There are no points for difficulty in coffee

In Olympic diving, a diver’s final score is derived by multiplying the average dive score by the difficulty rating of the dives. In coffee, there are no points for difficulty. Coffee customers generally care how good a coffee is, how much it cost, and how long it took to make, but not how difficult it was to make. Obvious, right? Then why do so many roasters and baristas make coffee preparation more difficult than it needs to be? I offer the following examples as suggestions of how to improve coffee quality or consistency with only trivial increases in effort or cost.

 

One of the first things I tell roasting clients is that to make their roasting consistent, their green-coffee temperature must be the same, every batch, when they load the coffee into the roaster. It is, literally, impossible to roast consistently if your green temperature varies before roasting. Almost every client has protested that maintaining consistent green temperature would be too expensive, too much of a hassle, or too inconvenient. Even after I pointed out that all they really need is a small room with a space heater and flimsy walls, just big enough to store one week’s worth of green, almost all still didn’t want to bother. (Several clients finally took the advice months or years later, and they are all happy they did.)

 

The simple math involved in building such a room would imply that it’s a no-brainer. The room would cost about $1000 USD and would massively improve roasting consistency for decades, or at least until the room collapsed. For a company roasting a mere 500 kg/week, the room and its associated heating would cost about $0.01 per kilo over five years.

 

Roasters are not alone; baristas have historically made good coffee more difficult in numerous ways. Years ago coffee quality was challenged by baristas’ refusal to use scales, dismissiveness toward the coffee refractometer, and rejection of volumetric espresso machines as not “artisan” enough (remember that?).  All three practices still persist in many companies. Currently, some best practices with no downside, such as using a milk thermometer ($10), bothering to align flat burrs (one hour per six months), and buying espresso machines with preinfusion (the same average price as machines without preinfusion) are still uncommon.

 

Perhaps the simplest way cafes could improve their brewed-coffee quality without much effort would be to use smaller batch sizes and carafes for serving batch brews.  (Please see my recent post Batch Brew Basics.) For example, if a cafe serves 8 liters of batch brew per hour, the added barista time to brew four 2-liter batches instead of two 4-liter batches would be approximately one minute per hour.  Meanwhile, that minute of effort would halve the average holding time of 25+ cups of brewed coffee.  Please ponder for a moment the difference in quality of brewed coffee held in a thermal carafe for 30 minutes vs. one hour.

 

Cafes readily pay up for very expensive coffees but don’t take many low-cost steps to get the most from those coffees and justify their prices. For example, the cost of a set of new grinder burrs is perhaps $0.02–$0.06 per kilo, depending on burr type, frequency of burr replacement, and average grind setting used.  Changing grinder burrs twice as frequently would add $0.02–$0.06 per kilo, and would dramatically improve average extraction quality at a cafe. If you could make your average cup of coffee dramatically better by spending ∼$0.05 more per kilo, wouldn’t you do it?  If you are hesitating to answer, please consider how readily roasters spend an extra $0.50–$1.00 per kilo for modestly better green.

 

Similar math applies to water-treatment systems. Most cafes could easily improve their water quality for coffee brewing; among other problems, very few cafes have chosen their water-treatment systems based on a comprehensive, accurate water analysis.  The cost of a new water system and its upkeep, over many years, is approximately $0.02–$0.10 per kilo of beans ground and brewed. Again, it is hard to argue with such a small expense for a potentially large improvement in quality. (NB: This only applies to cafes not already optimizing their brewing-water chemistry.)

 

In these examples, I’ve done my best to estimate the USD costs of the recommended changes. I’m sure there’s room to quibble over the exact costs (though I’d rather we didn’t), which, among other things, vary by country.  I’d love your suggestions of other low-cost or low-effort ways to improve coffee quality and consistency.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

32 thoughts on “There are no points for difficulty in coffee

  1. In my experience, most cafes could invest a little more time and money in keeping their batch brew setups clean. It seems like another common place to shoot oneself in the foot.

    I’ve had so many cafe experiences where my expectations have been set by seeing that they have coffee from a solid roaster and decent equipment, only to be let down when the batch brew tastes like an unclean decanter/basket.

    I’m curious — is there a specific water treatment company/system that you get behind? I’ve used a few different things, currently working with an Optipure system. It leaves something to be desired, but is better than a lot of alternatives I’ve used.

    • Hi Trevor,
      I won’t promote a water-systems company here, but I will say that there is no one-size-fits-all system and there are numerous systems from numerous companies I would recommend, depending on a client’s needs.

