A Day Without a Scale

When we started making espresso we didn’t have all the awesome tools we have now, and the tools we did have we really didn’t use to their full potential.

We used scales to weigh dose…sometimes. It wasn’t uncommon to break out the scale for maybe only 3 minutes of an 8 hour shift; just enough time to get a baseline. Who had the time to weigh everything anyway?

We NEVER weighed output. Recipes referred to shot volume in ounces and it was almost always a judgment call. The small shot glasses that had volumetric lines on them were hardly accurate so we mostly based things off what it looked like in the cup, then assigned it a number. “That’s 1.5 ounces!” Volumetric dosing did exist but it was so passé in the new wave of specialty coffee that if your shop had an AV machine you were instantly kicked out of the cool kids club.

The most commonly used machines didn’t have built in timers. We had stopwatches but again, who had time to start, stop and clear them before every shot? What if you were rocking all three groups? Do you have three timers clogging up your bar? No. You used one, and you used it when you could. Maybe every 10th shot?

Refractometer? Yeah right. If you would have walked up to one of us at Ritual or the Naked Lounge circa 2006 and asked us what our TDS or extraction percentage was you would have been met with a dead stare. Hell, I had a Scace device and a Fluke thermometer to measure brew water temp and I though I was cutting edge.

Technology and tools have made it so much easier for anyone to make delicious coffee…this is a good thing for sure. The more people who get better coffee, the happier we are. But are we missing something?

Lack of tools and technology forced us to find other ways to quantify quality and indications of quality. Because we didn’t use tools as a crutch and built a skill set over time using lots of tactile feedback, some amazing things happened once the use of scales, timers, and all of our other fun toys became commonplace in specialty coffee:

– We could consistently guess dose inputs within .2 of a gram and realized that even though now it was “ok” to use the scale for every shot, we really didnt have to.

– Our extraction yields were consistently accurate within two grams, even though we’d been talking in ounces and only gauging shots by eye. Again, even though everyone was now weighing output all the time we found we really didn’t need to.

– Other indicators like the feel of the coffee during redistribution, how the far the tamper sat in the portafilter when the bed was compacted, shot drop time, flow rate, visual discrepancies in extraction appearance with shots that had similar flow rates, the smell of the empty cup after the shot had ben served or passed off, were all points of feedback that were programmed into our subconscious that gave us the ability to make coffee taste great in any situation, tools or no tools. See “The Barista Creed – Seven Years Later” by Mark Prince for more on this type of thought process.

So are we suggesting everyone should go full freestyle? No.

Tools and systems are important, but you should use them as a way to hone and improve your skills and not rest on them as a crutch. Every time you put a portafilter on a scale you should make a guess as to how much coffee is in it; if you’re wildly off on a regular basis there’s some kind of adjustment that needs to be made. Same with output. Try extracting off of the scale for a bit; note the behavior of the shot and stop it when you think you’ve reached your desired output. Then check it on the scale. Cover up the timer every once in a while. Try different extractions and taste them even if the numbers suggest they should taste bad. You get the idea. Understanding the intricacies of the entire process will let you use your tools that much more effectively and efficiently, and also build in a fail-safe in case of a technological apocalypse. People will still need great coffee if all the computers, smart phones, and scales stop working.

Really the most important reason to spend a day without a scale is that it’s FUN. So fun! It might just make you fall in love with being a barista all over again. So give it a try…just don’t get fired from your job for breaking the rules.

-Team Trubaca

F.O.M.O.

Fear of Missing Out (F.O.M.O.) can be a powerful motivator…no one wants to be left behind; everyone wants to have the newest and best. In a rapidly changing, constantly evolving industry like specialty coffee if you can’t keep up with the Joneses you’re screwed right? Lets hope not.

Like any other industry specialty coffee is not immune to trends and fads. In reality because of our industry’s relative youth we’re probably more prone to rapid swings in trends than other more established industries. While rapidly changing tides are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, they seem to lead to a bit of unhealthy behavior for quite a few coffee roasters and retailers.

