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.