Is Coffee Brewing a Science or an Art?

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.

Coffee For Congress: Coffee on The Hill Event 10/22/13

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky D-IL, Event Sponsor and I grab a cup and chat about, what else? CoffeeCon 2014!

During the recent National Coffee Association Summit in Philadelphia, I discovered the NCA planned a one-day coffee event for Congress to help bring attention to coffee and coffee issues.  The NCA’s Donna Pacheco seemed to have everything planned, but when I volunteered she graciously suggested I might be able to discuss coffee with the Congressional staff who attend.

The issues in coffee are pretty straightforward. I think most everyone shares them. NCA CEO Robert F. Nelson would probably say the coffee industry wants to be more or less self-regulating, like the cosmetics industry. Doesn’t it make sense that the folks who know the most about how to proceed are those closest to the situation? How much labeling do we really need on one of the world’s oldest products? Think of the apple (fruit, not iPod). Do you really need or want nutrition information stamped on your apple? Is it worth the cost? And coffee, with things like caffeine content varying widely depending upon variety and roast, would impose an entirely new cost on the roasters, which of course hurts the smallest guys most. Does a centuries proven safe beverage like coffee really required to be treated like a laboratory-fabricated energy drink?

Also, how about some immigration reform ala coffee? Isn’t coffee that’s brokered, stored, roasted and brewed in the US entitled to be called Made in USA? These are issues the industry wanted to get across. I decided my role was best served by listening and observing first. Second, if asked I would talk brewing and consumers.

500 Congressional Coffee drinkers. There is hope, America!

I did wish to stump for more relationship building from seed to cup. I can’t think of a more potentially useful group to help with this than the State Department, who is charged to look for ways to improve communications with our neighbors, many of them coffee producing nations. CoffeeCon’s mission is to build a kind of “farmstand rapport” between U.S. consumers and their favorite coffees’ farmers. I know it’s possible. In CoffeeCon v.1 I recall posting on Facebook, offering a free booth to any farmer able to make the journey to Chicago. Honduran farmer Gerardo Casco came and exhibited and spoke to our attendees. It adds a global dimension to CoffeeCon and closes the loop from creator to consumer many in the industry speak about.

Coffee On the Hill (I know I keep calling it Coffee For Congress) was well attended. More than 500 shared coffee with us. The top-end coffee Barista Guild Chair Trevor Corlett and his fellow Madcap colleague Ryan Knapp ran out of the Cup of Excellence coffee they brought – I take some blame for this because I kept touting the coffee and downing several servings myself. Beans wise, I can’t help my own affection for John Martinez’ Honaunau Estates Kona Coffee beautifully represented the best of U.S. grown coffee.

I brought the rarest and best USA coffee: J Martinez Kona Honaunau!

Steve Schulman of S&D Coffee brought enough of their coffees for a representative world flight that featured some genuinely rare breeds, brewed with Bunn-supplied brewers, all organized and brewed to precision by Bunn’s Debbie Russell. There were also cuppers who set up stations from Coffee America (USA), Corp., Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA, and Noble Americas Resources Corp. They are to be commended for bringing the high degree of professionalism. Frankly, I didn’t expect to see replicas of coffee evaluation that trade uses. It added a nice Mr. Science touch to the proceedings. Note to self: See if these guys will come to CoffeeCon 2014.

As you can see in photo 1, I met Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, D-IL who sponsored the event. She’s asked if I can bring CoffeeCon to her district, and of course the answer is a solid… maybe – haha, I learn fast here! I also met Congressman Darrell Issa, R-CA who of course is politically opposite of my Illinois Congresswoman. Typical of elected officials I’ve met, both were charming and engaging. I met many congressional aides, who all wanted to know which brewer, how to use it, and what my favorite coffee was. I spoke eloquently on the first two and diplomatically, even evasively on the last. Which coffee is my favorite? Hmmmm. (I told you I wished to show myself a fast learner. haha.)

I believe the event was a success in all ways. So, to answer an obvious inside joke: Did we energize Congress? Hmm. Let’s just say they left energized. Certainly it was great fun.


PS: Special thanks to Joe De Rupo, National Coffee Association Communications and Media Director for making it so easy to attend their events, and for snapping my photo with Congresswoman Schakowsky.


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