Monthly Archives: March 2012

Brew Bars – The problem with Pourovers

Brew bars are becoming an integral part of speciality coffee shops.  It’s a great way to experience the variety and quality from farm to farm, roaster and brew method.  I don’t think there should be a battle between espresso and filter; they can provide us with two exceptional ways of experiencing coffee.  I often note how shocked customers are at the polemic between the two beverages.

This post is less about the worth of a brew bar and more about the functioning of one.

We have been working with brewed coffee at a commercial and professional level for around two years now, but mostly in the new shop (open now for 8 months) with a dedicated brew bar.  Like many, I got into coffee originally through espresso and then discovered the possibilities of filters later.

We have used and explored just about every method available.  Through this I have realised certain things about different brewing methods, in particular how they effect our ability to provide customers with a consistent product.

As I have mentioned before we are endeavouring to present what coffee is now capable of.  A brew bar is excellent at demonstrating this.  It can provide elegant, crisp clean sweet brews, ranging from fruity and floral to nutty and silky.

However, if you have a coffee board that promises this kind of tasting experience you have to deliver, otherwise it all seems like a pretentious farce and we all loose out.

I think we coffee people need to realise that a customer does not see and shouldn’t know about the idea of a barista battling with a brew method in the hope that the finished beverage will be good. They just taste the coffee! That’s all they should do.

Granted, brewing coffee is full of variables, some that we can control and others that we cant.  But I often think this is used as a scapegoat, with the romanticism of a baristas craft overshadowing and hindering the quality of the coffee.  Espresso is renowned for this but its seeping into brew bars where I think there is no need (I also think with our understanding and technology espresso can and should be consistently better).

 

I think a baristas craft is as follows – to be able to taste a coffee and understand what attributed to its flavour.   Then, use knowledge and technical ability to control the variables and therefore make the most of the coffees potential flavour.  The key here is to understand what you can and can’t control.

 

So let’s talk about pourovers!

In recent times certain people in the industry have made a concerted effort to understand how coffee brews from a scientific standpoint.   These insights are allowing us to improve the way we make coffee.  I can’t help but now see certain brewing methods as possibly not that good? Or, in the least, inconsistent and problematic.

I now personally doubt the commercial viability and worth of any pourover method from a Hario V60 through to a Chemex and a cloth filter.  They are ultimately all brewing methods with a big margin for error.  They suffer from the eternal coffee struggle of trying to get water to pass through a bed of coffee evenly and at a certain pace whilst keeping a constant brewing temperature.

There has been a lot of technique development with much longer brewing times.  This is very time consuming and to me seems unnecessary as the quality of the brew is still not certain even with careful attention.  Also, I just struggle to see the benefit in the cup of a V60 pourover compared to a Clever Dripper.

 

I concede that the benefit of the types of solids that end up in the cup from something like a cloth filter may be a benefit worth pursuing, even if the brew consistency is hard to attain.  If this method is to be used, really it should be done with a warning to the customer.  For instance  “We offer a cloth filter that takes much longer to make, will cost more and is less stable, but may have an interesting result with a great mouth feel.  Fancy a go?”  Of course, we are not going to say this to each customer!  It’s a ridiculous position for both parties to be in.  We should offer a cup of coffee that we can guarantee will taste a certain way and be able to explain why.

 

There is a problem here with learning also.  How can you assess your brew recipe- how the dose/grind/ brew ratio etc affect the flavour and then make changes to improve the cup if your not sure what will stay the same and what will not.  Why make it even harder than it needs to be, to the point of being unattainable.

I want coffee to shine.  I want people to talk about the flavours they get.  I want maker and drinker to talk about the experience.

 

It is important to consider brew method and recipe but I don’t think the experience should be dominated by the role of the barista – their experimentation,  craft etc.  The baristas role is obviously a hugely important one.  I am not trying to dumb it down, I am actually arguing for baristas to see their role more professionally.  It should be less about them playing around with coffee and more about a responsibility to be an efficient knowledgeable coffee maker.  They then can deliver the customer a wonderful coffee every time that showcases the provenance and the character of the coffee itself.

 

It’s interesting to consider that with all of these issues pourovers have become the first choice for anyone setting up a brew bar.  My theory is that in the past when simply brewed (dunk the water on top and let it pour through) they seemed like the most convenient option.  It would seem that as our understanding of brewing has developed, we have not stepped back to consider whether this brewing method still deserves a place on a quality driven brew bar? Perceived value and craft is probably the best answer.  It looks fancy and quality driven.

