Of all the discussions I’ve had in the world of Specialty Coffee— debates over proper use of Extract Mojo, militant agreement or disagreement with whatever Scott Rao book just came out, that cafe/roaster that used to be cool but like, totally sold out— there’s one that I’ve always been particularly gripped by: Consistency, and in particular, what we actually talk about when we talk about consistency.
It’s a subject mulled over the way a younger you once dreamed about being an adult— with bright, lofty expectations, but no clear idea on how we’ll all actually get there. In the still burgeoning industry of Specialty Coffee, where agreement is not always an option, we can at least collectively and decisively share one dream. Growers, buyers, roasters, baristas, customers— we all want to have our coffees taste as good as they can be, without fail, all the time.
Obviously, a great many factors go into this. And of all the beverage industries, we have some of the most unique hiccups in terms of challenges. The one that stands out to me— and for the purposes of this essay, the one I’ll set my focus on— is that our drinks are largely all made from scratch materials and all made to order.
There at the very end of the coffee bean’s journey comes its biggest threat.
Our friends in similar industries don’t have this problem. The moisture content of malts that go into a craft beer, the almost superstitious way a vintner positions his grapes, a whiskey connoisseur’s selection of the perfect barrel— these are all decisions made behind closed doors, with the peace and purpose that comes with clear-cut practices and methodology. This is similar to a scene you would see at a coffee roasting facility. But where the story ends for most beverages, ours has one last chapter.
Cafes, in contrariety to roasting facilities and processing locations, are often bustling, demanding places. They’re more akin to a busy open kitchen than the hushed laboratories discussed above, and the baristas are more akin to cooks. Orders come in, are passed down the line, executed, then passed along. Outside of the cafe, we can focus in on the smaller parts that move the larger wheel. But the make or break of our industry falls on the barista, and once those cafe doors are open, it’s game on. This requires repetition more than it does artistry, a concept that can be met with a fair amount of resistance.
In my experience, consistency in the cafe is something that is feared more than it is celebrated. If we deliver the same product, over and over again, without deviation or improvisation, then there is very little that separates us from being fast food employees. Third-wave baristas are often times referred to as artisans, and artistry by its nature does not value consistency.
But perhaps we should be emphasizing it more. Because without a repeatable experience, it may be significantly harder to have patrons come along and support us. We need constancy in order to give new customers a frame of reference for why Specialty Coffee is valuable. Say you had a restaurant you really loved. But, if the food was only sometimes good and at its worst, terrible, you’d find a new restaurant. Even some of my favorite specialty cafes suffer from sporadic quality.
Because we’re a newer industry that is heavily influenced, almost defined, by growth and innovation, it is hard to find a repeatable model while also progressing forward. But there are things that I believe we can do to help.
Being transparent with ourselves and others is a step I see many have already taken. Sharing roast profiles, TDS readings, and endless brew recipes/theories in a respectful manner is practically commonplace while more and more educational books and videos are becoming available (I can remember a not so distant past where there seemed to be only online message boards and that one book by David Schomer.)
Openness to the growth of automation is, in my opinion, another move forward. While once looked at with skepticism in third-wave cafes, shops all over the world are embracing a new generation of batch-brewers and volumetric machines to help unburden baristas during the busy cafe hours, freeing up their focus to serving and engaging the customer rather than fighting against scales and timers.
This also changes how shops can be set up. With the advancement of automation, you need fewer baristas. While this is often seen as a threat to working baristas everywhere (including myself at a time), what this actually means is more money and control for the career baristas that are in it for the long haul, while also providing a position made up of simpler, easier tasks for the people that just want a cool job while they’re in school or pursuing other fields.
Reality is that most baristas will not be permanent baristas, and the training it takes to get a novice to the level of skilled professional is an investment too great for many small businesses. This isn’t just because of the sheer amount of product and time it takes to train, but also because you’re now “trying out” your investment on paying customers. Charging someone the same price for a drink made by a skilled hand and one made by a shaky newbie on his first day is not only an ethical gray area, it will hurt your business, and the industry, in the long run. The customer is paying for inconsistency, but they won’t pay forever.
The last step towards consistency that I’ll speak about is this: Acknowledging the fact that we’re testing ourselves on a live and paying audience and that our goal is to keep them around for the journey forward. By simply keeping this at the forefront of our decisions is a step in the right direction. With the way we treat our patrons, our educational spiels to friends who aren’t quite sure what you do for a living, the way we hold ourselves as professionals— in all the intricacies that go into what we do— we should do with the mindset that most customers are still testing us too, and the goal should be to make that as comfortable and rewarding an experience as possible. Talking, sharing, testing, challenging— this all will continue to push us forward for that ever changing and lofty goal: To make coffee taste as good as it can, consistently.