lot more to it than food, drinks, service and management. You become (to an extremely unskilled degree) a jack of all trades.

So for a short time I probably won't be able to post anything on this blog, since I won't have time for dedicated academic learning on the beverage front. My learning will be hands-on, in the cafe.

See you on the other side of the opening phase.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Milk Chemistry In Espresso Drinks

Recently I switched the type of (cow's) milk I use in espresso-based drinks, from Arla's Cravendale (which is marketed as, and rumoured to be the barista's favourite in the UK) to milk from my local dairy. The milk has approximately the same fat content of just under 2% (semi-skimmed), but it is visibly much more of a solid white rather than having that slightly translucent appearance that Cravendale semi-skimmed has. It also tastes more like whole milk... more flavoursome ... more wholesome.  In a traditional 6oz cappuccino it makes fewer bubbles, smoother microfoam, and results in a more delicious coffee drink. As a barista I just find it to be a better ingredient.

So if we assume a 1oz shot (I'm using volume rather than mass just to make it easier to communicate) and 3.5oz of milk (pre-stretch), that cappuccino consists of (very approximately):
  • 2.2% coffee solids
  • 20% water
  • 77.8% milk
I think that as a breed, we barista are learning more about the smallest part of this cup, the coffee... about the fruit and the beans themselves. Great. Some of us are also learning about the next largest part, brew water... how water TDS is just the tip of the iceberg and different waters dramatically affect the covalent bonds that are broken, and compounds that are created & extracted during the brewing process.  Even better.  So to me a logical progression is to understand more about the ingredient that comprises the largest part of what is in many customers' cups - the milk.

I have so many questions. For example:
  1. Obviously, what is it that makes one milk taste better than another? Cow diet, no doubt, but which dietary components lead to which milk flavours? Shouldn't we be speaking more closely with milk suppliers regarding this? 
  2. Why does my new milk have less bubbles when steamed? (This one has been discussed on forums and it has been suggested that it relates to the use of supplements in cow feed during winter. I'd like to find other possible reasons.) 
  3. What chemical reactions are happening during the steaming process, and how do each of these affect flavour? 
  4. The whole "don't stretch the milk after 100F" thing is such an established part of barista training, but what is it all about (what IS denaturing of proteins)?
There is a lot to uncover, it is going to get technical, and I am by no means a natural when it comes to chemistry! So in the meantime maybe it's a good idea to get some 'quick wins'... snippets of info that might open this up a bit.

87% of milk is... water! So even in the average milky cappuccino, around 88% of the cup is actually H2O!!
Lactose is a sugar found only in milk. It is often said that milk sweetness in a cappuccino or flat white comes from the lactose.  However, lactose is about 30 times less sweet than standard cane sugar.
On arrival at a dairy, up to 10% of the content of milk is gas... including CO2 and nitrogen. A source of bubbles, perhaps?
 UPDATE: It seems Morten Münchow is the man when it comes to milk chemistry relating to coffee. Let's see how I get on...

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Changes in store for WBC Judges and Competitors

During the recent World Barista Championships we saw Stephen Morrissey (2008 WBC Champion) discussing WBC judges' scoring with the comperes, Nicholas Cho, James Hoffmann and Stephen Leighton. For me his insights were fascinating. For example, he said (and I'm paraphrasing, so forgive me if this isn't exactly correct) that the ideal scoresheet as completed by a judge is one that should need no further verbal feedback... that for every score on the sheet, the judge should write a comment explaining that score well enough for the competitor to understand why that score was given. Upon hearing that I couldn't help feeling that, however, that Stephen's is perhaps an idealistic view of the transparency within WBC scoring. My own experience was extremely rewarding but it left me with many unanswered questions and not enough clarity of what I need to do differently in future competitions. (“Buy a watch” was the advice jokingly given by one judge, after I overran by 37 seconds.)

Stephen is on the Board of World Coffee Events (WCE), the organisation that runs and regulates the World Barista Championships - including coordinating judging activities. I wanted to understand more from Stephen's perspective, so I wrote to him. I'm sure he's a busy man and can't reply to every email from random baristas around the world. Nonetheless, I stuck my neck out because if you don't try then you will never know. Surprisingly, he did read my email and contacted two of his colleagues at WCE – Ellie Matuszak and Carl Sara, who are the Co-Chairs of the committee that oversees all of the competitions. The three of them decided to respond!