I know a lot of home brewers who enjoy the challenge and hit and miss aspect of pourovers.  These same people have however experienced a great cup and understand what they are aiming for.  I guess it’s a lot like a home baker with a crappy 70’s electric oven full of hot spots and quirks trying to make a great loaf.  It’s very different to trying to commercially produce and guarantee artisan bread as a professional company.

Brew bars are beginning to be recognised commercially but many business owners are looking at the labour and problems involved and seeing it as an unprofitable, logistical nightmare.  It doesn’t have to be as problematic as most brew bars would have you believe.

I am extremely happy with our brew bar; I can rely on it to deliver a great coffee experience that completes on our promise.  If I am going to urge you to try a black coffee without sugar or milk and let it cool down to get all the flavour, I need to know that the promised flavour will be there.  We do this by using three methods – Aeropress, Syphon and Clever Dripper.   All these methods utilise immersion as well as drip which makes things much more consistent whilst still offering a diverse range of results.

Long live Brew Bars!

 

 

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Staff

 

It goes with out saying that employees are integral to the success of any said business. Each individual business requires specific things from their staff.

In each sector of employment there is a general understanding of what a particular role in that sector requires in order for you personally to excel and for the employer to see benefits from your work as part of a larger structure. Mostly there is a crossover of skill sets that will allow you to progress more quickly and the length of the training period is defined by the complexity and character of the role as well as your aptitude to it.

The same hurdles that require a different communication with the customer can be applied to our recruitment and training.

As I am sure you have gathered from the previous posts we do things very specifically in direct relation to our business and its purpose. For the employment of an individual to be successful on many different levels the key tenants of how we operate and what is expected of them have to be well understood.

I would posit the much touted notion that hospitality in Britain is not seen as a serious role or career path but as a transitory job. This is very understandable on many different levels. It suits the needs of many people, either a student or a traveller, someone between jobs or part time work for people juggling life’s many responsibilities. It also suits the needs of a lot of companies who can keep their wage bill down and have a flexible team etc. but in return these outlets must build their service around the knowledge that its most likely not the passion of their employees and that they will probably not stay that long.

You see this in full effect with larger companies. Consistency of product is the biggest worry.  The best service and product are only that if they can be consistently repeated and offered every time. Clever hospitality businesses will understand the reality of what they offer to potential employees and the type of staff they can repeatedly expect to find and hire. Their product and service should then be built with this in mind. What you will often see is systems that simplify tasks to easily relatable ideas and standards that they can expect everybody to easily pick up and carry out after undergoing a relatively quick training period. In essence creating fewer margins for error.

I myself when working in such companies have struggled. I have felt restricted and disheartened at the idea that a product and its service could not be better. This does not apply with all larger businesses, as size and scope can often also improve the quality of a product due to more resources and expertise etc. This is a syndrome that seems to be prevalent in the more craft and specialist areas like food and drink. Where this is less true is in developed areas with a large talent pool of keen enthusiastic individuals. The size and scope of a business will always be limited by the size of this pool

Not all companies wish to pursue specialism and perfection, there goals may be different and to achieve them they have a larger perspective about what is logistically possible and that’s what I realised, If you decide to work in these companies then this needs to not just be understood but valued. Certain things will work on a larger scale and others won’t.

I was not the right kind of person to be working in this type of company and we have created our own business that aims not to compromise in the same ways, maybe our compromise will be our possible size and growth?

For our goals to be met every member of staff has to be passionately committed and work full time to be effective. They need to be willing to bear the responsibility of representing such a shop. All of the staff are often mistaken as one of the owners. I think this is excellent and of course I want all staff to have investment and care akin to an owner. Again this is something I’m sure most people would want from their staff but it can’t be expected if you have dulled down their role to monotonous tasks that don’t challenge and reward in anyway.

In the pursuit of offering a speciality coffee experience A lot of industry rules have been thrown out and I’ve realised that rather than replace them with my own, They need to be replaced with understanding and knowledge. This is why staff can be so hard to find and nurture because they can’t just be given rules to follow, they need to be willing and capable of developing into a skilled passionate coffee person- a professional in the field.

I will be honest, One of my original reasoning’s behind this post was to give prospective applicants a deeper understanding of what a role at Colonna and Small’s would entail and to therefore streamline the hiring process and attract the right individuals as well as not waste the time of people who just want a café job for the time being whilst pursuing other goals.

The last couple of blog posts actually seem to have done this job for me. With many applicants noting that had they not read the blog they would not have seen the job as something that would fulfil them or present enough challenges, development and understanding.

In the end it can be quite wonderful, a concept that is fully realised resulting in your brand promise to customers being fulfilled and staff who love and value what they do.

