The coffee world has a seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge, an intimate, thorough understanding of all facets of its subject of choice. It is a constantly evolving scene driven by endless experimentation. The trends are fast, furious, and fleeting–roasters and baristas and amateur enthusiasts alike are serious neophytes always looking for the next, newest incarnation of their beloved beverage.
What’s dominating the scene now is brewed coffee–but not your average drip, the coffee equivalent of mass-production. I’m talking Pourovers, Siphons, Chemex, Eva Solos, and some more that I may not even know about yet. Japan’s now got a whole class of “siphonistas”, pourover bars are popping up across the US from Seattle to Chicago, and some companies are making the bold move to open espresso-free cafés (notably Penny University in London and Stumptown in Brooklyn). At Te Aro and Crafted we’ve joined in the fun and put some of these new gadgets on the menu.
Is it just a phase? Maybe. In any case, the movement is fully underway. Why? I won’t pretend I have the answer. But I have plenty of theories (mostly founded…), and what I want to talk about is one current that I see underlying this movement: a desire for connection – to the products of our labour, the beans we use, and the people who we serve.
Permit me, for a moment, to run with this.
Recently my brother told me about a cocktail lounge in Victoria, BC where the bartender crushed ice using a giant antique mallet. I thought to myself: 1) that’s awesome. 2) that’s what it’s all about in food and drink these days – manual labour. Bagged ice would have done the trick, but people behind the bar, in the kitchen, we want to get our hands dirty, we want to make things, not just assemble parts. Not to get all Marxist on you readers, but we don’t want to be so alienated from the products of our labour.
Espresso has, to some extent, let us get close to our coffee, especially with manual and semi-automatic espresso machines. Dialing in the grinder, weighing and measuring shots, adjusting ratios and boiler temperatures, pre-infusing–these steps all let the barista, to some extent, be in control of the process. And espresso isn’t going out of style anytime soon.
But an espresso machine is still a machine, after all, even if it’s not fully automated. There’s a whole network of pipes and pumps out of sight that do so much of the work for us. Even the Clover, heralded as making a nearly perfect cup, is so totally mechanized and opaque it’s lost some appeal (of course it was the buy-out by Starbucks that really put the nail in the coffin for that one). With manual brewing methods there’s much less electricity and machinery between us and the coffee. It’s wireless, hands-on coffee making, with the barista in control of each small step of the process from agitation of the grounds to whether you pour in concentric circles or lines for the most even extraction.
There’s a lot of bantering back and forth about whether being a barista is a skill, an art, or a craft. Semantics, really. I can only speak for myself, but I’ll venture that many baristas are compelled by this job because we are challenged to use our heads and hands to create. The way we have control over each aspect of this process means when we put the cup on the counter we can say, “I made that.”
There are two aspects to this connection to origin. Firstly, roasters and coffee enthusiasts are increasingly interested in following a beans story and being able to taste its roots. From its “ancestry” (varietal), to where in the country to where on the mountain it’s planted (region and altitude), to how it’s washed and dried (processing), the coffee world is increasingly interested in preserving and highlighting these influential factors and uncovering how they affect what we experience in the cup. Espresso, which has occupied us for the past couple of decades, is a profound, multi-layered drink, but it brings out only a certain range of flavours. Siphons, pourovers, immersion and press pot brewing all expand that range and expose hundreds of other flavour compounds. It is these more delicate brewing methods that uncover the subtleties of single origin beans.
Secondly, those buying coffee at the café are more interested in a traceable connection to where their coffee comes from, and in being linked to the people behind their brew. I think this is partly due the growing consciousness of responsible consumerism; tracing goods back to their point of origin helps ensure we aren’t supporting unethical employers or consuming things we don’t want to. It’s an obvious trend in food, where we’ve seen a profusion of products marketed as “organic” and “local.” And coffee is, after all, notorious for inequitable trading and worker exploitation. The more focus we put on single origin coffee, highlighted so well by these brew methods, the easier it is to be a conscientious coffee drinker.
The other facet of our interest in origin is knowing whose hands our coffee has passed through to get to us. This is a more fundamental desire to connect with the people behind the product, a move away from the anonymous nature of mass production where our coffee materializes out of some mysterious void to land in our neighbourhood café. It’s putting a name and maybe a face to what we’re crafting and/or drinking, and shrinks the distance between us.
You and Your Friendly Neighbourhood Barista
Manual brewing requires the customer to do more than walk in, say “hey,” order a cup of brew–whatever’s on tap that moment–wait the 30 seconds it takes to pour it, and walk out. It involves choosing your coffee beans, choosing your brew method, and spending 5-7 minutes across from your barista watching your cup being prepared. We discuss different regions, we compare the degrees of body and clarity, we explain the steps of the process, ask and answer questions of each other, crack jokes, flirt, whatever…it’s engaging, for all parties.
It’s all in-line with the Slow Food Movement. Manual brewing forces us to pause and consider, to step out of the rush of cranking out espresso after espresso and litre after litre of drip, to stop looking at our cellphones counting the seconds until we get our caffeine fix. It takes a good 7-10 minutes for some of these coffees. It takes the devoted attention of the barista. It takes a bit of patience (which we don’t have a lot of in this here modern age). Whether this is a short-lived trend in the coffee world, or something that’s going to stick around, it’s set us in a good direction.
Wanna see what all the fuss is about? Try out V60 pourovers and siphons at Crafted and Te Aro, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll put you on the list for our brew demo sessions.