A Narrowing Gap

This is mostly a follow-up on a post I wrote around a year ago which explored the idea of set recipes and dialling in, specifically regarding espresso. As well as bearing that post in mind, here I’d like to explore espresso and how I feel about it at this moment in time.

A lot has happened during the past year -such is the current pace of exploration in speciality coffee- and our evolving relationship with it, particularly where espresso is concerned. An Australian barista champion joined forces with an American coffee professional and together they delivered a WBC performance and resulting events that, when you step back and think about it, have had a rather huge impact in the speciality sphere. And not just by creating an 18 week waiting list on a particular grinder. Just over a year ago I would not have contemplated brewing a lungo style shot at all. It definitely wasn’t being considered as part of our menu.

Zeitgeists in coffee have an impact which is sometimes hard to quantify, but we definitely see changes. As a multi-roaster store we are not just deciding how we would like to brew coffee, but are choosing how we would like to brew other peoples’ coffee- those people who have roasted it.

The way in which we prepare and taste coffee impacts on what we will have a preference for and what we will work towards, as well as what we will work backwards from. We have to start somewhere. My post a year ago was wrestling with the idea of not exploring variables and trying to set them still. But at the same time we all have a window for brewing coffee, some narrower than others. The danger being that if we don’t have a big enough view then we may miss some of the landscape. But at the same time if it’s too large we may not be able to focus on the details and improve things.

For us at Colonna and Small’s, this window has gotten smaller and in a good way.

Our preferences have most likely changed a little bit, but I think that other things have changed as well. We have embarked on a project which has left us with a better understanding of brewing water and this information dramatically informs the brewing process. We hope to publish this research in the form of a book shortly, but we have also decided more precisely what we want from the coffees we buy and therefore the suppliers whose approach we jive with. This has meant we don’t buy coffee in the same way we did before.

Before we may have been willing to tussle with a coffee to get the best out of it, but now we are more informed about what we may struggle with, say a coffee from a roaster that has significantly different water sources or brewing practices. So I would say we are looking for the same kind of flavour results but narrowing the net we cast within which to find them. This also naturally means we are setting an end point of sorts to work towards.

For a long time the speciality coffee industry has been moving away from the double ristretto style in acknowledgement that it is almost impossible to squeeze the character of the coffee into such a small amount of liquid, in that the extraction will nearly always be low.

A ristretto is easy to write off but the range within the espresso cannon is wider and more varied.

Throughout the last couple of years the focus on extraction and TDS* and their relationship has impacted how we see espresso. The exploration of lower TDS espresso-style beverages has most likely also stretched and challenged the idea of what an espresso even is. For me there are limits on this and I feel that below a certain TDS it just doesn’t taste like espresso. Hence the Lungo we sell. With the right grinder, the right style of roast, brewed at a lower pressure and with a quicker brew time (to make sure we don’t exceed an extraction we feel tastes good) it tastes great, displaying the character of the coffee, but it’s not an espresso to me.

Drinkers in our shop have often really enjoyed the lungo, with it not being as delicate and nuanced as the filters nor as intense as the espresso. However, those wanting or with a real attachment to espresso haven’t enjoyed them so much. It has been important for us in store to bill the lungo as a different way of displaying a coffee rather than as a lower TDS espresso.

What’s particularly significant for both the variables of brewing styles/goals and that of water, is that they both will impact on how the coffee is roasted. A couple of the roasters we work with will roast specifically for us, in one’s case it’s to explore lighter roasts that don’t necessarily suit all of his customers needs. For the other, it’s to explore coffee together for competition and for water spec.
Regarding this latter roaster, together we will cup coffees that are currently available or are coming into the country from a variety of importers. We will then choose the coffees we wish to buy and the roaster will roast a variety of profiles, normally this is three distinct and different profiles to guage the direction in which we want to go with the coffee. I will brew these coffees and the process will continue in a feedback loop in which we both take part. So, in short, how I decide to test the coffee combined with the water and the grinder will all enter the feedback loop and massively impact on where we end up.

In essence we are working back from a brewing point. This notion is one that I in some ways rebuked in the set recipe post last year. At the same time it is something we are in many ways now doing by cutting out roasters whose results may not correlate with our water as well as tailoring coffees to TDS and extraction numbers -although we are still marginally flexible on this.
We are all doing this in some way. Roasters, for example, will find a set recipe style they like to work with and their coffee will be influenced by this. This kind of controlled environment makes a set recipe, or a “work backwards from brew” approach, a more linear and predictable path as the testing environment is more controlled.

