Breaking the Looking Glass

When you believe in things that you don’t understand
Then you suffer
Superstition ain’t the way
Superstitious - Stevie Wonder

When I started my first job in speciality coffee, my head was filled with coffee superstitions. Speciality coffee is a stormy Sargasso sea, tempestuous and unnavigable… it’s Sirens call to you, and your vessel can be dashed to pieces at any moment against the sharp reef of frustration. Foolishly, we ignore the available instruments and our logic. In our dread our higher cognitive function abandons us, like a rat from a sinking ship. We trust instead to our false rituals and superstitions. We unquestioningly adhere to arcane brew ratios, or an occult tamping method. We gain false comfort in the familiarity of reasonless repetition. When my ship inevitably wrecked, my wretched body washed ashore on the isle of true speciality. It was there, on this secret island found by chance, that I learned how to make coffee all over again.

I left “Matt’s Cafe” and started at Colonna and Smalls. It was my dream job. As a philosophy major, I didn’t have a lot of job offers… so this one was pretty good. I’d been going to Colonna and Smalls for coffee for a while now. I had supped their mahogany nectar and I wanted to be a part of that process. Looking back now, I could see that I held two mutually exclusive beliefs.

  1. Devoting my life to making speciality coffee was a noble, enriching, and valuable pursuit.
  2. There are a few tricks I could pick up in an hour or two to make an excellent cup of coffee.

The worst part about Speciality coffee is that most people still haven’t had it yet. They don’t get to drink it because the things that are generally sold as “speciality coffee” are crap. Over-roasted beans, poorly pulled shots, inconsistently brewed coffees… It’s hard for any individual to get the right beans, the right equipment, and the right training. We generally settle for the right equipment. When I tasted excellent coffee for the first time, I thought it was excellent merely because they had the best gear and the best beans. Maybe a good brew ratio. Done. Good coffee is assured. Some very smart people think this. Even people well into the industry. I sure as hell did.

So, yes. I simultaneously believed coffee to be easy and fulfilling. When I started my shiney new job, I thought I would be granted excellent beans, a scale, good water, a consistent grinder, a magical syphon filter, and I would just be told how to put it all together and I would be done learning to brew coffee for the rest of my life. On to latte art.

Then I started to find out what was behind the curtain. Each roast of each farm needs it’s very own recipe on each brewing method. When I started learning to brew coffee, it was shocking how dramatically the cup could change if I added .5 grams of coffee to the dose, or made a small change in the grind, or brewed for a different time. The worst coffee I have ever had was a speciality coffee. Very good beans. Made on speciality equipment. I couldn’t believe it. There’s more flavor in speciality coffee, it’s more potent stuff, and it can go drastically wrong. Good beans are beautiful, but not infallible. You can still make a statue of Stalin out of gold, the material doesn’t stop you from making something ugly. I’ve had many harsh or dry cups from beans that were gorgeous at the right recipe. I had to be taught to do the product justice. This involves tasting many bad cups of coffee, and deciding on which direction you want to shift your recipe next. Decide, brew, taste again. Nothing written in scripture, but no dicking around either. Change one parameter at a time… your dose, your grind, your brewtime. Don’t just brew, brew consciously and deliberately. The bean in your hand is the result of years of work, was picked by hand, and has travelled thousands of miles to be with you. Show it some respect. There’s no following a magic brew ratio that works for every bean. It’s literally taste, change, taste, learn, change, and taste until you’re happy with it.

It was frustrating to find out that everything I knew about coffee was a gross oversimplification. It’s hard on the ego when you struggle with something new. It’s humiliating to bring a cup of coffee to someone you respect, just so they can point out the flaws that you had missed.

Yet… to be a part of something special… Something that will be an ongoing process of development… Something not codified into law… Something that can’t be mastered with a simple ratio or machine… Something that can produce beauty… This is a craft worth pursuing.

When you get rid of your superstitions, you take responsibility. I can’t merely blame my equipment or my beans, I need to assess myself as well. I’m an apprentice craftsman, and there are no longer any rituals or dusty books to hide behind. I will set a reasoned course, keep an open mind, and trust myself over some magic numbers carved in stone.