Thanks so much for agreeing to this. For the benefit of readers could you please explain who you are?
We're chiming in on behalf of the WCE Competition Operations Committee (COC). The COC is responsible for the work around this topic.

Great! So... judging & scoresheets seem to be a sensitive subject for competitors. What are your views on how well the current system works?
At present judges are evaluated based upon the Judge Competencies framework. However, no secrets... the current status of WCE is a bit unusual. The assessment tool, the Judges Calibration Workshop, was built before standardized training toward it was created.

So there is a gap in how judges are trained to attain the competencies required to judge?
That is why we are working on that training now. In fact, WCE is currently developing a standardized judge training program to be in use at the National Body level. We formed a specific subcommittee to develop these modules, the Instructional Design Subcommittee or IDSC.

Ah yes. I recall Instructional Design from the SCAA Instructor Development Programme. In short, it's a model for building training courses.
You will recall that proper Analysis, Design and Development can make all the difference in creating a successful training program or not (this is called the “ADDIE” model of instructional design). No point in doing any Implementation and Evaluation unless and until the AD&D are fulfilled. This training program is huge. It is going to be about 10 separate modules, and based entirely on training toward the Judge Competencies.

Sounds good, but what does this actually mean? What will be different?
The changes you should expect to see range from the obvious to the less-so. First, judges will be trained better, meaning they will be explicitly trained toward successfully meeting the Judge Competencies (= better judging: more fair, more transparent, more accurate)

That's a lot of training. So to clarify, would this new training only be given to judges at the World Championships, and not at a National level such as the UKBC?
No, actually the opposite. We still will not be training judges at the World Level- all training will take place at the National Body Level. Judges can qualify to judge in the World competitions by passing the Judge Certification Workshop. This means that judging from nation to nation will be more consistent. Judging from the National Body level to World Barista Championship level will be more similar. No more surprises as in "my Head Judge trained me to do it a different way" etc.

And hopefully it will go all the way through to Regional judging too (i.e. during National Heats), where there have been some high profile critics of the standard of judging. How do you hope to get this training delivered across so many judges in different places?
Long term, we hope to continue to leverage the parent companies to grow and distribute the training, but we are still working out the details of what that means exactly. (Full disclosure, I am employed by one of the parent companies.)

So we should have better trained judges in future, who will all have a better understanding of the rules and how to apply them. Great! But what about competitors? We need a clear definition of what the judges expectations are. No secrets! I have previously suggested a Competitors Calibration Workshop. What is happening to address that?
One of the forthcoming changes is that anyone who wishes to can sit the National Body level judge training. Active barista competitors may not judge in competitions, but can sit the training. Other interested parties who want to learn about WBC (coaches, volunteers, newbies) can participate in the training and learn something without committing to judge (though we hope they do if they want to).

So attending the judges training will help to prepare competitors for their performance on competition day?
In fact, some modules will be specifically designed for use in the months prior to a competition, rather than at it.

Thanks, Ellie. It sounds like a big improvement to me.
Thank you for your candor and enthusiasm for the process of improving WCE activity as an educational tool.


As a first time competitor in 2012 I saw many good things and some not-so-good things. There is currently, I believe, an unnecessary communication-gulf between competitors and judges. Some judges seem to recognise this but are unsure how to make things better. When I have previously asked for more clarity from judges, I have been told “we are not allowed to coach competitors”. This problem presents a great opportunity for improvement! Both parties could and should work together more collaboratively. It seems to me that the guys at WCE have become aware of that, and are being very proactive in addressing it in a professional manner. I think the changes mentioned above are nothing short of a giant leap for barista-kind, and I look forward to seeing how this is rolled out globally. There will be challenges involved in implementing the new training program, I suspect, but if it is implemented well then the outcome will be a larger number of highly skilled baristas throughout the world due to the competition being an even better learning tool than it currently is. In my view the WBC remains one of the best possible avenues for learning and fulfilling our potential as baristas, and the future of the competition just got brighter.

