The Madness in the Methods

Hello, my name is Jason Gonzalez, and I am a barista. There’s something I need to admit to myself, to admit to all of you…

  • Talking about  brew methods is boring.
  • Dull. Flat. Stale. Tedious. Trite. I’m not interested. 

Which is funny, because I love brewing and tasting coffee. Yet, I find the conversations that we tend to have about actual brewing methods miss the point of specialty coffee entirely.

Specialty coffee, for me, will always be about the huge potential for different and delicious coffee flavours that come from careful coffee production, roasting, and brewing. So, brewing is, of course, as much a part of that final cup as production and roasting… So I guess that’s my problem with the brewing conversation... brewing methods seem to dominate the discussion, while we miss out on the other things that make a great cup. It's not just our conversations with new customers… it’s baristas that I find the most frustrating when we start talking about what brewing methods are “good” or “bad.”

Methodology, not Methods

Let me start by saying that, counter-intuitively, I love talking about brewing. Just not brewing methods. The difference here is one of scope and applicability. When I talk about brewing, I like to talk about brewing theory, that is the general function of pulling flavor out of beans with water. Origin, processing, roast, grind, brew time, temperature, water quality, pressure, filter material… all of these things come together to give a final cup, and each thing can be manipulated to change that cup. Fascinating. However, when a fellow barista rocks up to the shop and says something like, “I don’t like Aeropress coffee”, I just have to cringe a bit. That doesn’t make sense to me. Aeropressing what coffee? What way? There’s a more interesting conversation that could be had here, but every time I try to get under the hood and figure out what they mean about brewing in general… there just isn’t any logic underneath. I get that there are preferences, but we’re not really having a conversation about brewing theory, we’re just fanboys looking for something cool to like or not like. An Aeropress, like every other piece of equipment we use, is a means to an end. The Aeropress is merely a coffee syringe. It holds water and you push brewed coffee away from the coffee grounds. The method isn’t where the fun bit is. The fun bit is finding an amazing coffee and manipulating your parameters to get the most out of it.

A Matter of Taste

To be fair, how you have fun with your coffee is really a matter of personal preference. One could really find satisfaction in performing a specific ritual with a specific device. That’s fine, weirdo. However, this idea that the brewing method makes a huge difference in flavor is just not correct. If you gave me a great coffee I have never had before, and you go through the effort of dialing that coffee into specific method… and you’re good at brewing and you understand how to make coffee taste great… I literally won’t be able to taste what brewing method you used. I could probably tell if the filter was metal, cloth, or paper… maybe I could guess a bit about the coffee itself. But no, I could not tell the method itself. Admittedly, I don’t spend all day trying to do this… and maaaaaybe if you gave me 3 different cups of the same coffee and told me which three brewing methods you used… I may be able to match the cup to the method. My point ISN’T that they all taste the same, I’m saying we tend to make a mountain out of a molehill.The difference is subtle enough that it doesn’t even reveal itself without (potentially) a direct comparison. I’m good at tasting differences, too. I’ve entered the UK tasting competition three times. My worst national performance is when I came second. So when people say that they’ve “never had a good Aeropress” it might be true, but it’s probably not due to the brewing method itself. Maybe it’s the methodology of the brewer. If you’re using a set recipe and not dialing in… your differences may be exaggerated, your Syphon Filter may be chronically over-extracted and your favorite coffee roaster may roast in such a way as to benefit your V60 method. If you’re using a set recipe, rather than adjusting recipes to extract properly, you may very well find that one methods suits you while another doesn't. That’s not really a fair test. If you literally prefer making a certain method because it’s fun to make… go for it. Just stop trying to tell me your favorite method is somehow inherently brewing better coffee across the board.

