Things I Don't Understand

I feel like there are a lot of people in the coffee world these days who are under the mistaken impression that they are demi-gods whose knowledge of coffee is so astonishing and complete that they should be worshipped and forgiven any and all bad behavior.

With this in mind... here are some of the many things I don't understand:
  • Flavours of Coffee - How do coffees develop their flavours and why does each coffee taste different? There seem to be so many variables and so many attributes that contribute to the flavour of coffee and each and every one seems to interact with all the others... it's all a bit overwhelming. Varietal, growing conditions, harvest, processing, storage, transport, roasting, resting... It's nuts! I get the feeling that I'm just beginning to see the whole picture and it's intimidating. I've cupped hundreds if not thousands of coffees, I've read up about the chemistry and the varietals and the physics and all this has done is made me realize that I don't really even have a chance of understanding this. If I dedicated my entire life to understanding the flavours of coffee I think I would die ignorant. And it's the single most important part of the profession. Sigh...
  • Varietals of Coffee - There are 2000 varietals in Kenya alone? Seriously? I think I could name less than two dozen varietals off the top of my head that I've cupped. From the entire world. Insane.
  • Green Bean Analysis - I was never under the illusion that I was an expert in this area, but spending some time with Duane made me realize just how ignorant I really am. I honestly would consider myself to have no skill or experience at all in this area. It's embarassing.
  • Roasting - it's funny to hear some "experts" talk about roasting and realize that I know as much as they do. And yet I know nothing about roasting. I mean, I understand the How of it all but as for the Why and the What... beyond the basics of caramelization, Maillard Reactions and the like I know nothing (or less than nothing) about what's going on. I remember spending time learning about roast profiles and temperature changes and the results... and then watched the roasters at Stumptown prove all my assumptions and all my conclusions and all I'd learned and read out the window. And their coffee was better.
  • Taste - Sure, I have a vague and superficial grasp of the theories behind how we taste things and how we experience flavour. But it's just that... vague, superficial and theoretical. I've been thinking about how we go about developing our palate and this has made me realize that there are enormous holes in my understand - or more accurately, that my understanding is a thin, tiny and frail mesh-like spider web over one big giant hole. How do we develop our palates? What percentage is learned versus innate? How much is simply language and how much is palate? How much is physical and how much is psychological? What's going on here? I feel like a blind man with a blindfold on and enormous oven mitts on my hands trying to assemble a nuclear reactor from the memory of an instruction manual written in a language I don't understand.
  • Many of the variables of espresso - I've been thinking a lot about aspects of temperature for example, and have a lot of doubts. For example... if you flash freeze espresso immediately upon extraction, what happens to the flavour? What happens if you put 7grams of a coffee in a double basket, ground fine and then tamp really hard and extract a single shot? How much of the assumptions about temperature and pressure and the relations between them are the result of limitations of the original equipment? What happens if we throw these assumptions away now that we can de-couple them? What would happen if we didn't tamp in the normal sense but instead had a portafilter that held twice the volume of the dosed coffee and had a valve at the bottom where you would fill the portafilter with unpressurized water (pre-infuse) and then pressurize the whole thing with a hydraulic press?
  • Milk - listening to Morten's lecture in Iceland made me realize I know nothing about milk at a chemical or physical level.
  • Water - I re-read Jim Schulmann's Water FAQ again. Mystifying to me.

And yet someone told me the other day that I am "an expert." But I know nothing. How can I be called an expert? Sure, I know more than some people, but I know less than many others and I know nothing as compared to what I should know.

And this is just some of the things I don't understand. An entire list would not only take years, but would be inherently incomplete as there is so much that I don't even yet know I don't understand.

I theorize that the only reason people think I'm an expert is because I'm actually trying to understand things - because I pay attention to stuff. To be fair, the only reason I try is because I'm honest with myself and about myself and thus am aware of just how little I know.

There are a whole lot of people in or tangential to this industry who need a little bit of self-awareness and honesty in my (not so) humble opinion.


Death to the 'to-go' Cup!


I think we can blame a lot of the problems in the US coffee market on the damn 'to-go' cup. People are not tasting their drinks, they're in a rush, they order those horrid 'extra-hot' drinks... the list goes on and on.

Bronwen makes a great point. Coffee bars are social centers in so many other parts of the world. And, in many cases, they were started to fulfill this same function in the US. But now we have people talking on their cell phone while grabbing a drink to take with them in the car.

There are so many things wrong with the picture, and regardless of whether or not 'to-go' cups are the cause - I have little doubt that killing them off would fix a whole bunch of the problems. And even if they only fixed a little bit - they are such a potent sign of what is wrong here that making them go away would send such a clear message it would be well worth it.

Death to the 'To-Go' Cup Now!