“Are we there yet?”

I have been involved in coffee for a relatively short period of time, really.  It’s a long period of time for me, but in retrospect, it’s  not much time at all and I still don’t feel I have a substantial footprint in the coffee industry, especially not in comparison to some.

However, in the short time that I have been in the industry I feel like we have covered more ground than in many, many years prior.  Decades, really.

Jet-set back to 1970.  Truthfully, I’m not even born yet, not even thought of for that matter.  In the coffee world there is no such thing as a micro-lot.  No Cup of Excellence.  No barista champions or barista competitions.  There is no such thing as Fair Trade Certified and certainly no Direct Trade.  There is no such thing as a Synesso, no thought to PIDs and pressure profiling and there is no debate about whether we should tap the portafilter with the tamper or not.  If we get really serious about it, there isn’t even a solid specialty coffee market in the US yet.  We are still one year away from Pike’s Place and the birth of green circled Sirens and quite a few years away from that same corporation moving toward commercial coffee vs. specialty coffee.  The life of someone in the coffee industry at this point is vastly misunderstood compared to someone in the industry now.

Back to 2009.  The internet is a breeding ground for debates, information, and (coffee) social networking sites.  Roasters and baristas scream in their Twits and blogs about how unfair it is that they can no longer source specific lots from farms.  We have people vacuum packing their green coffee beans at origin before they are shipped to the roasting facilities in the United States.  You mention La Marzocco and the first thought that comes to a discerning barista’s mind is “paddle group with variable preinfusion.”  You mention Mazzer and the first thought is that of a giant Robur with electronic dosing.  We have (somewhat controversial) tampers that increase the surface area of the espresso with ripples to yield a sweeter shot.  Shops are spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on siphon brewing bars.  Coffee shops are holding public cuppings.  Coffee schools are up and running.  Drip coffee airpot systems are being seen as inferior to methods such as vac pot and manual pour over.  Single origin espresso is hotly debated.

We have come a long way in a short time, so I pose the question:  Are we there yet?

There are certainly things that need to be fine-tuned, technologies that need to be tweaked and methods that need deeper understanding.  But are we there?  Is the finish line in sight?  Is there a finish line at all?  Of course, the obvious answer is no, and it’s the answer that I firmly believe.  But with the answer “No, we aren’t done yet,” the question “What next” obviously follows.  So where are we headed?  What happens next?

I know for the years that I have been deeply involved in coffee, baristas have been kicking, screaming and begging for advancements in grinding technology, and that’s really what this post is about- sorry for the insanely long intro.  We have conical grinders now that are putting out some fantastic coffee.  We have grinders that are more or less half a gram accurate in their electronicly programmed dosing.  A few years ago that term would have caused people to stop and wonder what in the world they were missing out on.  Where does grinding technology go from here?  Do we get water cooled counter-top grinders?  Do cafe grinders get roller-grinder features?Do we get to a point where we get to control some sort of digital graph on the grinder that displays what particles, in a specific micron size, are in what percentage in the grind output?  Is that even something that is necessary?  We all seem to say and advise over and over that grinding, and respectively the grinder, is the most important part of the preparation.  I guess the question I pose is… how do we make it better?  Can we make it better?  Are we there yet?



5 Responses to ““Are we there yet?””

  1. We may (or may not) be there yet, but it’s getting to be a very lonely trip.

    IMHO, the number of people who care about (and appreciate) the micronuances (I think I just made up a word) that specialty coffees are capable of (with the ultimate technology helping the grinding and extraction) is a very, very small percentage of those who enjoy a quality beverage.

    As an analogy, relatively few people care about the latest technology used to tweak the last fractional HP from a Formula 1 race car engine, but we all (almost all) benefit from the trickle down technology that has brought us better personal transportation (HP, turbo-charged engines, fuel economy, light weight components… etc.).

    The advances in coffee technology (as well as growing the initial product) will trickle down and ultimately improve the coffee experience for the majority of consumers. Not every shop will be able to justify the expense of buying the latest and greatest equipment (the shops with 10+ grinders for various blends and SO coffees come to mind). How often does a shop “upgrade” their espresso machine(s) and/or grinder(s)? How do they justify the expense?

    You have raised an interesting question and I look forward to other responses.

    Ron, the Country Guy

  2. I think I see what you are saying, but I’m not totally sure I agree.

    I think that it is correct to say that there is a small number of people who realize they are appreciating one cup of coffee over another because of those “micronuances,” but I think the number of people who do appreciate this are far greater than you may realize. I know I don’t care about the latest technology that squeezes out the last fractional HP in Formula 1 engines, but I certainly appreciate the trickle down. Just because I don’t closely follow the starting source of the trickle down does not mean that I don’t appreciate the end result.

    Likewise, just because the vast majority of consumers are not having coffee served to them off of a Slayer espresso machine, with their Direct Trade SO beans being ground on a Mazzer Robur-E, or WBC Compak doesn’t mean that they don’t appreciate the trickle down of those shops selling off their old grinders and machines to other shops. A shop gets a GB5, they sell their Linea to a shop that had a HX and the customer gets their world opened to more stable temperature brewing. The customer might not understand that their coffee tastes better because inside the Linea are two boilers instead of one, preheated brewing water and saturated brew groups, the barista may not even know all of this, but they can both appreciate the end product tasting superior.

    Regardless… do I have your permission to post this comment to bX? I like what you are saying (hopefully that comes across… I’m not meaning to sound harsh in my reply) and I started a discussion on there about this blog post.


  3. You may certainly repost on the bX forum. I was surprised how many comments were made on the forum, rather than on your blog.

    Each to their own.

    Ron, the Country Guy

  4. You’re added to the “Friends of” list.


  5. Although I only work on the periphery of the coffee industry, my main vision for grinder improvement is in grind path + clean distribution. I have a couple of BNZ MD-74s, and one of these has the cleanest drop I’ve ever seen (marginally), outperforming even a Robur-E w/ augur. However, to achieve this they have a massively wide throat, and as such aren’t ideal for swapping beans all the time (eg. cupping grinder) or a low-volume grinder (beans staling in throat).

    I’d like to see:

    a) compressed air cleaning cycles (blowing your own burrset, as it were)
    b) grinders with cleaner grind paths (and a purging facility better than a paintbrush + plunger)
    c) better in-basket distribution (lets get rid of ‘left, right, front and back fling’)
    d) cooler-running burrs (because heated beans = rough ‘spro’s)
    e) options of dose by gramme, dose by volume, report on manual dose by grammage/volume

    and out of left field

    f) a grinder that’ll vary distribution with programming (to allow for basket shape variations & eg. ‘donut distribution, mound & collapse, level playing field distribution’
    g) a grinder that analyses bean density to keep the settings related to extraction time or a non-grind setting (eg. automatically compensates for weather, bean-aging etc).

    but…..can’t see many of these happening in the next 5 years!

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