Decathlete Coffee

Today I watched thousands of runners power through the NYC Marathon; a few weeks ago I rode 30 miles around Manhattan for Bike MS. Humans can many incredible things. We can complete decathlons, or we can stay home and spilt hairs. Coffee has the opportunity to be a hair splitter or a decathlete.

To understand precision coffee brewing (the hair splitter) think first of your Mr. Coffee or other countertop automatic coffee maker. You drop scoopfuls of coffee into the filter basket and fill pot with water up to or around the little white line then switch on.

Nothing about the process is measured with precision. “Scoopfuls” and “up to or around the little white line” are vague volumetric units for solid and liquid, and the “on” switch tells nothing about the temperatures the water or final coffee is being heated to. It all percolates until it sputters then sits on the heat until you turn it off.

For coffee and tea professionals, the routine—still normal for many—described above sounds as Neanderthal as bludgeoning meat with a rock. To make coffee without measuring anything! How obscene! We all know, if we paused to consider for a moment, that volume is an unreliable metric for measuring solids (everything from cereal to steak is sold by weight; think of that “contents may have settled” disclaimer on most processed food packaging). Amongst themselves, coffee and tea professionals have always weighed beans and water when evaluating coffees for quality control in lab settings to make purchasing decisions and develop products. Increasingly, with the explosion of specialty coffee and the emergence of a competitive barista cult, precision has migrated from the lab into the cafe and from the cafe to the home countertop.

To establish that I take nothing as gospel, I will often tell other coffee professionals that at home I make dark roasted Brazil in a French Press and I don’t even measure. I have not drunk the data Kool Aid and intentionally alienate myself from the precision pack. I love math and science and organization and controlled experiments; I just don’t want them or anything that smacks of them in kitchen before 8am.

Coffee and tea professionals’ fervor around brewing perfect coffee makes perfect sense along the North American/European/Asian/Australian continuum of analyzing every piece of data that can be gathered, from sports to space to molecular gastronomy. We have all these fabulous tools for data collection—why not use them everywhere, all the time?

In the case of coffee and tea, this means rejecting imprecise scoopfuls in favor of exact grammage. Sure, a metric kitchen scale is a great thing to have, so I could be down with weighing coffee. But it quickly escalates. Coffee shouldn’t just be weighed, its mass should be found in hundredths of a gram. Water too should be measured in hundredths of a gram. Buying pre-ground coffee is also the stuff of Neanderthals, so grinder (ceramic burr, of course) settings must also be set precisely and can be confirmed by sifting freshly ground coffee through a series of screens measured to the millimeter. Water must be heated in a ceramic kettle with a clear temperature read out, and all the above should be done with a timer running. Suddenly breakfast has turned into a chemistry class and I am no longer on board. I make coffee in the morning because I love it; not because I want to pass a test.

I’ve done all the side by side taste comparisons and understand why coffee and tea folks turn their cafes and kitchen counters into labs. Change any of the above variables by one unit—gram, degree, grinder click, second—and the resulting coffees taste different. We the people love quests, grails, and galaxies beyond the event horizon. The pursuit of the most perfect cup of coffee, achieved by aligning all brewing variables in perfect sync (and we didn’t even get into variables in roasting, processing, and growing the coffee), is understandably alluring. More tools to measure and adjust variables combined with better understanding of how those variables affect each other is the combination that drives advancements across fields.

All this is exciting, and it is purely a personal choice to keep the cutting edge out of my kitchen and make coffee like it’s the Stone Age, closing my eyes to bask in the morning sun and inhale yummy coffee fragrance rather than squinting at read outs on a bunch of devices. In contrast, at work I love that I share office space with coffee NASA.

Alpha Dominche took the coffee and tea industry’s newfound love for precision and raised it, integrating basic technology (pressure and steam), automation (iPadded algorithms), and participatory transparency (fully glass crucibles to ogle at the beverage babe born of throwback and futuristic union).

Not only can weight, and time, temperature be precisely controlled and programmed into infinite, adjustable recipes, this new chapter of brewing equipment modulates the additional variable of agitation, a factor previously left to the discretion of the (imperfect! Imprecise!) pouring hand.

When I was first told that the office coffee maker was a Steampunk, the pinnacle of precision brewing, I got the same pre chem-lab sweats of 12th grade. What order? What’s the protocol? Tare then weigh then grind—drop coffee in or water heat first? I managed to make a few horrific messes of near-boiling water and coffee ground sludge (pressing “fill” twice = overflow!) but I ultimately fell in love with my morning Steampunk routine because of the Basic recipe.

Here is a machine with millions of ways to make coffee. Luckily, it also has a set it and forget it recipe written in by the design team of baristas and engineers. I was now able to make this rocket ship of a coffee brewer back into my familiar, beloved Stone Age rock. I could skip the weighing step, grind a scoopful of beans, and hit “Basic.” I did this not only with dark roast Brazil, but with light roast Ethiopia Natural, anaerobic Costa Rica, blended Sumatra-Colombia, rare Yemeni microlots, Kenya fresh crop, El Salvador past crop, washed Nicaragua, and experimental Thai varietals. Every single cup tasted delicious. The same coffees that I also made at home according to my stubborn no-tech, dataless French Press ritual tasted better when I made them on Steampunk Basic. (Admittedly, at the office I did start dosing in grams, most days.) By controlling the temperature, time, and agitation to keep anything from getting as wonky as it might in my kitchen, the Steampunk corralled all coffees within the acceptable range and brought my random assortment of coffees from good to awesome.