To learn more about the voluntary members of the WCE Advisory Board go to

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Obligatory Coffee Books Post

I've blogged numerous times about how stupidly difficult it is to become an educated barista via any sort of good formal training in the UK - particularly outside the London area. I'm self-educating, out of necessity. Today someone else from outside London contacted me for advice regarding coffee books, as he is experiencing the same problem I am with the poor education framework and how slowly things seem to improve, if at all.  Taking matters into your own hands seems to be the only way at the moment.

So here's my list of books. Some of them are rubbish, and some are literally amazing in the depth of knowledge they summarize and pass on. I wasn't going to do a 'coffee books' post, but it seems a logical way to reference some of the methods I've used to learn more.

Starting a coffeeshop type books

The first coffee book I bought. I think it's very good, if a little ... well, very... dated now.  So many people want to open a coffeeshop and this book gives a decent account of the process it entails, by two people who made the leap in a very organised and professional way. They did their research, and the book helped me clarify what I would need to do, and how to do it. It's a daunting process, but this book provides inspiration, confidence and practical advice.  It doesn't have all the answers of course, but it gets you started.,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU02_.jpg

My next two books.  I had a splurge on books at this point! Both good ones. Not much about coffee but tons of practical and well structured advice about planning the business, preparing to open, post-opening activities etc.

The Coffee Boys are well known coffeeshop consultants, always running workshops at cafe events etc. Their books are fantastic as the boys (well... middle aged men!) share their knowledge of management theory alongside their own practical skills in running several businesses. It is very effective and it's easy to get quite swept along by how easy they make it all seem. Definitely good reference manuals for shop owners if you can avoid being hooked into their upsales techniques (well, they are consultants!). Not specifically at the speciality coffee market, and that is probably a good thing.

Barista books
So you get into coffee and eventually realise you need to read something a bit more detailed concerning how to make your coffee.  There are three obvious buys. No need for details... they are all bibles.

Crap books
I bought these three books because the SCAE-UK advise on their website that they may be useful in coming up with signature drinks for the World or UK Barista Championships. Nothing could be further from the truth, and if you base any of your sig drinks on the ones in these books you will be openly sneered at by UKBC judges (they seem to sneer at everyone, but these books will guarantee a full on filthy look!). Total waste of money, the lot of them.

Home Roasting

I reached a point in my coffee brewing where I realised there was a limit to how well I could make coffee without knowing more about what happened to that coffee before it reached me. The way it is roasted affects how it extracts. This is an excellent book to read even if you don't plan to home roast. It includes some fascinating history of coffee (often coffee history is written in a very boring manner, but this is very readable stuff), processing methods used at origin and how it affects the green beans, a little about different regions, and of course heaps of good stuff about the hows, whys and whats of the roasting process.

Wider reading and Coffee Origins

Then there are what might easily be thought of as 'coffee table' books if you go by the title and cover, but they contain some very useful information about coffees around the world. Brilliant for gradually building up an understanding of the characteristics of coffees from different regions. The world is such a big place, and it takes time to properly understand the differences, and WHY they are different... along with the key growing areas in each country.

Now I need to be careful here. The version I have was published in 1981, so it is very obviously out of date. Farms and growing regions have changed enormously, as have processing technologies, and also the varieties grown. So my version book cannot be relied upon. But if you can find an updated version (eg the one shown is the 1996 version - still old but more useful) then there are still things to learn from it.

I love this book. It touches on history, tasting, roasting, grinding, brewing, and most of all has a Global Coffee Directory, that is up to date and gives a really nice overview of many different growing countries, along with a small map of key producing areas and typical ratings for Body, Acidity and Balance from the country's speciality coffees (if a national generalisation can be made).

