Automation. are the Barista’s Days Numbered?

This article was originally written for the wonderful people at Coffee Mag in South Africa .  This version is slightly edited. 

 

Automation in coffee making is a hot topic. I was recently at the World Barista Championship in Seoul, Korea, an event where the global coffee community assembles, and automation was a point of much discussion. There are opposing opinions. Some certain coffee prophets foresee the end of the barista. In fact, this is often much more than a prediction, it has become a manifesto, one that argues that automation is the march of progress, and that it holds only benefits for the role of the barista, for coffee businesses and for coffee drinkers, and that you would be silly to deny it.

This article is my attempt to do the impossible – to predict the future. The most popular predictions tend to be the ones with the most dramatic clear-cut vision. They often are controversial and challenging. Predictions are most often about engaging us, setting our imagination alight, or pushing an agenda of some kind.

The reality tends to be a bit of let down, or at least a less radical scenario with a more subtle, dynamic and complex truth, one that’s not so far from where we are now.

For me there are two questions:

The first is purely about coffee making theory. Can a machine make coffee as good as or better than the best barista?

The second is less clear cut but arguably more important in predicting the future role of automation. This question is, if the answer to question one is ‘yes,’ how valuable is this for coffee, for baristas, for customers, and for the whole community?

So let’s explore the first question. Can machines make speciality coffee?

There is often a miscorrelation between the increased use of tech in coffee prep and automation. Yes, we have introduced new bits of kit into the progressive coffee shops around the world: we weigh, we are using different, less manual distribution techniques, we are not brewing shots by eye, but if anything, we have added just as much technique as we have taken away. A barista may now have to weigh a dose pre and post grind, distribute it, possibly with a tool, tamp it and then manage the pour through predetermined pressure settings and oversee an ‘out’ weight either manually or by utilizing a built in scale. This process is anything but automatic.

And the beauty of these processes is that they are nimble. If we decide that maybe we want to grind our coffee frozen, like multiple high placing competitors at WBC did based on new research, we can implement this step easily enough. It may not be commercially practical, but the experimental coffee chef in all baristas is always part of the equation.

An automated machine will be a machine that makes coffee the way we decide. Speciality coffee and its members all have varying ideas about what this should look like, and an automated system will to some degree require signing up to one fixed vision.

I think speciality coffee holds flexibility very dear, which makes sense in multiple ways. The ability to trial a new grinder next to my machine (or a dosing tool etc.) is something I wouldn’t give up unless the benefits were huge. I think this is a well-shared feeling, and there are multiple other reasons that I, as an operator, would be concerned about the change.

Anyone who has been involved in the development of a physical, functioning product, (and most who haven’t) will understand that these products cannot be easily updated like an app. There is a multiple year process of R&D and supply chains that need to be managed. Altering a major element of the process means going back to the drawing board. The company making the product also has to see commercial validity in doing so. Will there be enough customers who want this product, who value these details and who want to pay for it?

So, in answer to question one, it’s pretty clear that the super-auto machines are fast approaching the ability to make coffee indiscernible from that of a good barista. Acknowledging a certain expenditure and inflexibility of brewing, the machines will keep on rolling, and will at some point be able to make coffee as well as (and probably more consistently than) a good barista. Not the singular best coffee that it is possible to make, but definitely serviceable for speciality coffee purposes. But what does this mean for the barista?

This is where we move to question two. What is the value proposition? 

If I have a barista called Jen who is a highly engaged, experienced barista who finds coffee making rewarding and likes to share the process with curious customers and fellow colleagues. It is an involved craft that she finds rewarding as a physical process.

Then I have Frank the super-auto. Lets say Frank and Jen can make a coffee to the same quality and consistency. Why would I take the process away from Jen and hand it over to Frank?

There is only one way I would do this and it’s if Frank could make coffee 15% better than Jen. Now, if I’m not a speciality coffee shop, this wouldn’t be the case. As a restaurant or a conference centre, Frank offers me increased efficiency and less concern around staff training. But I do not represent those businesses. This article is really about the question of super-autos in speciality shops. *

The truth is Frank still requires Jen to program the recipe and check the result; ultimately the flavour reference will always be human. In a business where there is a constant house blend the human involvement would be very limited.

