30 Days of Blog - Day 17 - Pocket science

Welcome to day 17 of 30. I just arrived in Tokyo and have to say every time I come here I end up realizing that I missed it. The city, the coffee scene, the food, the people, the metro system. I enjoy it all! 

Yesterday I finished with a mention about “Pocket Science” and its presence in the coffee industry, so today I will dig deeper into this potentially controversial topic.

Pocket science is a term used for when we need a way to explain something happening in coffee, especially the preparation of it, that helps give a more scientific understanding of it. It’s like this: “I need something to explain what’s happening here, and OH look! I’ve got something here in my pocket.” It’s basically pulling something out of your ass to explain the details “scientifically”. 

Now this does not mean that the explanations are not useful, or even that they are not potentially scientifically correct. The fact does remain however that we have a significant lack of actual science being done in the form of testing and collecting data. I believe this is partially because we still are not tracking all of the vital variables that change the nature of how coffee brews. 

Since I talked about competitions yesterday, let me start by talking about an issue I see in the competition world that is letting this pocket science grow more and more. 

Years ago barista competitions were about showcasing skills, serving great coffee, and giving a cohesive and well stated speech. Lately though, even since around 2011, there has been a large push toward the baristas explaining every detail about the coffee as well as why it might taste the way it does. This has led to incredible amounts of quasi-science about coffee growing, processing, roasting, and preparation for the purpose of scoring better and potentially having a more interesting presentation. Right off the bat I can tell you I have heard endless explanations about processing or farm production that simply does not make sense. 

My background with farms and processing has come from experience doing many of these things myself (with the help of friends like Miguel Meza, who gave me massive insights), but my experiences have built up a database of just that. Experiences. I think this is highly useful to tell you what has worked and not worked for me, but I'm not going to tell you it is science. Because while we may have done testing as scientifically as possible (repeating known variables), coffee farms are about as far from a science "lab" as you can get. 

In these cases I think it is very important to give information carefully, using phrases like "In my experience" and "The way we understand this right now..." to convey the fact that our knowledge is incomplete at best. You might hear me say thing like this when I talk about certain pieces of equipment or preparation techniques. I often say things like "This grinder does make a more consistent particle size, but I tend to find more balance with this other grinder." 

Where I'm going with this is that in barista competitions it makes very little sense to force the barista to be the master of information about things like coffee farms when most baristas have never even been to one in the first place. The same goes with the idea of "innovation" when it becomes entrenched in pocket science explaining why some new technique works better. This expectation of innovation has also led to people throwing every crazy idea out there they can in hopes of something working.

I am not saying we don't need innovation though! 

We certainly need to push the boundaries and knowledge limits, especially in competitive environments. But we need to make reasonable expectations of the depths of the knowledge of the people presenting it. We need to mitigate the advent of pocket science and encourage honesty when we don't actually know something. Maybe this is as simple as the use of words like above, stating that this is not necessarily fact but the way you understand what is happening. There is a big reason I find this important:

WBC is one of the most watched and potentially influential events we have in the specialty industry. 

Baristas watch what the top 6 are doing like hawks. And here is the real secret. If it does well enough to make it to the top 6 in the world, everyone accepts that what the competitor is saying is true! That is why this is important. When we encourage pocket science through competition, we are actively spreading potentially false information.

Now that I got that off my chest I also want to mention the use of science in the industry. First of all, almost all of what I hear these days is actually not science. Certain efforts such as Socratic Coffee in Australia is trying to implement scientific method with barista tools and equipment, and doing a decent job. World Coffee Research is of course implementing science at the farm level which I love. But charts and graphs do not make science when it comes to other efforts. So let's stop fooling ourselves with how much we know about coffee, because every time we dig into the details we realize just how little we know. 

Some of the best data is still stuff that was researched decades ago by companies like Illy. It is still being referenced today, even though the way we source and roast specialty coffee is quite different. I am sure there are groups with a science-based approach around the world (I am not the master of everything happening around the globe after all!), but they are few and far between.

So let's start pushing for more real science and less pocket science. We need to identify specific areas to explore and get some strict, unbiased data to prove or disprove the things we think we know. The next decade or two of coffee should be our golden era, and not a time of mass confusion due to conflicting opinions coming every other day.

If you want to work together to implement real science in the coffee world, I would love to talk more about it. Sound off on social media, or email here to talk more.

See you tomorrow,

Pete

Posted on September 20, 2017 and filed under Blog.