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Quality

I know I said my next post would be on staff but I feel a short divergence is needed. I want to talk about the idea of quality. This term is used a lot in reference to our shop.  It’s a really complex thing with a malleable meaning. I want to explain what it means to us and therefore create a solid foundation for other posts.

So how do you define quality?

What makes something good?

Well its relative. I have mentioned it before and I think I will come back to it again and again. It hinges off the back of expectation.

I am very keen to stress that there isn’t and shouldn’t be a singular ideal for quality in coffee. It serves different roles for many of us. Coffee is a complex product and our experience of it is equally complex.

Coffee can be the basis for so many different quality experiences.

A large very hot coffee drink on a cold day with a sugar, a comfy seat, nice surroundings and your favourite book is a valid quality experience.

A roasty espresso blend  that combines well with sugar as in southern Italy is a quality experience. There is a whole cultural coffee tradition which this type of coffee beverage represents and the quality of this beverage is reliant on how it fits into this created framework.

There is more than one or two or even three ways to do something. This is especially pertinent in coffee.

Sometimes I think it would be nice if it was as simple as a singular graph of quality with a line that goes from rubbish up to excellent. It doesn’t work that way and that’s kind of great. Our job is to realise how it all works and how we fit in to this larger puzzle.

The quality we aim to achieve in our shop is to explore the possibility of flavour in coffee and define quality within this framework. Questions of quality in a speciality coffee shop then become about the balance of the cup, lack of flavour taints or how the flavour of the cup relates to the origins and provenance of the bean. All of this within the arena of what many would call the third wave coffee movement, a movement that is still evolving and defining itself.

We will share questions of quality with other shops, such as is our product consistent etc. But if we were to be judged on whether we offered a comfy coffee shop experience like I mentioned earlier then we would fail abysmally. We would also fail if we were to be judged on whether we offered a traditional Italian espresso that worked with sugar or a filter with a drop of milk. Where we want to succeed is in offering an exploration coffees flavour,  its capabilities and a dialogue of where they come from.

Although we have seats on which to enjoy our product we are in essence less of a lifestyle “third place” café and more of a retail store

Once we have agreed upon the objective we can then have the graph we want and apply a more objective judgment about what is good. Don’t get me wrong there is much discussion to be had even on these particular terms but that requires a separate post.

We passionately believe in the worth of what we have chosen to focus on and wish to offer it to the public as one of the many choices in the marketplace.

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Service

We spend a great deal of our time assessing how we can best serve our prospective customers. I have a lot I want to say on the topic because it becomes multifaceted very quickly with many things affecting the end result, much like a cup of coffee I guess…

So as a starting point for coming posts I am going to attempt to define service in direct relation to our business.

Customer service is about understanding, communication and problem solving.  As the server, your job is to communicate to the customer about the high quality product you have on offer and how it relates to them and their needs and expectations.

This is very interesting to think about.  Good service is often stated as providing the customer with exactly what they ask for. This only rings true if you are capable of offering them what they are asking for.  I think this is what people are scared to openly state in hospitality and especially coffee- Your product doesn’t have to please everybody and that’s ok! It needs to deliver on what it intends to achieve and promises to offer.

With coffee (as I’m sure is the case with many products) there are two ways you can go about offering a product to the market place.

A-     Look at what people want and currently buy, what’s commercially successful and in demand. Then provide this product.

B-      Develop and innovate, offer a product in a format that isn’t widely available which has many merits to be explored. A product you then almost create a market for, or in the least diverge from the current market. In this instance an exploration of coffees flavour possibilities.

For A, the customer has an expectation of what you should provide and if you are good at this you will provide it to a high standard.

We fit into the B category.  Like in any emerging specialist field, your product may not be fully understood by the customer.   It is very different and may not do what you’d expect.   In fact you may not want to purchase what we have to offer at all and that is absolutely fine.  The idea of pleasing everybody is a fallacy.

For this model to work the product and its merits needs to be well explained, otherwise it is unfair on the customer and equally on the business which could be judged on something it doesn’t intend to achieve or offer.

To a degree this is obvious and straightforward.  I think the need to clarify is necessary as in the coffee shop industry there really aren’t many businesses that fit into the B category.

It is easy to give in and offer something that requires no explanation. We choose to offer and explore the possibilities of this amazing beverage.  The most important thing to note here is that there is a wide audience that appreciate this approach to coffee.

For our model good service is understanding and empathising with the customer.  The challenge for staff is to offer far more guidance, knowledge and understanding than they may be used to from other hospitality roles.

This is what my next post will address- Staff are as much a part of the product we offer as the cup of coffee we serve.

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