The claim about the best auto machines is that they can make coffee better than 95% of baristas. Although logically, to focus on improving your worst cup is sensible, no self-respecting speciality shop wants to be (or sees itself as) outside that top 5%. Would the shop actively choose a tech that doesn’t allow them to achieve the upper echelons of coffee perfection?

But, for arguments sake lets say there is an auto machine can achieve the top 5%. What then? I save staff time and efficiency and money… right? Well every change has pros and cons, so the more pertinent question here is, what do I lose?

It is easy to use numbers as our metric for success. They present a nice reference point that feels concrete. But are they actually back and white? Often a number is an average and an approximation.

At its core coffee is subjective and experiential, and a lot of value in coffee comes from everything around it, it is the processes that have gone into it and the perceived value. This is often an uncomfortable notion in coffee. We want great coffee to speak for itself, but often it can’t. It needs presentation and context. It’s important to understand how people perceive coffee quality and where their perception comes from, rather than to ignore it and believe that the coffee will do the job all on its own, just because that idea sits more pleasantly with our ideals.

Ironically a coffee shop is one of the hardest places to focus on provenance, flavour and character. I mean, sure, an office block is even harder, but a cafe is tricky as the primary use of the cafe is not a journey into the flavour and complexity of coffee. Most coffee shops are limited to their local audience and many of the customers are using the space to meet friends, have a work meeting or read a book. At best, most customers are after a ‘good’ coffee. There are exceptions with destination shops.

‘So why do you make capsules then?’ Situations when automation does add value.

When talking about automation and my scepticism of its role in speciality coffee shops, the comment, ‘coming from the guy who put speciality coffee in capsules’ has popped up more than once. The thing is, our exploration of capsules was never meant to take away the role of the barista, it is meant to do the barista’s role where they don’t currently exist. For me capsules are a great example of the real benefits of using automation in a really positive way.

Capsules don’t just offer convenience. It is often missed that in offering convenience they also enrich the drinking experience and open up choice for the drinker. It would be highly uncommon for a customer to buy three bags of beans and weigh them all out at the same time and brew three Aeropress side-by-side to taste the difference in character.

With capsules a customer can, of their own accord, explore the range at a push of a button. Routinely, customers surprise themselves with how varied the flavours are, and their ability to pick up on them. At home is actually potentially a better place to present speciality coffee, somewhere that the individual takes time and focuses on the special ingredient they bought without distraction.

A shop needs to create an experience to help focus visitors on the coffee. Take a look at the big chains, Many of them made the move from manual to automated years ago and now with their premium stores they are moving back to manual processes. At trade shows they discuss with various companies that they are looking for theatre, provenance and process to engage the visitors.

A customer’s experience is dynamic. Speciality coffee should have cup quality at its centre but we should understand how to furnish this. The truth is that we already do understand, which is why the move to automation will be so unlikely. We know that customers associate automation with fast, convenience non-premium coffee experiences. Making the change would be to fly in the face of this assumption and it would require a lot of work to tell customers that you haven’t sold out but are going auto for a good reason.

We took part in a latte art sensory study with a sensory scientist called Charles Spence. He is responsible for much of the focus on sensory science in gastronomy over the past decade. The question was simple: if we make the same cup of coffee twice, but put latte art on one and not on the other, will people perceive the latte art coffee as better?

The result was interesting. The participants did not think there was any difference in quality; they noticed that the coffees were the same. The interesting part was that despite this they were willing to pay significantly more for the time, energy and human element that went into the cup with latte art.

It’s often mentioned that coffee is going through its industrial revolution, we have seen it with so many other products, and now it is coffee’s turn. But it’s wrong to think of coffee like a pair of trousers, it’s better to think of it as a culinary product. Throughout food and drink, much automation takes place but it never takes over the boutique upper echelon, mostly for the reasons explored here.

The trousers are not made in front of you. The way in which they were made is hard to identify. In a coffee shop we see the coffee freshly prepared in front of us. This is why I think speciality coffee shops will never go super-auto. Much of coffee’s story and quality is presented visually. It is this immediacy of preparation that urges shops to stay relatively manual, especially when combined with the fact that the super-auto will only do the job just as well, maybe.

Hasta la vista barista, the argument for automation.