      • Speaking of water…Would love to read a post from you on water for coffee. In my experience water has made a bigger difference than most other factors.

          • I’d like to second Trevor’s request for an article on water when you have an opportunity. I’ve been home brewing beer for 14 years and–now that there are whole books dedicated to water used for brewing beer–I would say that water treatment has had one of the most significant and instantaneous impacts on the final quality of my beer.
            With companies like Aquiem are selling water specifically for brewing coffee at about $2.90 per liter, I’m sure lots of people would love to learn about water treatment for coffee and how they can manipulate their water themselves when possible.

          • Hi Bowen,
            I’d love to write that post, but it’s going to take some time and work on my end before I can produce a post of the quality I’d like it to be.

  2. Hi Scott,

    Definitely agree with your points here from the shop owner perspective. Establishing quality and consistency via processes is great at the individual shop level and at an industry perspective as well. I do think though that from the customer’s viewpoint, they do see value in a craft. Doing things such as timing and weighing adds to that appeal but so does having cool gadgets such as a Kyoto dripper or a siphon or drawing creative latte art and using them to engage the customer. It would be silly at this moment to ignore the persuasion of the Instrgrams feed. Perhaps we can bring attention to the more technical aspects of the craft that improve quality by upping the “difficulty” level.

  3. Some valid points here, I think smaller, more frequent batch brewing is the way to go at almost every cafe we encounter. I’ve had so few great pour-overs, even at well respected cafes, that I’ve started to think they really should not be incorporated into most menus. Take into the valuable counter space, equipment, and investment in labor, and I can’t see upping the difficulty for most cafes.

    I’m interested to learn more for the green coffee storage. Are you suggesting a dedicated climate controlled space, where green coffee is stored the entire time at one par temperature, prior to roasting? So depending upon geographic location, this room would need both heating and cooling? And are you are accounting for humidity in this room, or is the assumption that all these coffees would be stored in Grainpro or other comparable liner bags?

    Thanks for the blog, and I look forward to your reply.

    • Hey Derek,
      I feel the same way about pourovers. It’s frustrating, as I want to have the option to choose what coffee I will drink (for instance, when the batch brew is a natural. haha) and to have it made fresh, given how many cafes abuse their batch-brew hold times. However, I’d estimate about 5% of hand pours I’ve ever ordered were great extractions.

      Yes, I’m talking about a dedicated space for green. Build a room in a corner, if need be, and heat/cool it as needed. Most places don’t need cooling, as the ground below the room is usually rather cool and the room will stay cool in summer if the door is not opened too often. I wouldn’t worry about humidity if all of the green in the room is stored in a hermetically sealed bag.

      • Hi Scott,

        Interesting. Okay, so would it work the same to build this room to house all the coffee for a given week, where it could equalize to the par temp for roasting? Estimated green for the coming week could be transitioned to this smaller holding room.

        • Derek,
          I’m confused. That is exactly what I recommended, isn’t it? Am I missing something? In a sense, the ideal system is probably to keep most green in cold, long-term storage, and to house the next week’s green in the room, at something like 21C.

          • Yes it is! Sorry, I totally missed the line, “just big enough to store one week’s worth of green”.
            Thank you

  4. Great post! Always enjoy your perspective. However, would you ever give points for style? Is there value in presentation? Does the way a cafe chooses to prepaid and sever coffee correlate with their branding? Simply put, is there ever an argument for doing something with greater difficulty because it looks cool and draws attention? Maybe the quality of the brew could be better but can that be overcome by excellent service and an enjoyable customer experience? Sure, I can put out a self serve batch or I can hand craft you a made to order drink. Why do people go to cafes? Is it simply because the coffe is better? Or is it something more? The experience. I am unsure if there is a single answer, nor do I claim to to have it. I find the balance difficult to define and go back and forth.

    • Hi Mike,
      Of course customer experience and style matter. I appreciate those things and I’m sure many customers do, too.

      However, most baristas drastically overestimate their skills (much like we’re all better-than-average drivers, right?), and frequently ruin a potentially great cup. What percentage of hand pours have you ordered that were skillfully extracted? The ones I’ve ordered and have been impressed by have been well less than 10%. Batch-brew extraction quality has been more like 70%. That’s not a small gap, so something is very wrong here.

