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August 13, 2012

Lets not beat around the bush, I am romantically involved with coffee.  I adore the smells, the tastes, the sights, the sounds, the processes and craft, I could go on into much detail about why I spend most of my life closely tied to this drink.  Romanticism for me is the emotional attachment to the varying aspects of coffee, this is what makes such a strong relationship between us and the bean possible.  The intent of this article is not to undermine romanticism in coffee but to explore a complex relationship; focusing on how, sometimes, it can actually lead us astray.

It is quite ironic when this very romanticism can seriously impede coffee’s “taste” possibilities.  A desire to maintain the mystery and magic perceived in coffee triumphs and a reactive defence of existing norms - or “coffee beliefs” occurs.

I will admit that the romantic nature of craft was one of the main points of intrigue for me when first working in coffee.  I really did like the way small changes to the process affected the cup.  I had however not yet been exposed to the kind of coffee I am now working with. The coffee I was brewing at the time was “ok” to me. It was palatable if a bit flat and roasty when nailed and slightly undesirable when not. I was possibly more interested in the journey at this point than the destination.  Simply because the destination was only mildly exciting to me.

My focus however completely changed when I tasted a single estate Kenyan espresso up the road from where I was working.  Everything changed there and then and I became a taste driven coffee person.

My sole aim was then to learn what it would take to replicate and explore the kind of flavour that had left me amazed.  In effect I actually saw myself become even more craft focused as the consistency and execution of the barista role was ever more important with this kind of coffee.  Smaller margins for error became apparent, improved craft and understanding was needed in order to arrive at the destination - which I now valued more than the journey.

I made a promise to myself not to defend and hold too dearly what I had learnt so far, to contest what was put forward to me as ancient coffee wisdom.  Instead I vowed to move forward and challenge my own understanding and learning, resisting the urge to blindly follow my peers.  I thus intended to strive for understanding that can be logically explained in order to create a strong foundation upon which to experience and develop in coffee. This will however always be tempered by a resistance to what is possibly the hardest urge to resist – that is the temptation to create and define solid answers where there is not sufficient evidence. The task is to take the most sensible step forward from this unsure point whilst always remembering that the step made is upon unstable ground.

A clear explanation of what we value in coffee and what we are striving for is important.  Whether it be brewing or roasting, growing or customer service, they all require a definition of our goals before any forward movement can be taken. This happens for all of us whether it is conscious or not.

If you are thinking,” hey I like a good cup of coffee too but it’s everything that goes into it beforehand that really matters to me! I adore the romantic uncertainty of coffee.” then you may not find what I have to say very useful as we do not share coffee goals.  I will argue that commercially this is irresponsible (you owe the customer more, the journey involves the brewer far more than the recipient) and all of my experience with coffee is based squarely in serving it, my viewpoints reflect these experiences and the desire to serve something constantly great.

However if you do find yourself agreeing with my goals, you may find it slightly odd that romantic processes and ideologies can be valued more highly than the taste of the coffee.

Making coffee is indeed a challenge, controlling variables, mastering techniques and so forth.  Add to this the tasks of a commercial environment and it all comes together to offer a highly rewarding role.  I do often think to my self how wonderful it is that the multifaceted elements of this drink allow the role of carefully preparing coffee to transcend far beyond the mundane and into the realms of the highly satisfying.

Many will indeed be familiar with the almost addictive nature of working with coffee and the fondness for it that develops over time. An obsession creeps into the lives of those that become entwined with coffee.

Although an individual’s love of something they do is really rather wonderful, my worry is that there is a common misunderstanding that this will naturally produce and offer the best tasting cup of coffee.  Weirdly this is not always the case and it is particular romantic notions that are responsible. I believe that it is essential, especially if we wish to enthuse others with our love of coffee, that certain romanticism does not overshadow the cup. Many drinkers and customers (possibly the majority) will be primarily searching for a taste experience, yes the story of that taste is also highly valuable, but the end product must be a fitting result in order to not only validate the story but increase the worth of that very story.

