The Appliance of Coffee Science in ‘The Third Wave’
Coffee science and the role of the Barista
Tomorrow I head to the HQ of Coffee Community in Meltham near Huddersfield to spend 3 days in the company of respected coffee figure Paul Meikle-Janney. It’s not quite a social call (although we would certainly find plenty to chat about) but instead the final stage of my SCAE Barista Diploma. Last time we met, Paul promised me that I would enjoy this course as there was “lots of science”. Now this statement proves he can spot a coffee geek a mile off, but it also got me thinking about what this actually means.
The third wave
What is coffee science and how can it help us make better coffee? “The Third Wave” is a phrase that has been thrown around a lot in recent years. It refers to the era of coffee consumption and enjoyment that took place between about 2005 up to present day and encompasses the sweeping changes that have taken place in the industry and on the high street. These are numerous, but can perhaps all be gathered under the umbrella of science and measurement. This was the first time that people began to really look at what we do when we make coffee. How much coffee? What grind? What brew temperature? and what can we do to optimise this? Espresso machine and grinder manufacturers have gone back to the drawing board and refined their products to make them more precise and more controllable by the end user. The problem is that all this investment does not necessarily translate into better coffee.
The appliance of coffee science
Pressure profiling, a trend I noticed at the recent London Coffee Festival, is still in it’s infancy and I suspect that it’s being executed rather randomly. If Baristas want to play with science I think they owe it to their equipment (and their customers!) to deploy it in a properly “scientific” manner – with rigour and a proper understanding of their variables.
My passion for coffee really came alive when I started reading up on the science behind it. Making espresso used to feel like a dark art, and indeed that is what many baristas wanted you to think. But knowing WHY you do the things you do on an espresso machine gives you more confidence than simply knowing the HOW, and it’s this philosophy that I bring to my training classes. Knowledge really is power, and a few hundred pounds spent on training is worth thousands spent on top of the range machines, which can still make terrible coffee if they are not operated correctly.
It’s easy to make fun of coffee geeks, but used correctly, scientific methods can demystify seemingly complex processes and make brewing coffee easier. Finding out why foam degrades at high temperatures, or why you should introduce air to milk before it gets hot radically changed my technique for the better. It even helped me to understand why milk sometimes won’t foam (long story but blame the cows). A little science (and a set of scales) gives me perfect coffee at home no matter how bleary eyed I am and despite the fact that it’s seen as weakness by the Baristocracy, I’ve gone back to using a milk thermometer when I steam milk. Why guess at things when you don’t have to?!
Man vs Machine
However, as much as I am looking forward to fiddling with refractometers and TDS meters over the next few days I am reminded that ultimately the best tool I’ve got at my disposal is my tastebuds. I’ve had plenty of sour, under-extracted shots from “Third Wave” coffee bars that boast the best equipment and well intentioned Baristas. Now if they were managing their brew parameters to deliberately do so then fair, enough, but I very much doubt this was the case!
Science can be useful but it’s there to serve us not the other way round.
Bogus science often gets in the way of plain old good taste and knowing methods and processes is only one part of the equation but if it doesn’t result in increased customer satisfaction then it’s rather missing the point. Science can be useful but it’s there to serve us not the other way round. Just as well though, because if this business could be reduced to mere data, anyone could do it and then where would I be?