Working with coffee- in any form at any stage- is always part art and part science. Science because you can study it: you can closely observe plants and note every detail of their growth, you can control variables and conduct experiments to better understand how factors affect each other, you can monitor the roast temperature and calculate the moisture content, you can calibrate an espresso machine and time your shots perfectly, you can study and read and learn the techniques of all the most successful coffee people from ground to grounds. But science alone just doesn’t get all the way to a cup of coffee.
Because maybe studies of cultivation were conducted at one elevation and your finca is at another. Because maybe this batch of coffee was from a rainier harvest year, and so now the roast profile needs tweaking. Maybe because pulling a shot on a 1999 Nuova Simonelli just isn’t the same as pulling one on a 2013 Marzocco.
We can study coffee to death, but to do anything with coffee- let alone to do it well- it still always comes down to feeling, to just knowing when it’s right.
There is an art to knowing which seeds to select, which rows to plant where, which branches to prune; these are choices that can be informed by science, but which science can’t make on its own. They are things you can just tell.
And you can only tell with practice, with a level of attention to nuance and personal interaction that is the passionate stuff of art- similar to the driving inquiry of science- but differentiated by the individual factor. Coffee always carries an personal touch.
Not every roaster knows exactly how to unlock the best in every bean, nor does every barista. But those who do are artists, practiced in their craft. Cooking is really just basic chemical changes occurring with heat, and yet truly artistic chefs find and manipulate something in between the measures of science, and that’s where the magic lies. Everyone who works along the coffee chain has the potential to become as artistic a magician as the finest chefs.
I’m no kind of coffee artist, but I know it because I’ve seen it, and often in unseeming places. A middle aged Costa Rican man with dirt caked under his nails and onto his rubber boots, grubby hat flattened over his greasy hair, grabbing handfuls of slimy depulped coffee as it churns in the chute of the depulper, rolling the beans around his hand, feeling if just the right level of “washed” has been achieved, is making magic. With so many days spent peering into the chugging machinery, fingering slippery batches of coffee, toying with the amount of water flow and the controls of the depulper, watching the coffee dry in the sun, under plastic, or in the rotating drum of hot air, monitoring the results he is able to know- to just tell– when it’s right. Cuppers report back to him with scores and qualities of the batches he sends; their scientific tabulations are unbiased and standardized. He takes science into account. But because the variables- size of the cherry, time of harvest, weather conditions, elevation- are so many and so, well, variable, science can only support him so far. He is a coffee farmer and a micro mill owner and this is what he does and this is what he’s always done. And so he knows.
Coffee requires all the meticulousness and observation of science and all the practiced individual flair of art. The specialty exporter Exclusive Coffees of Costa Rica gives themselves the tag line of “coffees with identity.” Not all coffee can make this claim. There is plenty of coffee that is treated more-or-less by generally accepted, loosely scientifically based parameters. But there are some coffees that do carry the identities of the people behind them, that are marked with an individual touch. Having met many of Exclusive’s producers, I can personally attest to the validity of their tag line. Sometimes these unique and artistically scientific coffees make it unadulterated to consumers’ cups, but there are some coffee artists whose products get mixed with the artless and don’t get the special treatment of a specialty exporter.
Which is kind of cool too. Because in every cup of $1 burnt Brooklyn deli coffee (the lifeblood of my New York existence) I can think about that one individual scientific artist, a bean or two of whose work made it all the way to my generic cup, and imagine a hint of flair making my not so specialty coffee just a little bit more interesting.