At the same time, roasts vary, and water varies, even with careful supervision. And small variances in recipe are still something we use. We do this because our main goal is to serve someone the best coffee at that moment in time. We may be able to trace a negative aspect of a coffee’s taste back to the roast or a change in water, but I don’t want to use that as an excuse for the customer I’m preparing the drink for. Of course, tweaking recipes and parameters cannot hide massive flaws in the system, and on these instances the coffee may have to be removed from the menu altogether. But a better understanding of what our suppliers may be aiming for and understanding the nature of their feedback loop as well as our own has meant that the variance in the recipes we use has narrowed. It also follows from this that we are naturally, through such processes, pushing towards more singular recipes.

But is there an event horizon for coffee brewing or are we making one? Of course, this event horizon is most likely to be defined by TDS and Extraction combined. After all, variables need to be set to judge anything, but it’s also coffee’s complexity that often makes a lot of our created judging systems flawed either way, whether we set the variables or change them.

Currently our recipes in store tend between 40 and 55 percent brew ratio mark (twice as much shot weight as dry dose weight) with TDS around 9-10 percent and extractions between 19 and 20 percent and on occasion up to 22 percent (these numbers are not with the EK43, but with a K30). Sometimes though this is more the coffee than anything else. At the moment a light roast pacamara manages a much higher extraction under familiar circumstances as slightly heavier roasts of very different origin coffee, which is unusual as lighter roasts tend to be harder to extract from. The question is though,could we go back and roast the pacamara coffee in a way that means it tastes better at 20 percent rather than 22? really we’d prefer to get the others tasting good at 22percent. Or are we struggling against the very nature of this unique product. Can we have a singular recipe for all coffee? Maybe here we need to have our  rules and allow for anomolies.

And this is where the constant cycle of dilemmas between the concepts of brewing theory and flavour in coffee keeps leading me, to the space between set recipe and variability.

Let’s see what happens in the next year.

* TDS denotes the concentration of coffee in the coffee beverage, rather than the amount of coffee extracted into the liquid, for example a ristretto is highly concentrated but its hard to get a high proportion of the coffee into the liquid. Where as 1 gram of coffee to a litre of water would be an extremely weak coffee to water ratio, but it would be much easier for the water to extract a lot form the coffee as it doesn’t have much to deal with.

I find it useful to discuss it as workload. More coffee means a higher workload for the water. It has got more work to do to get the coffee into the water, and in some cases will simple not have the capacity (ristretto) and hence the extraction is likely to be lower even though the strength of the beverage is higher. less coffee results in a lower workload for the water and therefore it can achieve a higher output(extraction). We can help the water out with things like grind and time but there are limits on the work it can do.

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The Water Keeps on Flowing

This post is a little update on the water and coffee project that we have been working on.

In February I was invited to speak amongst illustrious company for the first Tamper tantrum Live held in the U.K. It took place in Birmingham at what was also the first Superheat format for the UKBC.

Tamper Tantrum is the brain child of Steve Leighton and Colin Harmon.

The format allows the speaker to choose their own topic and they get 20 minutes on stage to present, this is followed by a Q&A session with the audience. The variety of speakers who have taken part and the resulting content is really quite something, I would recommend wandering through the archives and taking a peek at the available presentations.

I took my opportunity on stage to talk about our water project and I really enjoyed the experience.  You can watch the talk here

Myself Chris and Lesley also recently had our first paper from this project accepted in the peer reviewed journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. The paper is called The Role of Dissolved Cations in Coffee Extraction and is currently hosted on Chris’s blog here .

This paper is one part of the research we have been doing. We intend to submit more papers and are very excited about the book which will take the form of a users guide to waters’ impact on coffee brewing along with practical information regarding filtration systems.

I really enjoyed working this project into my competition routine this year and cant wait to take it to Rimini in a few weeks.


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WBC 2104 – Rimini in Bath

The great news is that both I and Seb won National coffee competitions which means we will be off to Rimini, Italy to compete in the world competitions early next month. The bad news is that with this and other staff commitments, it means we don’t have the resources to run the shop for the week we are away. Only Jason an Elliot will be home to staff the bar.

Don’t worry though, we have come up with a solution. It’s a pretty cool one which should hopefully be an event in its own right.

As we don’t have the staff to operate the store under normal conditions, we are going to change the operations of the store for the one week. We will be closing off the seating in store and erecting a makeshift bar at the entrance.
The cool bit is that for the duration of the week, the sole offering of the shop will be a mirror image of the drinks myself and Seb are serving in Rimini.