Advanced Books
Well... advanced is a bit of a misnomer. Really these are beginners books, but they are for serious beginners - those who have been into coffee for a while, learned a fair bit, but now feel ready to gain a much deeper understanding of coffee.  After reading (and re-reading!) these books, I think it's fair to say that the reader will be well on the way to becoming very knowledgeable about coffee.  In the US these are required reading for SCAA qualifications. Sadly here in the UK baristas seem to be disinterested in this level of detail. I'm not sure why, but perhaps because these books may seem like less 'fun' because of their detailed content. But I think they are worth knuckling down to... worth the extra concentration it takes to fully comprehend and then make use of the learning they provide.  I hope for two things: (a) that more people in the UK buy and read these books. (b) that the SCAE-UK will start to stock them for sale. I had to import mine from the US.

By the way, don't assume that the cuppers book is just for cuppers. As well as cupping, it is all about sensory skills. If you ever wanted to make that vital connection between your mouth, nose and brain, this is the book for you.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

AeroPress, Hario Mini Mill Grinder, and Gold Cup Extraction

At the time of writing this, the most-read post on here is one I wrote quite early in this self-education process. It covered my early attempts to find the best grind setting with my Hario Mini Mill when brewing with the AeroPress.  I think it's a really important combination of brewing equipment, since the AeroPress is touted as such a simple way to get a clean cup without an expensive pouring kettle... and also because low cost hand grinders are possibly the best way to get more people drinking fresh coffee in their own home.
When I wrote my previous post confounding factors got in the way, such as:
  1. my inexperience with the AeroPress
  2. being new to the grinder
  3. having only a basic understanding of brewing (chemistry etc)
  4. and the biggest problem - having no frame of reference other than repetition, trial and error to guide my tasting towards an end result that seemed perhaps acceptable.
So I'm now a little older, and (perhaps) a little wiser in the ways of coffee, and for some time I've had a nagging desire to go back to the AeroPress/hand grinder combo and try again.  Then the other day someone asked my to give them some advice regarding using the AeroPress and a Porlex, which seemed like too good an opportunity to ignore.  I'm also planning to have the AeroPress as a brewing method in my forthcoming cafe, and to help customers learn how to use their own brewer to make tasty coffees back in their own home, with a hand grinder.  So an updated blog post is probably warranted.

VST LAB refractometer

The great thing is that I have a refractometer now, which is a massive help with overcoming problem #4 from above.  I can experiment until I find the grind setting, temperature, steep time, degree of agitation etc etc that gets me into the Gold Cup zone, and from there start refining based on taste.

My starting technique was:
14g coffee
Mini Mill setting of 5 clicks back from the 'fully closed' position
230g water at 80 degrees C
Fill, agitate gently at 30, 60 and 90 secs, then plunge slowly.

My first three attempts... changing grind setting from 5 to 6 and back to 5 again, agitating more, raising water temperature a little... were all under-extracted, coming in at a concentration strength (TDS) of 1.03%, 0.97% and 1.10% (I'm aiming for 1.30% TDS, giving an extraction yield of 19%). This was really surprising as the grind setting is really as fine as you would ever want it for the AeroPress and any finer would just clog the filter.

Perhaps the grind quality from the Hario Mini Mill isn't helping the extraction process take place effectively.

So anyway, I needed to raise the TDS without changing the brewing ratio.

A degree of success
I raised the water temperature to 90C (1 min 20 from boil with the kettle lid opened).
Half fill, swirl.
Fill to 230g.
At 30s sink crust. At 1 min stir left, right, left, right. 1m30s repeat. 2min lid on and plunge. 2m30s done.

The TDS of this brew came in at 1.25%, with an extraction yield of 18.26%. Statistically a good extraction, within the Gold Cup range.
It tasted ok... rounded, balanced, inoffensive and quite enjoyable. But very little in terms of aroma and flavour. I expect more from this fantastic coffee... Nicaragua Finca San Jose... so something is still not right and again I suspect that this grinder is part of the problem.

Perhaps if I grind coarser and increase steep time and agitation further...? But this isn't the direction I particularly want to take as I don't want to turn the AeroPress into primarily an immersion system, which is what would happen if the grinds are so course that there is very little resistance when plunging. Nonetheless, let's try it...

Interlude: Spot the 'deliberate' mistake...
At 7:30am today I tried to make a coffee. In my bleary, tired state this happened. I suspect it's something that most people have done at some point... at least I hope it isn't just me!!