This seemed a feat worth noting, a feat that could also be overlooked if the quest for the god particle coffee brew becomes too blindered and narrow.

What if all this tech and tools could ask a different question, instead of trying to make each coffee recipe perfect and tweaking and tasting and adjusting until the nirvana sip, could the goal be to hunt for the common denominator, to draft the best Basic recipe that makes a larger percentage of coffees taste better a larger percentage of the time?

What if all this tech and tools could ask a different question, instead of trying to make each coffee recipe perfect and tweaking and tasting and adjusting until the nirvana sip, could the goal be to hunt for the common denominator, to draft the best Basic recipe that makes a larger percentage of coffees taste better a larger percentage of the time?

One of the reasons I have personally rejected precision coffee brewing is that the process assumes that there is some ideal flavor or profile inherently locked in a coffee bean that can be unlocked by magic hands following a magic procedure, that the resulting taste will then be superior to the taste of the same coffee brewed any other way (this assumption also holds true with roasting, where I also push against it). The coffee and tea industry has tried to standardize the tasting aspect of the perfect cup quest by creating norms indicating which attributes of coffee are most desirable. I still wonder. Does being able to taste more fruit in the cup make the roast curve and brew procedure that got us there inherently correct or ideal?

Identifying one limited profile as superior assumes that those who do not follow the curves and procedures leading to the fruit cup fail to do so only because they have not yet been guided and taught in the proper way, and that once they are, they too will skip gleefully to the counter with scale and timer in hand. This assumption quickly moves into the territory of indoctrination and away from the experimentation and creativity that tools and science are suited to encourage.

I make unmeasured coffee not because I have not been taught to or do not know how to follow the procedures. My cowboy brewing is a challenge to the argument that following one limited script yields something inherently better. Some people choose to do things their way not because they are ignorant of the protocol deemed proper, but because they like the results of doing it their way. I will never forget watching Surya Bonaly nail a backflip in Olympic women’s figure skating. Deemed most improper. Decidedly awesome. More of us should nail backflips in the daily protocol olympics.

Which brings us back to the Steampunk, and to the title of this post. I would love to see more decathletes in the coffee and tea industries: coffees, recipes, and individuals who shine in many scenarios, not only when everything is perfect. There are plenty out there, but there is room for so many more. Instead of selecting green coffee and roasting and brewing something so specific in pursuit of a grail I am still not convinced exists, what if we worked to find the decathletes, the recipes that make more coffees taste better, instead of making one coffee taste like a supernova?

This would require all the tech and tools we have. It would mean testing as many coffees as possible, changing as many variables as possible to see where the optimal range is.

We could give up the speck of dust quest of trying to do something so specific it is practically invisible and instead track the optimal ranges of tons of coffees, overlay them, and find the parameters that would brew the most coffees in the target range, essentially a brew recipe line of best fit. This would still assume that some brew parameters yield superior cups than others, but in this case superior is a range rather than a discrete, single target.

With a tiny target, everything that doesn’t hit is a miss. With a range there is room to account for preference while still bracketing an industry standard of ideal.

With a tiny target, everything that doesn’t hit is a miss. With a range there is room to account for preference while still bracketing an industry standard of ideal. 

There will always be more Neanderthals like me scoping blindly than aproned chemists brushing off burrs after each grind. We want coffees that taste great no matter how they are brewed, no matter who is making them. When I buy coffee it is frustrating to be told, “this coffee tastes incredible if you follow this procedure like neurosurgery and drink from a glass mug at 160 degrees, never mixing with milk.” I want a coffee that has been developed to taste great in a French press or V60, to hold up in a Bialetti and to not curdle upon contact with a splash almond milk. There are endless coffees that can complete a decathlon, that can taste great in all the cowboy kitchens around the world, but we overlook them when we search only for advertised grails.

There will always be a core of specialists who want to measure to the nth and get warm and fuzzy when they finally find the interplay of variables that brews the cup they have been dreaming about, but coffee is not NASA. More people make themselves hot morning drinks than will ever go to the moon.

Experiments are great to pique, satisfy, and pique again our curiosity, but instead of trying to make coffee into astrophysics, I am far more jazzed when I see coffee being better coffee, when I find the Basic recipe that elevates my unstandardized brewing routine into something slightly more refined, something that makes me go “yum, that is worth the extra six seconds it takes to weigh 27 grams.” Tools and tech don’t have to eliminate the romantic randomness of making coffee; they can reign in a few variables and still let the coffee and the drinker exist in creative peace.

Ride on.

1 Comment

  1. Welcome back Rachel, I missed your commentary on all things directly and ancillarily coffee! Your posts always hit the mark. I, too, trudged through the scientific approach to morning coffee. Not sure what migrated me away from it, whether my blurred vision was never able to focus on those tiny numbers and meniscus indicating units of measure, whether it was the inevitable lateness of the waxing day, or, finding an option that was “good enough!” Being of scientific stock, the good “enough approach” still required some pre-thought and the application of scientific principles. So, the measure of water is poured the day before where sharper vision still remained and the concerns of any remaining taste altering volatile chemicals, chlorine specifically, evaporated overnight. Before loading a scoop, I rationalized that giving the freshly ground manna a hearty bump would adequately unsettle any measure-defeating settling, and purging any ground gold protruding above the scoop’s lip would make the measure “good enough.”

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