Sharing is Caring

Most tragically, to me, is that the brew method madness gets passed on to customers. Coffee customers are often looking for a magic recipe or a magic method, and the coffee industry is only too happy to provide these things. Coffee enthusiasts are the people that will drive this industry, just look at the craft beer movement. I think by talking about methods that a customer can try at home, we are attempting to energize our customers. Yet, I don’t think we reveal enough to our customer base. We often just talk about the method, without discussing the methodology. We dumb down our offerings in an attempt to shake the ‘pretentious barista’ label, but we do more harm than good. Nothing is more pretentious than deciding what information to pass down from on high, and what information is ‘too intimidating’. When it comes to brewing coffee at home, nothing is more accessible than filter coffee. Espresso has a high cost, but high-quality filter coffee is something well within reach for an interested party. Rather than patting them on the head and sending them off with a pre-determined recipe, we should be sharing the fundamentals of brewing. We make the method into the Holy Grail… but it’s the drink inside that grail that excites us, isn’t it?

Patient Zero: The Barista

So where does this method obsession come from? Part of it comes from the inherent difficulty of sharing coffee experiences. We can’t both open a bottle of beer from the same brewery when we’re online together… we actually have to make coffee fresh. Because of that, we’re never really tasting the same thing. Different equipment, different waters… and of course, different methods make comparisons difficult. That must be part of the reason we seem to favor talking about equipment and brew methods over flavor. 

Part of the reason. 

The more insidious reason I think we talk about methods over the coffee itself is The Barista Doctrine. Now the Barista Doctrine isn’t really anything more than a thought experiment conceived by Nick Cho. The Barista Doctrine was his response to what he considered a slightly flawed creed gaining traction in the speciality industry, the Green Bean Doctrine. 

For Cho, the focus on the quality of a green bean was potentially damaging, as it takes the focus away from the roasters and baristas, and shines it on the farms. This sounds nice, but Cho believed that this doctrine decreed that roasters and baristas could not add value to coffee, they only could preserve the inherent value. An idea, according to Cho which could keep baristas and roasters from actively manipulating the coffee beans in the best way (under-developing the roast, for example). This fear of damaging the coffee could potentially lead to less tasty final drinks. 

His counter to the Green Bean Doctrine was The Barista Doctrine. This is the focus on the final cup, in it’s final and drinkable form. Green beans are useless, we don’t drink green beans, we drink roasted and brewed coffee.

Now, whether or not you think the Green Bean Doctrine is problematic (I don’t think it is, I like the focus on terroir), I think it’s hard to argue that the final cup is not the entire reason we’re so picky and careful with coffee. A great origin story with a terrible tasting cup is generally uninspiring. Personally, I jive with Barista Doctrine. I honestly don’t think the two doctrines are really any different (when testing a coffee’s quality at a farm level, you don’t chew on green beans, you cup a real cup of roasted coffee). However, I have one MAJOR problem with the Barista Doctrine. The name. 

Why does the Barista get all the credit? They are merely the last step in a long chain. In fact, I don’t think that the Barista Doctrine is a response to the Green Bean Doctrine at all. I think that the Green Bean Doctrine is an attempt to highlight something that is often invisible to (at best), or hidden from (at worst) the customer. Baristas are RIGHT THERE when you are served a coffee. I’m proud to be a barista, I’m good at what I do. Yet, I’d be a crappy barista if I didn’t share the interesting bits of the coffee’s origin and journey. Focusing on me, and what I’m personally doing is terribly narcissistic. I think it is a symptom of the coffee culture. Maybe there's a reason craft coffee has such a hard time shaking the "pretentious" label when the craft beer industry doesn't seem seem to suffer it as much.

Methodlomania

How does this relate to my boredom of brew methods? In the end, I think that this focus on brew methods is egotistical. It’s a way of pretending that we are doing something special, or a way of talking about ourselves (“You should try MY Kalita Wave pouring technique, it’s an amalgamation of McCarthian-double-kettling and Dragon-inspired-manual-vacuum-assistance.”) I think the focus on method over brewing methodology is damaging, it’s a half-truth, which can have more staying power than a plain lie. I love brewing, I love talking about brewing, but when we break down and rank brewing methods with baseless certainty, it just proves that we lack a decent understanding of our craft. I do think that we should focus on the final cup, as long as we fully reveal that the final cup isn’t merely the product of the person who made it or their method. It’s the concoction of an enormous collaboration, each and every step contributes. Please, end the madness. Talk to your green bean provider to see if brewing methodology is right for you.

Jason Gonzalez

bath, uk