Rather interestingly, many of those that are emotionally attached to the processes and ideas that impede cup quality will agree with everything I have stated so far.  The delusion is then a certainty that romantically held approaches are the best way to achieve the desired result. Logic and perceived cup quality are so often twisted to validate methodology and ideas that are held so dearly.

One of the most fascinating driving forces behind this odd cause and effect in brewing is a romantic notion inferring that the majority of cups produced can and possibly should be mediocre with one rare wonder cup. With espresso this is termed the “God shot”, filter doesn't have as strict a definition that I know of, maybe “Zeus’ brew” would fit nicely.

This romantic phenomenon is at its most troubling when offence is taken at the idea of a consistently great tasting espresso or filter.  The problem being that great coffee all the time would undermine the belief that the chances of creating and tasting an incredible coffee are equal that of being struck by lightning.  Now, rarity is without doubt something we all value in one way or another.  It's that mystery and intrigue that surround a complex product tapping into our curiosity and wonder at the things we don’t quite understand.

One of the possible explanations for all of this established mysticism was the lack of understanding in the past. Romantic belief systems could offer a reconciliation of the variances, helping comfort us with an understanding that requires a certain letting go.

This is all very well but as we learn more about coffee the previous romantic explanations can be more restrictive than they are comforting.

This isn't to deny the variability of coffee or to not realise when there is positive change.  The change in flavour as a coffee ages from roast is a constantly fascinating experience.  It is a taste journey of one coffee’s possibility.  Espresso demonstrates this phenomenon the most dramatically and when brewing espresso I feel one needs to work with the coffee to make the most of its potential at that moment in time.

After all, if the role of the barista / the roaster / the grower isn’t to consistently produce “great” coffee then what is it?  Is it instead to play around with beans, fire and water whilst making a big song and dance resulting in the odd great cup without really knowing how they did it?

I guess the area for debate here is actually regarding what type of change is acceptable.  It would seem that there is a dangerous association with mass produced “consistent” and bland products.  A pursuit of consistent quality in speciality coffee breeds a fear that it may some day resemble a chain store in some way.  This is just absurd.

My idea of “consistency” is not one of lower homogeneous standards but of higher liberating standards that validate speciality coffee beyond the realms of coffee geeks like myself.

Espresso does seem to hold the most romanticism and mystery, but brewed coffee has its fair share. As I covered in my brew bar article romanticism also has the potential to hold the quality of brewed coffee back.  It was quite startling to see how sacredly certain brew methods are held and that exploring their ability to do their job caused such an illogical stir.  Romanticism and mystery can be held so deeply they become impervious to logic and reason. In coffees case it limits the showcasing of a particular farm or variety etc by hindering understanding.  By default this also means that a customer is less likely to come across a consistently great cup, they have to also buy into the romantic idea of rarity in coffee, they have to accept that they might hit the jackpot or they might lose the gamble when buying their cup of coffee.

The model of exploring coffee like wine, a dialogue based on flavour, could not occur with old school romanticism which would keep coffee as the secret of a few whom “understand” its nature.

Once again the pursuit of brewing and serving coffee is in danger of becoming a predominantly self-indulgent one and not one geared to providing a consistently high quality product.  This is absolutely fine if someone is brewing solely for them-selves, although I am sure many home brewers would quite rightly take offence at the idea that its only commercial environments that should pursue consistently great coffee.

Quite frankly I think there is enough romanticism and mystery in coffee and there will always be with such an agricultural product. There are so many variable steps in the chain. Romanticism is not definable with one example and at its best it stokes the fires of our field.

This article should not suggest that all of those in speciality coffee apply romanticism in a negative way, but it is rather an investigation into a type of thinking I have come across worryingly often. For all of our (third wavers/speciality coffee) worry regarding traditional restrictive coffee cultures around the globe, we should watch that we do not smother ourselves with our own tightly held romantic beliefs.


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