This will mean a batch brew offering of Seb’s brewer’s cup coffee, along with the two different espresso coffees I will be serving in my routine. To complete the mirror image we will also be preparing and serving the signature drink from the routine.

We are pretty excited about it.

This shop “costume change” will start on Saturday the 7th and continue through to the 15th of June.

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Craft, Specialism and Size

This post is mostly triggered by a talk I attended at the University of Bath (it’s really neat having the University up the road) by the head of marketing from Brew Dog. This talk was put on for a group of current MA students. The talk itself mainly charted Brew Dog’s meteoric rise since they began in 2007. The talk was really engaging and interesting, especially given that the whole talk was lubricated with examples of Brew Dog’s wares. It was an exercise in branding strategy, communication and positioning.

A Q&A session followed and provided plenty of food for thought, but one topic in particular warrants writing about whilst considering coffee. The topic is ‘the size of the business and its role in the definition of craft and or specialism’.

Brew dog are part of the craft beer movement and for many, due to the way the company has positioned itself, their beers are often a person’s first taste of this movement/field. They have also gone from being a small start up to a significant sized business that is continuing to grow and prosper. Early on in the talk, Brew Dog was being described in many ways, but in particular its size was being cited as part of what distinguishes it from other companies in beer. In that it is smaller. A student then proposed the question “if Brew Dog and craft beer are defined by their size, then as Brew Dog grows, is there a point which it no longer becomes craft beer?”

The justification of Brew Dog’s growth then quickly moved away from size, swirling around something far less measurable – the passion in and behind the business. It was now not being defined by size but by passion. Here the MD of Stella was cited as an opposing example in that he couldn’t explain the process and ingredients in their beer. An extreme example indeed.

All along though, I found it particularly curious that we were in effect discussing what it is that makes craft beer craft beer, but the nature and flavour of the beer itself was yet to be properly cited as the defining factor. At its heart craft beer tastes significantly different.
As far as both craft beer and speciality coffee go, does passion for the respective products really equate to the craft or speciality version of them?

For example as far as beer goes one could be just as passionate about traditional real ale as they could about craft beer. And for coffee, one could be deeply passionate about traditional Italian espresso rather than about speciality coffee. In both cases there is plenty of passion but it doesn’t result in the same type of approach to the topic or the same end product.

I appreciate that there is a big debate about what it is that constitutes and defines craft beers, just as there is in regards to the definition of speciality coffee.

Here is an article by Brew Dog on how they explore the definition of craft beer: http://www.brewdog.com/blog-article/craft-beer-v-real-ale

However it may often be easier for a company to present its passion and beliefs rather than rely on a product definition, which is cloudy. At the same time, for me the term craft beer suggests particular types of flavours and approaches to beer.

Interestingly, in America craft beer is very much defined by size, the brewery has to produce no more than 6 million barrels of beer a year. This is accompanied by some other regulations. – http://www.brewersassociation.org/pages/business-tools/craft-brewing-statistics/craft-brewer-defined

I also think that it is indeed true that many brand choices will be made on what it is we the consumer think the brand stands for, what we think the business is about, rather than choosing it purely on its flavour attributes. (This of course depends on the specific consumer.) This is where the size element has a strong impact; we can more easily feel we understand the company and what it stands for if it’s small, whereas a huge company with no personal connection can lack that link. Who are the people involved in the company and who’s behind it? These questions are often considered, even if only subconsciously. A smaller company can just ‘feel’ nicer. But when is small not small anymore and what about the increased potential of a growing business in terms of what it can explore, how it can bring a product to a wider audience and invest capital in equipment and development of the product?

Brew Dog themselves give their customers access to their identity and ethos with the videos that the owners make and circulate. The videos also engage and educate the consumer about the product. They have the ability to show a transparency that makes a business feel smaller, a lot of craft branding isn’t just about the actual size of a company but it’s perceived size.

My point is, that a massive global beer company could potentially make a beautiful craft beer if it wanted to – it’s just very unlikely to do so (they may need to hire specific expertise, say a consultant). At the same time a small company could make a bland totally “non-craft beer”.

But, there is indeed a correlation between craft beer and the size of the businesses that make it. This correlation is justifiable. In fact there is more than correlation; there is obviously causation as well. This is very much the same in coffee. Speciality coffee is defined by groups of businesses that don’t exceed certain sizes. I don’t think the two industries are at all identical, and there will be certain aspects in each that feed into what it is that impacts on the size relationship.