Reaching the limit
Keeping the grind the same (5 on the Mini Mill) I increased temperature to around 95C, just a few moments off the boil.  I extended the steep time to 3:30 minutes, with a further 30 seconds for plunging (total brew time 4 mins).
Well the taste was better. More rounded, more complex, more acidity. Still a little lacking in depth of aroma though.  Damn! TDS = 1.26%, giving an extraction yield of 18.41%.  So close to my target, but I'm amazed that almost doubling the steep time only increased the concentration of the coffee by one hundredth of a percent!
Something else is at play here. It must be.  And when that happens then the first place I always look is Water. I'm using bottled water - Highland Spring. What could there be about this water that might inhibit the extraction process?
Having read the SCAA Water Quality Handbook I have no real issues with any of these figures except one: "Bicarbonate 150mg/L". This is a measure of Total Alkilinity. The SCAA Standards for this are 40mg/L (ideal), with an acceptable range of 10-100mg/L.

Why does this matter? Because the higher levels of alkilinity in the water does two things. First the alkilinity neutralizes the acidity inherent within the coffee, reducing flavours and making it taste 'flat'. Secondly (according to the Handbook) it makes the coffee particles expand more, which slows down the movement of water in the brewing process, increasing the steep time. (This second statement is open to interpretation though. Personally I take it to mean that more time is needed to achieve a target extraction, but I could be wrong.)

So I do believe the Highland Spring water, despite being better for coffee brewing than most bottled waters, is limiting how well I can brew with the AeroPress... or indeed with any brew method.
In a bid to check this I changed to my Mahlkoenig Guatemala grinder and made a brew with the AeroPress, attempting to use a similar size grind. I ended up using a slightly coarser grind, which will have reduced the TDS of the final brew, but the results seemed to confirm my thoughts regarding the water. Using the same method as above, with a total brew time of 4 mins.  TDS came in at 1.18%, giving an extraction yield of 17.23% ... outside the Gold Cup range. It actually tasted better than the Mini Mill brews that WERE in the Gold Cup range, but clearly there is something hindering extraction other than the grinder, grind size, water temperature, and other typical brew parameters... water.

**Update** a few days later I found a water source with an identical TDS and a calcium hardness level of 61mg/L - statistically very good from a hardness persepctive. It has a pH of around 8mg/L... a little too high... and a sodium content of around 11mg/L, almost double the Highland Spring, but close to the SCAA target.  I haven't yet established the alkilinity levels. Anyway, this different water, with the an almost identical TDS but differences in OTHER water characteristics, had a profoundly different effect upon the extraction process. The result was a BIG difference to both the extraction stats and the tastes and flavours.  TDS went up to 1.37%, and extraction yield to 20.04%.  The flavours were more pronounced, which is great, and it was ok to drink. Unfortunately it now tasted slightly over-extracted to me. There were hints of (perhaps) acids that didn't enhance the flavour.  I had now left it to brew for too long!

So I guess here's one way to get a fairly good Gold Cup extraction from the AeroPress using a Mini Mill. I'm sure there are others, and if you find a good approach please let me know :)

Extraction Yield 18.41 %
TDS 1.26 %
Dose Weight 14.0 g
Brew Water Weight 230 g

Coffee Details
Brew Water Start Temp 95°C
Brew Time I think this is a critical factor defined by your water chemistry. See comments below.
Roaster Name
Roast Style
Grinder Hario Mini Mill
Grind Setting 5 Clicks

14g coffee
Minimill setting 5. Quite Fine.
230g Water 95C, just off boil.
Inverted AeroPress.
Insert grinds. Half fill with water. Stir well to ensure pre-infusion. Fill to 230g (to the rim).
Stir left, right, left, right at 30secs, 1min, 2min, 3min. Fit the filter. NB - Steep Time could range anywhere from 1 minute to up to 4 minutes.  I suggest a 2 minute brew time and then a 30 second plunge, and on subsequent brews either increase or decrease the time if it tastes too weak or too strong.  