There is a widely held viewpoint around super-autos that argues the opposite. It has been pointed out that by taking the physical job away from the barista, we allow them to flourish in other ways. The barista can focus on customer experience and the shop can attain a more immersive environment and expansive coffee range.

I don’t really understand this argument. I don’t think that a shop’s service or offering is really defined by coffee-making technology at all.

Service is an inherent company culture based around people and ethos and the way you intend to engage with customers. If anything, I think that the disengagement of not being physically involved in making the coffee potentially leads to less engaged and potentially less passionate baristas. Sure, it’s hard to make coffee and talk to people all the time, but this can be managed in various ways, and losing the making will in turn lose a major focus at the centre of speciality coffee shops.

At the same time freeing barista’s time up to focus on more of a sommelier like experience is not a natural evolution. It is instead a dramatic change in the way the shop presents itself to customers and this would in turn require a big change from customers in terms of the engagement they are looking for.

The offering in most coffee shops of a house coffee and a guest coffee isn’t really defined by how the coffee is being made. It is largely defined by the experience the business has decided to offer its customers based on what it thinks they are after (and what they want to offer). There is a clear way coffee tech can broaden this potential ‘list’ of coffees, but the challenge they will face is whether their customers are actually interested in this list.

In reality a super-auto in most shops will just mean the following experience:

Customer enters 

Barista: Hello, how are you?

Customer: Good thanks, can I have a flat white please?

Barista: Absolutely, please take a seat.

Barista presses button.

Coffee makes itself and next customer approaches the counter. 

The opportunity to create, intrigue and to engage becomes harder. Now it is wholly reliant on verbal communication with no use of visual stimulus, which is often more pervasive and impactful. Of course, there are ways visuals could be designed to help in which the coffee is no longer doing the job.

And there will be exceptions. I can imagine a fascinating concept model with super-autos and a fine dining style service experience.

I expect to see more automation throughout coffee. But it I predict it will be dynamic and in the areas where it already adds value, which mostly isn’t speciality coffee shops. Even then the impact of automation is often overplayed. For example, the idea that automation will make airport lounge coffee great is misled. It comes down to looking at what is most impactful on cup quality. The main reason the coffee I had in the airport lounge on the way back to the UK this past week was pretty dreadful was not because of the brewing technology (as lacking as it was) it was because of the quality of coffee beans being used.

Predicting the future.

In summary, my prediction is that the march of the automated machine will stop on the doorstep of speciality coffee, that we will see more automation across the industry and we will see speciality producers embracing automation in a way they haven’t before, but the landscape in speciality shops will remain a mix of human and manual processes combined with new tech and ideas.

Then again most predictions are wrong. Last week at the WBC someone suggested that I set a reminder for five years from now, so I can look back on this and see how right or wrong I was. I think I might just do that. See you in five years Jen and Frank.

 

 

 *. To clarify, to me the 15% better idea is a fairy tale discussion. There is a belief in coffee that we are about to get substantially better. The reality is that we make marginal gains at the top, often we are gaining more control over our desired output, but the best cup of coffee in the world will not get 15% better for no obvious reason, and certainly not because we just handed it over to a machine. The machine will just do the job we ask it to. In reality machines are playing the catch up game, and yes it’s plausible they will get to the same level. But again, what does this mean?

 

 

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Global Water Survey

 

As you likely know, I  have had the privilege of being involved in varying scientific research in coffee in collaboration with experts from various fields. The Project that really kicked this off was Water For Coffee. Water is undoubtedly one of the biggest impactors on a cup of coffees favour and quality. It has been thrilling for all involved  to have been able to contribute to this topic in coffee.

We are looking to utilise the global coffee communities interest in the topic to map as much of the worlds tap water as possible.

At the same time we at Colonna we are excited to be working on a device that seeks to improve coffee in peoples homes around the world through altering brewing water in varying amounts depending on the location.

Colonna will be working with Water For coffee in the development of the project.

We would be thrilled if you would take a few minutes to fill out a simple form based on the source water at your location.

To fill out the form you will need a titration test kit and a conductivity meter. You will also need to know where you are…. The book order number is optional. The idea is simple. We would like you to measure the water out of the tap, the water you start with, not filtered water. Utilising a titration test kit we would like to get readings for the bicarbonate content and metal ion content (calcium and magnesium) in your water.

