For many people coffee is simply warm, black and wet.
For many of those many, it is a method of social facilitation.
For a few it is a technical challenge and a quest for perfection.
For some it is a way of life and an income.
Beyond the supermarket shelves, the world of coffee is an astonishingly complex place, to which many never need to give any thought. Like the much of the world, the coffee industry has multiple personalities, some of them ugly, others much less so.
If we can accept, for just a moment, that instant coffee sits, more or less, at the below average end of the spectrum, and pre-packaged ground coffee is about the average, we agree that there’s quite a bit of room for above average coffee. In which case it might be a surprise for you to hear that coffee good enough to be considered ‘speciality coffee’ is estimated to be just eight to ten percent of the world’s entire coffee production output.
A true indicator that quality is inversely proportional to quantity.
Here in The Netherlands, coffee isn’t just a drink, it’s a social institution with it’s own national schedule (usually at ten o’clock in the morning and eight o’clock in the evening). This would account for why the country features in the top five list of countries for per capita coffee consumption.
When opening our office and shared space, the ability for people to drink coffee was non-negotiable, and installing facilities for people to drink below average, or average coffee would have been easy enough. Except, that amongst us we have personalities that represent things like: a coffee nerd, a pro-organic advocate, an advocate for ethical trade, healthy living/thinking, and a lot of coffee drinkers. Some of these terms don’t relate to mutually exclusive people.
As the coffee nerd and an advocate for ethical trade, I care about the quality of our coffee and that we are making a conscious effort not to support many of the appalling practices that are rife in the coffee industry. Examples would be slavery, child labour, and the all too frequent farming communities who literally starve for several months of each year. Therefore it was easily agreed that we would buy beans from trusted suppliers, not the faceless brands in supermarkets.
Good, tasty, ethically traded coffee. So far so good. Next up was the equipment for making the coffee. As the coffee nerd, I originally joked “well, if it was up to me, I’d just brew slow coffee, instead of buying a machine, but I can’t imagine everyone else would want that”. After all, some people want espresso, double espresso, cappuccino, macchiato, black, white, with sugar, the list of ways to make coffee is as infinite as the population drinking it. At which point, I started researching coffee machines, and that’s where things got a little complicated.
Have you ever tried to buy a coffee machine that will cope with five people in the early days, thirty people in the forseeable future and a hundred people during an event? Impossible. Clearly in the early days we’d need a consumer grade espresso machine. Anywhere between 200 and 500 euros with a lifespan of a year if we’re lucky – but this doesn’t solve the variety issue – to solve that we’re in the regions of 2000 euros, which is an expensive short term solution. Medium term, we’d be looking to upgrade to an all singing and dancing machine which costs between 5000 euros (used, refurbished with no warranty) and 25,000 euros. In either case a maintenance contract of between 80 and 125 euros per month would also be necessary. Aside from the question of justifying the cost, between all the people I spoke to, and the hours of internet research I did, I was unable to get to a single product that was even close to unanimously recommended. The best I could get to was the Jura brand and for as many people that gave it a thumbs up, I heard as many horror stories.
It was at the point where I was dreaming about coffee machines, yes, really, that I realised this was taking up way too much time and attention and all because I’d made an assumption. An assumption which turned out not to be true. I talked about this coffee machine dillema to various people around the office and users of the shared space and it transpires that almost all of them drink their coffee straight black, and nobody was overly fussy for espresso or cappuccino.
A painful reminder that assumptions should always be tested.
At the same time that my gut feeling was coming back to haunt me, I’d been having a discussion with our pro-healthy eating advocate, about how being able to get a cup of mediocre coffee in under 7 seconds from pushing a button is probably the cause of many a caffeine addiction, and (unconnected) that focus is a skill lost/forgotten by many people a long time ago.
Slow coffee for me is a great way of focussing for a few minutes each day. When I’m making coffee, I resist the temptation to ‘just check Facebook’ whilst the beans are grinding, or to ‘just check to my email’ whilst waiting for the water to boil – because after all, I’m supposed to be making coffee, and if I can’t focus on that, without distraction, for four or five minutes, well, I probably don’t have time to drink the coffee anyway. A great metaphor for reminding people that ‘busy’ and ‘productive’ aren’t necessarily the same thing.
We built a brew bar which includes French press, Chemex, Clever drippers and Aeropress, in order that we cover the spectrum of single and multiple cups as well as clean and ‘cloudy’ brews. This saved us many thousands of euros, which in turn means we can comfortably justify buying high quality, ethically sourced beans and focus while we enjoy guilt free, extremely tasty coffee.
It just takes a little longer to brew.
Follow me on Twitter for more insights: @clogish