The Incomplete Unimportance of Brew Methods

by sam on October 11, 2012

While the following was inspired by a post over at Extractions and Distractions, it isn’t intended to be a refutation, but rather a response to some arguments posed and an expansion of others. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

The notion that all brew methods are created equal– or, to soften the rhetoric a bit, that most are of equivalent merit– has been cropping up a lot in recent discussions among specialty coffee folk. Let’s make no bones about it: this is an oversimplification gross enough to make it untrue. It does, however, point to an interesting and worthwhile consideration regarding service.

Let’s start with the nature of the oversimplification. All brewing methods are, indeed, tools for accomplishing the same task: extraction. The theory is: as long as the variables governing said extraction are manipulated properly, one should be able to use any method to near-optimally express the flavors present in any coffee. Hence, the argument goes, equivalence.

Even if we ignore the obvious outliers (espresso, notably, but also moka pots, percolators, ibriks, K-cup brewers and your parents’ Mr. Coffee), this conclusion is functionally untrue in two ways. First, the mechanical differences between brewers create different qualities in the cup. The easiest example of this is filtration: metal, cloth and paper filters (and the many permutations of each) hold back and allow through different amounts of solids and oils, creating a continuum with (roughly) increased body on one end and increased clarity on the other. Beyond this, flow-through rate, brew-bed shape, inherent and potential agitation, and ideal balance between particle size and contact time all factor in to the qualities found in the final cup.

Second, even with similar cup qualities– given the above, for instance, the end difference between ideal cups produced on a Chemex and a Bonmac dripper should be fairly small– ease of use is a huge concern. All of the above factors, as well as considerations like the overall ergonomics of the brewer and how easy or difficult it is to keep clean, strongly affect how easily and consistently one can produce that ideal cup (or something close to it.) As an example, the best argument against the V60 isn’t that it necessarily brews bad coffee (which is patently untrue) but that it’s finicky; the investment of care and attention required to produce a good extraction using one is unnecessarily large.

With all of this said, I’ll still assert that brew method is unimportant, specifically to our customers. Customers, generally, don’t come into our stores looking for a lesson. The longevity of the retail end of specialty coffee relies on this: if everyone really wanted to understand the minute details of coffee preparation, there’d be no need for us to serve it to them. What customers want, for the most part, is to be served tasty coffee in a way that makes them feel good about themselves.

In the service of producing tasty coffee, understanding the relative strengths and weaknesses of each brew method and technique is extremely important. The customer, however, doesn’t need to know any of this. Direct emphasis on brewing methodology is completely irrelevant to almost every customer’s experience of the drink itself. The proof, as we are so fond of saying, is in the cup.

Overemphasis on methodology can also directly detract from the “feeling good” aspect of the service. A didactic mode of service serves (just as does any didactic rhetorical approach) mainly to make the listener aware of the inadequacy of their own knowledge. It inculcates in our customer base the notion of baristas as somewhere between snobs and priests, reveling in arcana as a means of self-empowerment at the expense of our audience. While it is indeed valuable to have the answers to questions (when they’re asked!), the practice of focusing up front on specific brew methods and minor differences in technique– in dialog, menu composition and marketing– is at best self-aggrandizing and at worst a serious distraction from what actually matters.

If our business is sharing great coffee with people in a way that allows them to appreciate why it’s great, then the more we know and the less we say about how it’s brewed, the better. If it’s about us feeling good about ourselves and our friends, we may as well all go home.

-Sam L.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

steven October 11, 2012 at 5:05 pm

As a customer, I am often seeking out the latest and greatest coffee shrines where I CAN learn and worship. For me, the more that I know, the greater my appreciation of the mysteries of perfect coffee become. Coffee for me becomes an aesthetic experience of the highest order, and as such, I am looking for a transparent, intelligent curatorial experience of coffee’s avant-garde.

But then, I work in specialty coffee…

I’d like to think, though, that like many a young fanatical devotee, some exceptional experience of great coffee must’ve set me down this path, rather than the reverse (i.e. that I only became obsessed through the unexceptional experience of having to have a job).

It seems to me that you can’t go entirely one way or the other. There are certainly people who ARE interested in and enlivened by coffee’s bleeding edge, and who want to learn as much as possible about it; but we oughtn’t to shove it down anybody’s gullet.

So how do we proceed?

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Brandon Duff October 11, 2012 at 5:07 pm

‘In the service of producing tasty coffee, understanding the relative strengths and weaknesses of each brew method and technique is extremely important. The customer, however, doesn’t need to know any of this. Direct emphasis on brewing methodology is completely irrelevant to almost every customer’s experience of the drink itself. The proof, as we are so fond of saying, is in the cup.
If our business is sharing great coffee with people in a way that allows them to appreciate why it’s great, then the more we know and the less we say about how it’s brewed, the better. If it’s about us feeling good about ourselves and our friends, we may as well all go home.’

This is all you needed. The rest is too contrived.

Reply

Chris Hildebrand October 11, 2012 at 8:25 pm

I disagree. Everything said was setting up the context of the main point. I have been wrestling with what single-cup brew method to use for my upcoming shop, and this article as well as the one that inspired it have given me some great info to ponder on. This is a great discussion, I hope to read a lot more about it! Excellent article!

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sL October 11, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Well said!

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