We would also like to  gather Ionic conductivity meter readings of the water. Ideally we would like all of the readings for each location but if you don’t have them all that is also ok, We will happily receive the data you can acquire.

The results will be collated and presented for all to see. They will also be utilised by the Colonna water project to develop that product.

Link to the survey is here

Thank you so much for your time and support.

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The Coffee Dictionary Pre Sale

The Coffee Dictionary is published in the UK on the 7th of September and we are now offering a pre sale on the Colonna site .

The book is a collection of terms, concepts and stories inspired by the seed to cup journey, accompanied by 80 beautiful illustrations throughout from Tom Jay .

A pre sale purchase now on the Colonna site will comprise of a signed copy accompanied by a selection of beautiful postcards inspired by images taken from the book. All pre sale orders will ship on the 5th of September in anticipation of the launch date on the 7th.

I really enjoyed writing this book and am thankful to all those that helped and contributed. I can’t wait to see it out in the wild.

shopbook.jpg

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Sustainability in Coffee

“The organizing principle for sustainability is sustainable development, which includes the four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture”

I will be honest, until recently I didn’t really know much about sustainability. Sure, I understood the basic principles, more precisely I understood that there are multiple concerns. I think commonly, the word sustainability is taken to mean environmental sustainability, when in fact it is a dynamic thing, in that it contains more than one consideration.

I once did a brewing course for a chap that worked with a sustainability NGO. One of the projects they had worked on was advising Pepsi. The project was based around potato farming (for making crisps, not soft drinks). The land was over-farmed and the lack of root systems meant that landslides were common in the area every couple of years. These events wiped out whole harvests.

Through taking a slightly longer form of analysis, the NGO showed that by planting less potatoes and creating a more diverse ecology in the area the landslides could be mitigated through a better root system, and that over a 5-year period the land would actually create more potatoes and be more profitable, whilst also improving the ecology of the land.

This is definitely a great example, however there is not always a quid pro quo situation where both environmental and economic concerns both benefit, and as the opening definition of this article points out, political and cultural sensitivity is also part of sustainability, with each topic often being part of a much larger web.

Sustainability discussions are difficult, rambling and complex. Sustainability in coffee is no different. A way to approach the subject is to narrow down what it is you’re looking at, creating some measurable metrics. The tricky thing here is to then comprehend how these individual aspects fit into the whole, and to figure out what should take precedence.

Energy and Waste – Taking a broader view

We have been thrilled to be able to team up with the chemical engineering department at Bath University and work with life cycle analysis methods to study the journey of a cup of coffee from seed to cup, looking at the environmental impact of every step. You can take look at the project on our Colonna labs page.

This is a project that is ongoing and we aim to publish in some way in the near future. To make the work eligible for publishing it cannot be publicly shared until after that process is complete. But there is other academic work on the subject that makes for some thought provoking reading.

Here are a couple of studies based around different brewing methods

Instant v drip v capsule 

Capsule v drip 

In essence, a life cycle study seeks to take a broader view that looks at the whole journey of the item/product from cradle to grave (and sometimes beyond the grave) when considering recycling or re-purposing of waste. In essence some of the most impactful aspects of the product’s journey may happen before or after your interaction with it.

The craft vs industrial surprise 

It is curious to consider that in most cases a small artisan approach to a particular product in almost any sphere, food, drink, technology etc will be more wasteful than a larger industrial approach to producing the same item. Industrial systems are always based on improving efficiency and maximising margins across volume whilst often trying to keep the end unit price down. Inherently this means being as economical as possible with the ingredients. It makes complete sense when you think about it.

Artisan and/or crafted items are likely to have a focus on process and quality. Thats not to say an industrial process can’t have high quality, but lets focus on coffee as the example for now.

Industrial processes in coffee can produce high quality but there is a correlation between those processes and a lower coffee quality. Take instant coffee as an example. Using life cycle analysis, instant coffee is time after time the ultimate way to make coffee for the lowest environmental impact.

Instant coffee’s trump card comes in the environmental impact of growing the coffee itself. Per cup of coffee, the land needed, the energy used and the resources required mean that the origin of the coffee is often producing most of the impact.