30 Days of Blog - Day 16 - Coffee competition ideas

Welcome to day 16 of 30. Today I am on flights to Tokyo for the SCAJ show and a special store opening for Maruyama Coffee. We have had a few US barista competition preliminaries already this year, and while I am in Japan we will have another this coming weekend. It seems like there have been a lot of changes, some of which might be because of my previous blog post about how competitions need a refresh. 

So in the spirit of competitive coffee events, and since I already talked about latte art throwdowns the other day, I would like to explore some alternative coffee competition ideas I have had rolling around in my head for a while. 

Currently we have all manner of official competitions that cover various skills, such as latte art, manual filter brewing, roasting, triangulation cupping, coffee and alcohol, and overall barista skills. I don't think we have a problem covering a variety of skills with competitive events, but rather that the specific tests of skill are becoming stagnant. This is partially because of rule changes over time as well as an unwillingness to make truly big changes to the formats. There need to be major changes in some of these because they really weren't perfect when they were conceived (as few things rarely are). 

But I digress. This post isn't about what is wrong with competitions (I've already put my thoughts on barista competition out there), and the implementation of the "preliminary" competitions we can see that the SCA is trying to implement some new concepts in the form of a compulsory coffee skills round. While this initial version may not be perfect since it is not connected to the actual qualifier, national, and world events, it is a great start and essentially a proof of concept that could get adopted with future rule changes.

So let's talk alternative ideas. I personally think that the more types of competition we have the better for baristas of all interests and skill specializations. 

 

Cafe Competitions

My first idea is something that can reproduce an active cafe environment in action. This would require a small team of staff to compete and serve specific set drinks. We saw this concept implemented in the form of "America's Best Coffeehouse" competition a few years ago. I was a part of getting that one going with Chris Deferio and Jesse Harriot, and let me tell you, it really showcased teamwork and real barista skills in action. A few things I would change would be streamlining prep and cleaning time, standardizing the drink requirements for a fair competition format, and make it more about creating the correct drinks properly in the time allowed. There would have to be a taste panel to evaluate one of each type of drink, but there could be so much room for innovation and creative service. Think of this one as a combination of speed drills and active service, with a tasting expectation to boot.

 

Speed Drills

The next idea, speaking of speed drills, would be exactly that. We see these in bartending competitions all the time and I always wonder why we don't have them in coffee. This would consist of a barista in a small bar setup, perhaps a few simultaneously, with a predetermined list of drinks and a set amount of time. You could implement penalty points for spills or incorrect drinks served, etc. This would be strictly a speed and execution based win. The fastest person to make all drinks (or say, 10 lattes) with the proper criteria (latte art, full cup, no spills, etc) wins that round. It's a speed competition so it makes sense to keep it fast paced and exciting. I think this could both be pulled off pretty easily, and be interesting for an audience at a trade show to watch. Live scoring is a must, and perhaps a vocal emcee as well. 

 

Identification Cupping

The last idea I want to put out there today is a sensory based cup tasting event. This one is a bit of my own brain child, at least I'm pretty sure it's not copying anyone. The competition would be a coffee professional test with a line of cups of coffee (say 6-8). In this concept I would have 3 rounds. The goal of each round is to correctly identify each cup for specific characteristics. The most correct and fastest times move on, and the characteristics to be identified get harder each round. For example, the first round would be to identify the processing method, second round identify the origin country, and third round varietals or regions of one specific country. I could see this as a real test of coffee professionals' ability. 

So there you have just a few of the many competition (or even throwdown) ideas I have floating around. There are so many great possibilities we could pursue to make events that are not only a competitive format, but also a way to push the boundaries of what is expected of the professional barista. Most of these would also help eliminate any real or perceived bias in judging. Any time we can make a competition where the scoring is primarily based on objective goals like correct identification and/or execution as well as time, we can make more fair and approachable events for both professionals and viewers

While competitive coffee is certainly not for everyone, these types of events give a lot to the industry. It is because of barista competition that we have such high standards in equipment these days, as well as high expectations of flavor. There has been some innovation which has been positive, if for no other reason than identifying problems in either equipment or standards. Of course there is another unfortunate side to competitions, which is the proliferation of "pocket science" as Gwylim Davies likes to call it. 

This unfortunate side will be my topic for my next post, so stay tuned!

If you would like to work with me in implementing some of these or other competition ideas, you can reach me via email

Pete

Posted on September 19, 2017 and filed under Blog.