For instance, craft beer is more of a bottled product, one that isn’t as changeable and perishable as coffee. As technology advances in coffee we may well in the future be able to distribute and serve our product in a way more similarly to craft beer, or maybe not. But by looking at craft beer I do wonder how much of ‘smallness’ in speciality coffee companies isn’t just about the products physical nature, but is also about the people involved in and driving it.

You could label this ‘passion’ as it was labelled in the Brew Dog talk. Craft movement and speciality businesses are driven by people, yes, passionate people, but specific people all the same. It would definitely seem that speciality coffee or craft beer wouldn’t exist at all without passion, and that a business of huge size is an entity of its own, with certain profit and growth obligations.

It is harder for there to be passionate people or small groups of people driving the products within a business that is reacting to the existing market and aiming to hit the biggest potential market. A huge company needs to hit the biggest market by virtue of its size. Of course with certain industries which are specialist, but may not be flavour driven – say technology driven – it’s arguable that increased size, competiveness, resources, and better R&D facilities will actually increase the quality, innovation and success of their product.

Craft beer and speciality coffee are products that have required the purveyors to challenge norms of business and flavour in established domains. It often requires the bloody mindedness of a person or a group of persons who don’t care that there isn’t a market at the moment or that their products are not “what everybody wants”. These fields require creativity and attention to detail, often obsessiveness, a search for perfection. They require passion and the goal to make a living from something they find exciting (and are using the business itself to explore).

Specialist is not necessarily the same as craft, however there is often a notion that if something is small and “craft” then it is inherently better – a reaction to a certain modern phobia of technological development or growth. This is typified by books such as The Authenticity Hoax by Andrew Potter.

Dictionary definitions of craft cite making things by hand and on a small level, and at one point the type of beers that represent craft beer’s taste aesthetics may have all been made on a craft basis. The word craft when attached to beer though has taken on a different meaning than the dictionary definition.

Speciality coffee and craft beer are typified not just by being craft but by being sensorial unique. they are not simply identical versions of something already produced on a larger scale. The difference is not simply that one derives from a smaller company and is therefore “craft”. The results are actually different, and yes, size may be part of the cause, it however is not a tight, ‘size equals’ equation.

Interestingly there is a good argument that the pursuit of quality in coffee requires less of a focus on the romanticism of craft, and that we need to embrace technology where it can aid our flavour and product goals. A roaster for example, can improve its consistency with the aid of more expensive technological equipment and measurement tools, as well as its ability to invest in the raw product and certain practices by being a little bit bigger. Of course even with technological support, speciality coffee is highly craft in nature, you could say that certain technology has the potential to improve the craft, depending on your definition.

Ultimately, if Brew Dog continues to produce the same products with the same inspirations but on a larger scale, then they are merely a larger craft beer company, they will not lose that moniker. Or at least I don’t think they should. What makes their growth different is that their expansion is off the back of producing a product which they are making because they think it tastes great and that they feel there isn’t enough of. Their consumers are following and taking part in their aesthetic journey, this same relationship defines speciality coffees relationship with its drinkers.

They will of course grow due to great marketing and good business practice, but ultimately it’s because there is an audience receptive to and excited by the company and its products. We will just have to wait and see how big that audience is and how that market will evolve. The size relationship in specialist boutique fields will always be there. Brew Dog themselves have always been supportive of and have stocked other breweries’ products which they find inspiring; this is also because they want to grow the field. Specialist fields are importantly defined by lots of different people and businesses exploring the product and how they feel about it. Specialist fields often showcase a collective or individual aesthetic as well as terroir and the natural complexity of agricultural aspects.

Although they have and continue to pursue a large share in the craft beer market, it is obvious Brew Dog’s intention isn’t to monopolise it. And even though I mentioned that the passion and ethos behind a company is less measurable, it is in these cases valuable as it is not simply market demands driving things forward, but people with a passion for exploring the flavour of a product. Craft beer is importantly something more tangible than a passion for beer; it’s a passion for particular flavour experiences from beer. To draw a specific line defining when something is no longer a craft beer is very difficult. Citing extremes is much easier.

The companies in craft or specialist culinary fields will be different sizes and some may well exceed the norm. This may actually benefit the field, but the wariness that coincides with increased size in these fields is fair enough, as the correlation suggests that the passion element that helps define these worlds becomes less likely and less possible at a larger scale. Not to mention many other desirable reasons behind supporting and embracing smaller businesses in a particular field.

If speciality coffee, which is driven by a certain grade of coffee and rarer flavour characteristics, could be as easily expanded and grown as a craft beer range, forgetting not only the making aspects of the product but also the raw availability of it, would its ubiquity take away its speciality coffee label?

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