Therefore, the methods that come out on top are those that are the most efficient with this precious ingredient. Instant coffee is mighty efficient. The best processes super heat the coffee to achieve huge extractions of around 60%. Compare this to all other brewed coffees that range between say 16% and 24% with this top number of 24 being above the norm. Lets say this means that instant coffee typically yields 3 cups in comparison to 1 cup across all other methods for the same amount of harvested coffee.

Add to this that instant coffee weighs so much less per cup as you are only storing and shipping the solubles and not the rest of the bean, and it increases its lead. The only part of the instant process that isn’t superior when considering the footprint, is the boiling of a kettle of water.

These studies also tend to assume the same coffee source is being used. For example, instant coffee may well use its ingredient more efficiently, but does that ingredient tend to be as sustainably grown as the coffee that ends up being brewed in an artisinal espressos machine? It is the traditional espresso method of brewing coffee that has the largest footprint.

A focus on quality in speciality coffee has created a sustainable living for many producers and coffee businesses right through to the third wave shops that champion quality and provenance. In essence one element of sustainability may suffer to benefit another.

It is also valuable to consider the slice of the overall market place each type of coffee drink inhabits. A crafted cup of speciality coffee may well take up more land use per cup, more packaging per cup and more energy and resources but it also represents a much smaller segment of overall consumption.

Luxury and boutique products are always considered in context. For example, you buy a luxury product for a gift. It has considerably more packaging and associated waste but that is offset by the fact that it is not a daily consumed item. So, although per cup analysis is valuable. It can be valuable to consider the category of the product also and its position in a wider market.

Capsules 

Capsule coffee is directly associated with waste and environmental impact. It is easy to point the finger at capsules and feel rather triumphant about the V60 brew in comparison. So it may be somewhat of a surprise to read research that completely challenges these assumptions.

Research by Quanits based in Canada comes to a rather startling conclusion

“The adoption of a single-serve coffee system by North American consumers would realize significant environmental benefits including coffee waste reduction. Additional benefits could be achieved with the development of coffee machines with better energy-saving capabilities and extended service lives.

The single-serve coffee system’s packaging generates more packaging waste. However, when considering the entire life cycles of each system, the amount of coffee required making up for consumer waste and the electricity consumed for brewing (which depend on consumer habits and coffee machine features) drive the differences in impact.

Overall, the single-serve best case scenario posts a better environmental performance than the drip- brew system from the perspective of the systems’ full life cycles.

 

It will be no secret that I have an interest in capsules with the Colonna Capsule range.

In many ways the capsule project has fed into more focus and research into sustainability for us as a company, which is highly positive.

At World of Coffee in Dublin last year, Mike (a member of the Colonna team) struck up a conversation with a sustainability expert at the show. The individual was particularly intrigued by capsule coffee. She saw it as a great example of perception and experience shaping opinion, even though statistically the truth was quite different.

It is very natural that a capsule would raise the question of waste. When you make a cup of coffee in a cafeteria or buy an espresso and there is a purity to it, water and a roasted seed combing to create an aromatic beverage.

A capsule appears as this very same cup of coffee + additional plastic/aluminium waste.

Much like instant coffee, a capsule’s secret eco weapon is its efficient use of the raw ingredient, with a high yield and lower amount of coffee per cup. No way near that of instant coffee, but rather closer to that of the top end of normal brew methods, whilst creating a cup of coffee with a smaller ingredient amount but an experience of a full quantity.

There is an interesting question here about metrics and measurements. There is less coffee in a capsule, so should it be considered in the same context of a large cup of filter coffee? If a customer is satisfied by the experience of just one full cup then it could be seen as a successful way of using less ingredient and therefore less footprint per coffee drinker.

The other eco credentials of capsules are their brewing devices. These machines flash heat water using far less energy than a kettle and make for low impact brewing.

On the topic of metrics. There is much to explore here too. A life cycle study, or any study for that matter, rates the importance and “impact” of varying factors in terms of sustainability. But, how exactly does one measure toxic waste against green house gases? Or land fill against water used?

Although the world of sustainability research has created metrics within the life cycle analysis systems, it is also hotly debated. There can be different questions asked of the same model that flip something from being better to worse in terms of impact. This depends on the type of impact you want to measure.

It is also mind boggling when one considers how far the exploration of a product’s impact can be taken. One could also consider the resource and the materials used in the context of global industries, and the competition for scarce materials.