      Regarding customer service, experience, and hand-pour style vs. batch brewing… I recommend everyone go to Go Get Em Tiger in LA if they’re ever in the city. Kyle and Charles have chosen to eschew hand pours entirely for batch brewing. The customer service is excellent, the ordering system is unique (at least at the first two cafes) and the place has style. By focusing on batch brews, they’ve made a decision that allows their baristas to be MORE attentive to customers, and it works well. I enjoy their staff as much as I do the staff at any cafe. (My other favorite staff is at TSB in NYC, and they also batch brew.) When I go to a shop where I have to stand there awkwardly for four minutes while a barista hand-pours (and often ruins) my coffee, I don’t feel like I’m getting superior style or service.

      Admittedly, that’s just me. I’m aware that some customers are excited by manual brewing and gee-whiz gizmos behind the counter. And I appreciate those things, and I like being able to choose my coffee and have it brewed to order. But not if the end result is a mediocre extraction.

  5. Hey Scott —

    I think you make some really excellent points here.

    I’d have to say that, while I agree with you, my experience working with cafe and roastery owners leads me to contend that it’s the idea of any upfront cost, however large, that is the real hurdle.

    Personally, I think the rationale of ‘how much does this cost per kilo over time’ works really well, but the majority of the pushback against spending I’ve come across, no matter how little the cost when defrayed over time, relates to the fact that the cost itself is either all cash up front, or a financing margin added.

    In either case, it seems to be an easy avenue for the owner to reject the improvement.

    • Hi Tim,
      I completely agree. Humans overreact to the pain of upfront costs and rarely make a rational calculation about the long-run returns on said upfront costs. There are times when cafe owners simply don’t have the cash in the bank to choose the better-in-the-long-run choice of higher upfront costs, but it seems most think too short-term even when they have plenty of cash.

      That said, this is a blog, not a therapy couch :), and all I can do is offer what I think is sensible advice. I can’t compel anyone to take it. And we’re all human– In my personal life I often find myself making the poor decision of spending more in the long run because I don’t want to spend a large lump sum today.

  6. There’s a lot to be said for keeping it simple. There are so many big levers to pull, in coffee making. (Pause, to allow obvious jokes about levers and espresso machines to clear the airwaves.) Even taking just one method.

    I’m reminded because I’ve been on a tinkering course lately–not out of dissatisfaction. Merely for fun. Just yesterday, before rolling up my sleeves to mess around with espresso and pressure profiling, and toying with my (non-pressure-profiling-by-design consumer machine–which, nevertheless, and of course, the internet showed me could be toyed with, to adjust pressure on the fly during the pour), I reminded myself first to look again at your e-book on espresso. I re-read the section on pressure profiling. Then I happened to browse elsewhere in the book, and came across your mentioning the benefit of a 30- or 60-minute resting of the ground coffee, before espresso making. It rang a loud bell, because I remember reading it before, but (and perhaps more convincingly) also because I came home from a 3-week trip this summer and used some leftover pre-trip (vacuum-stored) 3-week-old beans to make some espresso, with very low expectations–and was surprised by how good the result was! So this morning I ran a quick and rough test. 60+ minutes of rested grounds (I went out to vote, and it took longer than anticipated.)

    It was very clearly and deliciously successful. It made a huge, night and day, difference. So simple. Big lever. And a slap to the forehead.

    So yes before I complicate things with pressure profiling, or whatever else takes my fancy, maybe I’ll first make a new habit of resting my espresso grinds (or even the beans). Maybe I’ll incorporate a regular slap to the forehead too.

    Even at home, though, I recognize that resting grinds has potential problems–but there’s room for myriad solutions too. (Pause, to allow obvious joke about solutions. . . .)

    It’s very nice to re-examine the way of doing things now and again, changing (if possible) one thing at a time. Your writing usually inspires that. (I’ve been having fun–and success–with my French Press routine, since your post last week.) If it’s true for the home coffee enthusiast, where we have the simple luxury of time for tinkering free of commercial and other pressures, it must be exponentially more important for a cafe operator–I can only imagine!

  7. Hi Scott,

    I run a small coffee roasting company, have read your book on roasting and followed many of its principles – the common theme, like this post, being consistency. It’s all relevant but the most powerful tool I employ is a manometer and fan speed controller. The pressure inside the drum increases as the roasts progress and by tracking this you can compensate – as temperature has a direct affect on pressure it can also compensate for fluctuations in ambient temperatures. For roasting I personally believe this to be the most important tool for consistency…. As for espresso machines, I constantly argue the case volumetric and gravimetric are far superior to manual in a commercial environment…. consistency!!!

    • Hi Julian,
      Thanks for the link. However, just to be clear, I agree with embracing batch brewing, but I don’t necessarily advise getting rid of manual brewing; if I did, I wouldn’t be writing posts about how to do them. I do think, however, that most cafes offering hand pours are doing a poor job of it, and they should either fix their hand pours or drop them.

