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Brewing Perfection

A contrary view in the collective quest for the perfect cup

I've wrestled a lot in life with some problematic perfectionist tendencies. An irritating idealism that sometimes makes me cranky or hard to work with and other times serves as a sorry excuse for throwing in the towel or not following through. I've burnt out on certain hobbies, or become impatient with steep learning curves where mastery appeared very distant. As I've gotten older I've learned to muster more self discipline, pick my battles more wisely, and be more patient with myself and others. It's still a work-in-progress.

Stumbling into coffee gave me a big canvas to explore these tendencies in myself, and remarkably, I've stuck with it longer than any other life pursuit. Partially it's because when I began as a roaster I was still blissfully ignorant of how deep the rabbit hole went. And on top of that I felt empowered by some early successes that owe a lot to luck and being in the right place at the right time.

I'm never completely satisfied when it comes to coffee, but coffee always offers up uncharted avenues for experimentation, improvement, or glimpses of untapped potential. I'm honestly not sure I'll ever be able to walk away from it. Coffee is a collective unfinished masterpiece.

So in mulling all this over as one does with an obsession like this, I've come to a possibly controversial realization that might draw the ire of many of my barista friends and coffee colleagues. I'll try and articulate it.

In certain (perhaps most) pursuits, getting the job 95% of the way done doesn't mean you're only 5% from the finish line. That last bit of a project always takes longer, turns up thornier problems, requires more effort, and often is unreachable. For these pursuits the 100% goalpost exists only as an ideal in our imagination, a thought experiment, a beacon lurking behind the horizon, or simply sits beyond the scope of the resources we can think to apply. The last mile is quite often the hardest.

Not everything in life is this way. The finite game of tic tac toe is easily perfected. Taking out the garbage doesn't lend itself to too much mastery. And you can only apply so much creativity and genius to the task of balancing a checkbook.

But in certain arts, crafts, relationships, and acts of creation, the work of reaching beyond 95% pays transcendent dividends. A figure skater pushing just 1% harder, a runway model with just a bit more flourish in her walk, or the chef hitting just the right balance between contrasting flavors... All can deliver outsized returns of awe and beauty.

Coffee brewing is not this kind of an art.

No barista champion, brewer's cup finalist, supercomputer controlled precision-engineered coffee contraption, or Michelin starred chef is going to add any outsized transcendence to a cup of coffee that you could not also achieve with the same beans and a modest level of meticulousness. Coffee brewing is not like rocket science nor like figure skating.

Growing coffee is an art where small optimizations can lead to big rewards. The processing of coffee involves so many variables that very small changes can result in startling improvements down the line. Roasting is a craft where attention, nuance, and experience can unlock enormous potential from the bean. In these arenas of coffee, obsession can pay off with transcendence. The whole can often exceed the sum of its parts. The full depths always remain to be plumbed.

But once all those steps are done and we arrive at a finished, fresh roasted, whole bean coffee product, coffee brewing is a finite affair – the ceiling of transcendence already established earlier in the chain. No amount of fussing, no fancy "perfect coffee" contraptions, no calibration tools, no deep finesse, will move the bean outside of its now established bounds. Those that claim otherwise are either selling or sipping some snake oil. We often project onto the black box of our beans a potential that isn't really there, chasing dragons that no longer exist.

Now at this point I'm compelled to add a link to my *Except for Espresso disclaimer. There is a whole world of experience, mastery, and personal point of view that come into play when exploring that brew method. But I will nonetheless posit that espresso's difficulty is not necessarily correlated to its potential for transcendence. I've had shots of espresso prepared for me that were so good they felt like miracles, but I would hesitate to declare that the barista had added anything to the experience outside of some exquisitely executed tuning in to what was already there. Coffee is complicated, but coffee brewing doesn't need to be.

I think we are doing a disservice to coffee when we make brewing out to be more magical than it is.

There are many technical improvements that can still be made in delivering a better cup (especially in a busy commercial setting). Grinders could always use more innovation, baristas are often breaking new ground with technique, and the art of delivering exemplary service to customers is one that can yield transcendent experiences. Bountiful frontiers remain. But none of these things should obfuscate the underlying simplicity of brewing.

So when I read a major news article or attend a trade show and see more glorification of overly elaborate brew methods, high-tech gizmos, and other misplaced mythologizing... I find it disheartening. Coffee appreciation, or even full-on coffee connoisseurship, shouldn't require knowledge of all the esoterica of machinery or all of the minutiae that obsesses us as professionals. The "don't try this at home" message implicit in so much of this has held back great coffee from taking its rightful place in the American kitchen and left the door wide open for convenient capsule coffee quackery to dominate. My hope is that the tide is turning and coffee pros are ready to demystify much more of our craft and in doing so include our customers more deeply on the pure and easy joys of the finished product.


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By Tony Konecny

Tonx Cofounder and Bean Fiend

Published May. 5, 2014

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