At the 2012 Nordic Barista Cup event Vince Fedele of VST Inc, who designed and manufacture the VST Coffee Refractometer, made in important announcement regarding coffee brewing using Gold Cup standards. The announcement directly affects brewing with the AeroPress. When you use infusion/immersion brewing methods (as I am using the AeroPress above) and then filter it, part of the coffee liquor is retained in the grinds. This skews how the resulting extraction yield is presented. So what we may have previously thought was an 18.5% extraction is actually over 20%! To compensate for this it is necessary to increase the dose of coffee used in the brewing process. So looking back at the figures in my summary, the theory goes that I should actually have used a dose of 16g rather than 14g if I wanted to achieve an extraction of around 18.5%. That 2g will have a huge impact upon flavour, and it might help explain why throughout all the above brews, none of them tasted any better than merely 'good'.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Coffee prices in the UK

I've read a few blogs, had a few conversations, and caught a few tweets lately that were unconnected but all seemed to stem from to one common concept... the notion of referring to "the UK coffee market" as a discrete, singular entity; something that can be generalised about.  Here's an example relating to a fairly common debate :

My own humble opinion is that the UK public, if I had to generalise, is not convinced that coffee prices are too low or that despite the ongoing economic problems an increase in their daily coffee spending would be an acceptable hit because man, that coffee is just so worth it.  Granted, if you break down the UK into regions then in some areas there is greater understanding of speciality coffee coupled with greater affluence, and the micro-market (of consumers) in those areas would quite probably accept higher coffee prices. I'm talking about areas of London primarily, which over the past 5 years or so has developed a thriving speciality coffee scene. But London is London and nothing more... it is not the entire UK and is certainly not representative of other regions. It is infact the minority.  The majority of the UK coffee market... the "public" if we are generalising... aren't there yet. Very often people who passionately devote their lives to working in speciality coffee lose the ability to see the world from a non-devotee's perspective. 

You cannot just increase price. Whether the price of something rises or falls is due to 'demand and supply'. People often use that phrase but have never had the most important part explained... the equilibrium price. We all know that as the number of people who want to buy a product increases (table 1), the price rises.  Conversely if lots of suppliers enter the high street selling the same thing, then the price will tend to fall (table 2).  If you put the demand curve and the supply curve together then there is a point at which the meet. At that point the demand for the thing being sold (eg speciality coffee) matches the amount available from shops/suppliers, and the result is basically a price at which everyone is happy.

Table 1
Table 3
Table 2

I agree that baristas deserve to be paid more. I also agree that as the quality of coffee increases, and farmers adopt better production methods, this should be reflected in the price they are paid. This in turn does need to be passed on to consumers. But simply increasing price will not work. Before a price increase will be tolerated, much more work is needed to increase public understanding of the distinction between commodity coffee and speciality coffee, and the value of that distinction.  Without this, an increase in price will result in a decrease in demand for speciality coffee. The market will stall, and good shops will not survive because customers will not perceive any reason to pay more what they think is 'just coffee'.

I haven't yet visited Colonna & Smalls in Bath, but it is clear from everything they do that communication is first and foremost. For a classic example see this post from their blog. Their communication is what enables them to distinguish their speciality coffee in the eyes of the public. In turn it will, I have no doubt, allow them to quite rightly charge more for what is a higher quality product. They do not simply increase price. 

The extent to which those in the speciality coffee industry need to invest time and money on effective communication depends upon how mature the market is in the region their business serves. In the part of Scotland where I live the phrases "single origin", "pourover" or "varietal" mean nothing to the coffee drinking public. The perception is that high street chains surely do it better than anyone (even though there isn't one within an hour's drive!), men of a certain age will demand a white coffee & refuse to order a latte because using fancy names makes them uncomfortable, and the average salary is around 40% lower than that of their London counterparts (1).  Things are changing, of course. Scotland is experiencing its own coffee revolution, fueled by entrepreneurial people in the main cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. But again, Edinburgh is Edinburgh and nothing more. It has its own demographic groups. There is no 'UK' speciality coffee market - just a collection of small and distinct markets that are not yet joined up.  It will take time. Let's not get ahead of ourselves please, and for God's sake let's stop referring to London as the UK.