  8. When referencing things that make coffee better, I couldn’t help but think about scales. As a simple home brewer looking to achieve great quality with both coffee and tea, do you have recommendations on scales/timers. Is a product like the Acaia Scale worth the investment over time? Any other direction on this matter?

    • Hi Mark,
      For a cafe, I would recommend breaking the bank on a great scale like the Ohaus line. They’re virtually bulletproof, and very fast and stable.
      At home, I think any sturdy digital scale, preferably with a resolution of 0.1g, is fine. No offense to Acaia, but I wouldn’t buy one for the home.

  9. Hey Scott,
    I just got a point. You, as a fan of the refractometer, (don’t get me wrong, I fully agree to use it as one of the most important thing in the coffee business) ever tough and talk to Vince to implement calibration procedure for the Refractometers? Basically I am from the meteorology industry, and periodic, eg. annual calibration – if needed readjustment – is definitely necessary to trust in any values the tool shows us – let say measurement equipment.
    If somebody relay on an equipment this procedure is a kind of must. This is the point or possibility which I haven’t seen from VST, Atago or others – if there is. Don’t you think it is a gap which leads to inaccurate measurements?

      • I think it is same like when you clean the lens with alcohol and zero the tool with the distilled water.
        All helps your measurement to be consistent give more believe in the value on the screen.
        As this tool has built in resistors and capacitors and pretty sure has somewhere ADS too, it could change with ages. So I guess regular calibration is needed too.
        ADC: analog digital converter

  10. Thanks for mentioning milk thermometers. I recommend chef quality digital thermometers that cost $25-40. A shockingly underrated tool for any barista. Customers don’t care what TDS your espresso is if the milk temperature is off.

  11. Scott,

    About consistent temperatures and green beans: in “Coffee Roaster’s Companion” you mention learning about the importance of maintaining constant temperature *and humidity* (p.21).

    I don’t know how to measure moisture content, density or water activity in green coffee, so I’m interested to know if there are some rules of thumb (or even a way without expensive industrial equipment to measure, or approximate, some or all of that).

    My home storage is simple: the green coffee is stored in opened plastic ziplock bags (in which they’re shipped to me), in 2lb lots, in the kitchen. Year round, day-round, the temperature is relatively normal and stable (70-ish). Humidity: the usual minor air-conditioned variations, with the exception of the absolute coldest days of East-coast Winter when it surely plummets.

    The beans must surely be subjected to quite a bit of variation in humidity during importation and transportation. What happens as they adjust to my kitchen, say after a week–do they all settle on about the same moisture content, or do different origins and bean varieties have per se different moisture contents that remain stable and different relative to each other? If so, are there any rules of thumb about regions, or bean size (eg. I think I read in your book that larger beans tend to be more dense, yes?).

    I understand that your advice in the blog post is really aimed at high-volume (commercial) roasters, and this may all be a second- or third-order kind of problem for a home roaster (after solving basic first-order problems such as figuring out a batch size and drop temperature, estimating ROR curves, timing the ratio of first crack to end of roast, etc.), and anyway this might not interest you.

    No worries if not–I’m interested in anything that might help improve the trial-and-error process of very limited-control home-roasting, but I don’t want to waste your time with my small-batch problems!

    Thanks,

    Patrick

    • Hi Patrick,
      Answering you in full would take rather a long time. I am hoping I can steer blog comments so they are simple and to-the-point, and easier for people to read and grasp quickly. In that spirit, I’ll try to answer succinctly

      -you don’t have to keep green at a perfectly consistent storage temperature.
      -colder is better for long-term storage.
      -the temperature of the green should always stabilize for a few days at a chosen, consistent temperature before roasting
      -why are you storing green in OPEN zip lock bags??? please always keep green sealed.
      -I hope you are buying beans in GrainPro and vac-sealed bags, only. Changes in humidity and moisture content during shipping will damage bean flavor in dramatic and unpredictable ways
      -All origins may stabilize at different moisture content %s due to difference in Aw (water activity/ bound moisture content, I assume.)

      I’ll give just as much love here to the home roaster with a 500g machine as to a commercial roaster with a 4-bagger (not that they’re reading this, but I wish they would). But the more concise the comment, the easier it will be for me to offer a clear, useful answer in a timely manner.

      Thanks

      • That’s generous and helpful of you. Bean bags zipped now! Many thanks.
        I’ll keep it much shorter from here on!

        Patrick

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