Everyone is way too concerned about what everyone else is doing, and for all the wrong reasons…in a nutshell: everyone has F.O.M.O. Although I’m sure there are numerous negative side effects of this keeping up with the Joneses mentality,

F.O.M.O. is most damaging to the specialty coffee industry  because it prevents pure and true stylistic exploration and development.

F.O.M.O. kind of sneaks up on us…no one sets out to be just like the next guy. We don’t put our whole financial future at stake to be a carbon copy of someone else. That’s kind of like putting it all on the line to be the world karaoke champion…no matter how well you sing Dark Horse you’re still not Katy Perry. F.O.M.O. starts to rear its ugly head when we’ve had a few successes…when we know people are starting to see us as industry leaders  so we better make sure we’re doing what the other (bigger, more established, more popular, etc.) industry leaders are doing . This is the beginning of the end. It’s the point at which you start focusing on other people and what they’re doing more than you’re focusing on yourself.

We all want to have successful businesses and careers. We all need to make a living. But that’s not why we do what we do. We do what we do because it’s an expression and an extension of who we are. We do it because we have to, and we love it. Every time I make someone an espresso or send out a bag of coffee I’ve roasted in the mail, I’m leaving my stylistic calling card. Whoever receives that is getting a small little piece of me…they get to have a taste of what I think the most amazing coffee experience can be.

Is my interpretation of the perfect coffee experience the be-all and end-all of specialty coffee? Absolutely not. Do I have incredibly strong opinions about coffee; why I like what I like, and why I do what I do? Yes. Does this mean I can’t enjoy coffee from people who completely disagree with me, or have an entirely different stance on what the best expression of specialty coffee is? Hell no!

We should embrace these stylistic differences. Be happy that we can choose to be more than just a bunch of lemmings following each other off the nearest cliff. Be happy that we have a variety of options to enjoy that are all a little bit different. Be happy that we are different than whoever the biggest, coolest kids on the block may be at any given moment. Popularity and trends will come and go, but pure expression of craft is timeless. The most pure expression of your craft is going to emerge when you stop giving a shit about what other people are doing, stop caring about what other people think is cool, and start being yourself.

So if you’re going to spend all of your time and energy keeping your finger on the pulse, just make sure the pulse you’re feeling is your own.

-Baca

The Land Before Time

With the WBC coming up this weekend my mind is racing with all kinds of thoughts on barista competitions both past and present.

I first became exposed to barista competitions sometime around 2005 and at that time (with the exception of a few standouts) the routines were pretty bad, the coffees being used were suspect by todays standards, and the signature drinks were so harsh I’m surprised the judges were able to take them down straight faced.

Barista competitions have come a long way over the past decade; the routines are more polished than ever with a higher percentage of entrants executing at a high level, competitors are bringing serious heat into the ring when it comes to coffee quality, and signature drinks are (for the most part) actually palatable.

Why then, do I find myself slightly nostalgic for the good old days?

At that time I started training (if you could call it that) for my first competition, it was damn near impossible to find videos or any other documentation of barista competitions on the web at all…you had your rules and regulations print out and that was about it. If you were lucky you knew someone who had actually done one of these things before (I didn’t) and could steer you in the right direction. But for the most part you just kind of had to wing it. So everyone was screwed right? Well, not really.

What I loved the most about barista competitions of this era is the sense of true stylistic authenticity that each competitor brought to the table. You really got the sense that what you saw in their performance was a genuine reflection of how they worked bar on the day to day, and what it was like to visit their cafe. Everyone had their own swag and a totally unique perspective on what specialty coffee was and what it could be, and I loved it! For the most part the higher caliber competitors really were the better baristas and worked for the places you could get higher quality, more well prepared coffee. Sure there have always been the show pony competitors, but as a whole the competitions gave you a nice snapshot of what real life looked like for the baristas of this era.

So are we better off now? Yes. In just about every way. But I still miss that sense of suspense, excitement, and sometimes sheer horror that came with the relative newness of barista competitions.

So if anyone is thinking about stepping up to the plate, throwing caution to the wind, maybe breaking a few rules, and just getting buck wild in front of everyone: I salute you, you’re my new favorite barista.

-Baca