Tuesday, 12 June 2012

UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (The Finale)

This is the last post of my UK Barista Championships sextilogy.  The main aim of this final post is to summarise some of my key reflections and suggestions as to how the event could be improved from one competitors perspective.  I think it's unlikely that anything will come of it though, for two reasons:
(a) so far the stock response from the UKBC organisers tends to contain the words "we aren't allowed...".  Granted, but progress comes from suggesting change, not from accepting the status quo. If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you always got.  The rest of the world is moving forward. I'd hate to see the UKBC left behind.
(b) there is an enormous feeling of defensiveness amongst the UKBC organisers.  Attempts to question the way things are done or provide constructive input are often taken as just another person being a hater, and therefore ignored.  Perhaps several years of viscious criticism from many quarters has made the organisers cynical. If so, perhaps it's time the attacks stopped and a better dialogue began.  The organisers are volunteers... many people don't seem to take that into account in their criticism... myself included, formerly.  Equally, competitors devote ridiculous amounts of time, effort and money to the competition... much more than many judges give the competitors credit for in their dismissive demeanour.  So everyone would benefit from less criticism and more constructive feedback.

Three Suggestions.

1. Run proper pre-heat sessions, in every region. That doesn't mean simply placing a Verona and a K30 on a table. I'm talking about Competitor Calibration sessions, which pass on much of the same information that I presume is passed on during the Judges Calibration sessions. Done well, these sessions would result in more competitors delivering a set that substantially impresses the judges, because the competitor would understand the judges' expectations. Currently a competitor could deliver a fantastic routine and amazing signature drink, but if it isn't what the judges are looking for it will score low. This is wrong.  Please note I'm also NOT talking about competitors receiving 'coaching' from judges. The distinction between coaching and transparency seems very clear to me.

2. More control of parameters for the competitors. In real life a barista will source the best beans and brew them the best way. The best way changes with each bean, and it is up to the barista to find it. The ability to increase/decrease the dose, control the brew time, adjust the brew temperature, and deliver an espresso beverage that has a certain mass rather than a certain volume, and to use these to help produce an espresso with a specific extraction target (the best way), are all part of a good barista's skillset. Right now we can't use those skills during the UKBC. The tail is wagging the dog in the competition and baristas are forced to find beans, a roast profile, and sub-optimal brewing parameters that will allow them to adhere to competition rules rather than deliver the best possible espresso.
(a) The machine is capable of brewing at whatever temperature we choose, so let us use the machine to its full potential.
(b) Baskets can be switched out. Let us use whichever basket we choose as long as it fits the portafilter.
(c) Keep timing our shots, but use it to measure consistency rather than to stipulate how long that brew time should be.
(d) Ditch the 2oz rule. It was relevant when espresso was all about the Italian way, but which competitors are still usingdark roasted blends containing robusta?  Fully washed, single origin 100% arabica beans that are roasted lighter than traditional Italian methods require completely different extraction parameters to reveal their delicious bounty as espresso. That may be a 2oz shot, it may be a 1oz shot... the volume is irrelevent (within reason). It is optimal taste that matters.

3. Ensure greater consistency in judging.  The current method seems to involve 'cramming' the judges with knowledge, and you only have to look at former competitor scoresheets to see that there is too much inconsistency.  There are those who feel that the judges are not given enough freedom to score how they want to. Personally I feel the opposite is true. I don't want a judge's personal tastes, views, preferences and dislikes, to have any bearing on competitors' scores.  In an ideal world every judge should score exactly the same. That is surely the purpose of the calibration sessions.  As a competitor it is utterly disheartening to know that you might have scored higher if you hadn't had that one particular judge who happens to have a personal grudge against Sumatran beans in every shape and form.  This suggestion could perhaps be achieved by a more rigorous Judges Calibration programme, extending throughout the year rather than with intense workshops shortly before the competition season.


Well that's it. I'm glad to get the UKBC out of my system as it has been part of my life for eight months... which is amazing considering I was only on stage for 15 minutes in this year's competition. Time to step away from it. The World Barista Championships begin in Vienna today and I'll be watching and avidly supporting the UK Champions, Maxwell, Lynsey, James and Havva. GOOD LUCK, TEAM UK!!