The message with capsules maybe should not be one of demonisation, but one of, how can we take an efficient brewing system and improve it further by reducing waste and impact.

The demonisation of capsules from the “manual” brew sector of coffee making is largely misplaced and when the spotlight is spun back onto methods like espresso or filter, they are left wanting. Even though capsule packaging should be improved, sustainability questions are just as pertinent for other methods.

How can we reduce waste and energy and footprint when making espresso, or when farming coffee? Speciality will always be a market with case-by-case examples. When studying the life cycle analysis of coffee Brazil is nearly always used as the origin from which coffee production data is gathered, but clearly different origins have widely differing factors when considering growing and processing conditions and energy use.

Ideally we could create a model that varies for origin. We could then ask fascinating questions, for example: if a Brazilian coffee harvested in a certain way is environmentally superior when made into a capsule, is it still superior when compared to an Ethiopian lot made in a French press?

A lot of research in coffee, regardless of the field, often suffers from only being representative of one type of coffee.

Takeaway coffee cups 

Takeaway coffee cups are an area of visible waste that is also receiving a lot of attention. The problem with recycling capsules is the same as cups. It is about separating materials that need to be recycled separately. This means, that either unique recycling processes are needed or that it is not viable to recycle at all.

The problems with cups are not just that the plastic lining needs to be separated from the paper body, but that the paper is often not a great quality for recycling.

One interesting idea comes from a project called NextCupCycle from Professors Dr Edward Kosior and Dr John Mitchell in conjunction with Nextek and Ashortwalk. Counterintuitively this project seeks actually use more plastic per cup and move the ratio to a 50/50 mix of paper and plastic.

The rationale behind this approach is rooted in realising that it is difficult to separate the plastic from the paper in takeaway cups. This then leaves you with a pretty useless material to recycle.

A 50/50 mix however would have the properties to be recycled into a touch resin that could have multiple uses in other products.

The word could is important here. NextCupCycle have an impressive commitment to seeking to build their own recycling plants as normal authorities and systems would not be able to process the cups.

This is much like Nespresso’s own recycling schemes that display an incredible system to recycle their own coffee capsules. The contentious issue is that uptake tends to be extremely low for these bespoke recycling system as they require customers to go outside of their regular recycling habits. Nespresso’s exact uptake figures are not disclosed, but they are working on initiatives to bridge the gap such as working directly with councils.

The second consideration here is the actual ability for the recycled materials to have a useful and meaningful second life. Aluminium is very successfully recycled, but a new resin like the one from the 50/50 cup idea would need to find its way into supply chains to actually see a recycled use.

Another innovative product being released into this sector is called the Green Your cup. This solution builds takeaway cups in a way where the inner plastic ling can be easily removed allowing the paper to be recycled separately.

Then there is the consideration of biodegradable and compostable materials. I had no idea until recently but interestingly, compostable is basically bio degradable with added benefits. To be certified biodegradable a material can have traces of certain metals, but a compostable material must be able to become a positive element of a mulch in a compost that can be used to grow things.

There are all sorts of interesting considerations here, such as the land use for the plant materials that make up these products, and when considering coffee bag packaging, that often only element of the bag are degradable or compostable. This is often where Life Cycle analysis can really help.

Every facet of coffee has a sustainability consideration and impact.

There is much I haven’t covered in this article, such as climate change and disease, with their impact on the sustainability of coffee production.

Price and value of coffee farming combined with political and cultural elements will always continue to impact on the sustainability of growing coffee at all.

I think that a continuing focus on coffee sustainability is in many ways linked to the sheer size of coffee consumption and therefore the impact of these elements when combined across such a huge audience, with concern of the ability for coffee production to meet supply demands a serious consideration in the future.

This article doesn’t really intend to tell you, the reader what to do or how to drink coffee in a specific way, it is more of an attempt to share thoughts and research on the subject and write down my own.

We hope to be able to publish our life cycle work soon and to be able to do more work on the subject in the future.

Coffee is an incredible drink and of course we want to find the most sustainable way to produce and drink it. This is of course not to under value the incredible work of many in coffee to constantly seek to improve its sustainability across the four domains of politics, economics, ecology and culture. It is this desire in speciality coffee to improve everything about coffee, making it as perfect as possible, that is one of its shining lights.

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