Is brewing a science or an art?

A colleague recently posted this article on Linked-In.

It’s a fairly concise piece that attempts to answer its question, but along the way I find it gets confused. It makes the point that a true professional barista should not need to use a scale and that an accomplished coffee barman should be able to make a decent espresso with no extra equipment. The author then encourages the barista to use more eye contact while making the drink for their customer.

All this may be appropriate advice, but I’m afraid I find it ultimately unhelpful. Rather than disassemble their perhaps well-intentioned article, I’m going to simply put forth my own views on this subject.

Does taking your coffeemaker's temperature seem like overkill to you? I think it's worth it.

The headline’s question is a good one. My answer is brewing is a science to make a cup of coffee – which I consider a work of art. Brewing is chemistry. We are attempting to use water as a solvent, which the heat enhances, which is why we heat the water. From then on it’s time and terms. The longer we have contact between the water and the grounds the more coffee flavor matter we extract. Now, there is an element of art involved – that is the subjective decision of how much is enough. Truthfully, there is no right answer. The fact that different parts of the world have different brewing standards shows us this. But, a good barista, or any of us when we brew, should be aiming to brew it to the tastes of the person who will be drinking it, and the methodology we use should be thought out and repeatable. Hence, it is both art and science.

Items like scales, thermometers, measuring spoons are designed to make the process measurable and repeatable. I recall the bad old days of the 1990s when in the Specialty Coffee Gold Rush, I met many entrepreneurs who were convinced their product was 100% art, and they claimed no matter how you brewed their coffee, it tasted great, far better than so-called commodity coffee. In fact, I felt some of these folks viewed people like me who promoted the importance of brewing as simply geek-types who could take the fun out of anything with our measuring obsession.

I think it’s gotten to the point in history where most people in the coffee industry and many consumers accept the fundamental truth that the brewing process is vital and of equal importance with a well-bred, cared for, properly roasted bean in order to make a good-tasting cup of coffee. The word “decent” is a word I reserve for commodity in both product and experience. I am sure I could guess my way through the brewing process and get a decent cup, just as when cooking I could guess at my stove temperature, time and spices and get “decent” food. But, why would I?

As far as eye contact, I often choose a simpler method to brew coffee when entertaining. Most cafes offer two tiers of brewed coffee: there is bottle-brewed coffee made (hopefully) hourly and stored, then dispensed quickly and at a competitive cost. The extra time and cost applied at the brew bar is to achieve an ultimate, fresh and flavorful cup. The freshness alone should justify the extra effort to someone who’s going to sit and savor that cup. Using tools such as a scale to make it as exact as possible is simply common sense. There’s no hocus pocus about it.

I do not always use a scale under my Chemex, but this is because I’ve brewed with one for twenty years. I know where 750 weighed grams of brew lies on my brewer, but this does not mean I do not measure.

Weighing coffee brew for consistent brewing strength. Do you?

There surely are connoisseur practices that, while possibly enhancements, I separate them from good brewing practices. For instance, the ritual of pouring hot water to wet the filter before brewing is, in my experience, optional. Carefully measuring both water and grounds, whether weighing or using a measuring spoon, is not an option. Grinding using the best appliance affordable just before brewing, is a given, not an option. My wife always rinses her cup with boiling water before I pour her cup. I consider that an option. Timing the contact between water and grounds is critical and determines the grind I use and is not an option. I never guess at measurements. As much of a storyteller as I am, when I’m entertaining, I always beg the guests’ indulgence with my breaking eye contact with them as I prepare our coffee. The few times I have broken that rule we have paid for it.

While coffee brewing is a science, this does by no means mean that all the science is known, and searching for right practices can be considered an art. For instance, after pouring hot water into a press pot, how much do you stir? Stirring, as those of us who brew regularly with this method know, facilitates extraction. One reason the vacuum brewing method is so highly regarded is its inherent water agitation causes it to extract so efficiently. Both the stirring of a press and the bubbling vacuum are hard to measure. Obviously there is a formula at work, but who knows it? I don’t and I have yet to meet anyone who does.

So my complete answer is coffee brewing remains both an art and a science. As Chesterton said, “Art, like morality consists of drawing a line somewhere.”  Some years ago an inventor introduced a product that fit over our ears that would enhance our ability to hear music. Although every review confirmed the product worked, it did not sell well. Apparently there are limits to which connoisseurs will go for even the most rewarding hobby. My advice is to continue to measure and treat coffee brewing as a science, with the caveat that much is still unknown, including just how you and your friends like to drink it. My guess is you’ll enjoy your coffee and not ruin your life by making your rituals too obsessive.

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