Unsung heroes
There are so many people involved in organising the UK Barista Championships and I'm not going to try to give them all the credit they so deserve. But having been a volunteer at this year's events it is clear to me that the guys from San Remo deserve much more accolade than they would ever ask for.  Dave Wilson, Brandon Thurley, Steve Partridge, and of course Terry... they travelled all over the uk to UKBC venues, arriving before anyone else and leaving long after everyone too, setting everything up, carrying the heavy stuff, coordinating competitors backstage, doing their damnedest to give every competitor exactly the same chance. They don't ask for praise, and that is exactly why they deserve it even more.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Five)

Continued from UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Four)

Different things.
We're making 12 espresso-based drinks in 15 minutes. Each of those 12 shots of espresso needs to be exactly what we want it to be. Through a process of elimination we have selected our beans and our roaster, and we have worked those beans for weeks and months. We have tried various roast profiles. Various dose weights, shot times, brew ratios etc. We work tirelessly on our barista skills. Eventualy we feel ready. 

Competition day comes. We are given one hour of practise time on the competition machine backstage. It is the first time we have had proper access to this machine - time to truly familiarise. It is not our machine. It is different.
  • It is set to brew at 92 degrees Celcius. Our own machine is set to 92C too, or at least as best we can gather without a Scace2. Maybe the temperature probe is in a different place in the group.  Maybe there is a 0.5C difference. That matters. 
  • This machine has its own basket design. It is different from ours. Smaller. The sides are more angled. That matters. 
  • Our tamper doesn't quite fit it the same as it fits our own baskets. That matters. We probably should have brought a different tamper - maybe a range of tamper sizes.
  • Our machine is a single boiler with a heat exchanger. We have an exacting flushing routine to achieve a specific temperature profile. This is one of our skills. But the machine before us has separate boilers for each group, temperature-managed by a P.I.D. It is very different. What happens to the temperature when we flush? Does it increase? Decrease? Do we even need to flush? How long for? Should we adopt flush-and-go, flush-and-wait, or something else? This matters.
Then we move from the practise room to the stage. Someone carries our grinder for us. The temperature and humidity are different out here. What will that do to the beans we have just dialed in? We have 15 minutes practise time on stage. What shall we do with them? Set the judges table up. What else? Dial in the grind again. But will we be marked down if the drip tray is dirty, or if there are spent pucks in the knock box? Questions. Questions. This environment is different from anything we have experienced before as a barista. Really we should know the answers to our questions, but we don't. We didn't know to ask those questions.

Barista skills. Competition skills. Different things. Which are we being judged on?

My Espresso Scoresheets
Cappuccinos, tick. Sig drink, tick. Just the espressos remaining.  I was just about to grind my first two shots of espresso. I heard the timekeeper say something, but I couldn't hear him as he was standing about 8 metres away, behind the judges. I thought he said "Four minutes". That can't be right. They don't timecheck you at four minutes. I asked him to repeat it. "One minute remaining" came the response over the PA system. "Shit!" I said. Nobody heard. Crap microphone. In one split second it was clear. It was all over. I began reciting the rest of my script, whilst grinding. The judges couldn't hear me. Under pressure, I sped up. The grind was wrong by this point too.  Dosing. Tamping. Shot timing. All sub-standard. Shot quality... low.  I ploughed on.

15 mins 37 seconds.
OK. Let's talk to Jeremy.

Key Learnings from Judges Scoresheets
Although there are specific lessons to learn from the judges, poor competition skills really let me down because they prevented me from utilising barista skills. That, and of course the differences.
One thing I note is how literally the words in backets on the scoresheet are assessed by the judges. Hazelnut. Dark Brown. Reddish Reflection. Sweet. Acid. Bitter. The judges place half marks, full ticks or two ticks against them. I had believed them to be examples of what the judges might assess the espresso upon, not actual 'checkboxes'. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding. But I'm not sure why I would be assessed on whether my espresso crema is hazelnut, or dark brown, if I never intended it to be a hazelnut or dark brown.  I can't help wondering whether all judges apply the same understanding to the scoresheet, or whether some have a different understanding from others.

To be concluded in UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Six)