Expertise in Coffee

Maybe it’s been working on my dissertation – written about experts in society – or maybe it’s been my summer of meeting great coffee people, but I have been thinking a lot recently about expertise in the speciality coffee industry.

First a discussion about what expertise actually consists of in coffee. It may pertain to two things:

  1. My expertise as a barista when encountering someone who knows nothing about the modes and nuances of speciality coffee.
  2. The expertise of opinion formers in the realm of coffee. This consists primarily of the roasters, but also prominent career baristas.

For a little bit, I want to talk about the second of these types of expertise. Information in the coffee world – new techniques, new equipment, new methods of productivity – is spread primarily through a network of blogs, specialist events and classes. These aid the furthering of knowledge by creating dialogue between baristas, roasters, shop owners etc. There are problems with these kinds of interaction.

It is worth, initially, bearing in mind that roasters and coffee shops are independent companies. The desire to share knowledge is, on some level, hindered by this. Experts in the field are shaped by their own interests, financially. In some way this holds back innovation; as you would expect it to. In other ways it enhances it. Competition leads to people developing separate models of working, which means greater variety.

Recently, there has been a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the EK43. A spice mill turned coffee grinder that has the potential to lead to better extraction rates. This enthusiasm came to a head in two prominent blogs by two coffee experts. Dale Harris, of Has Bean, criticised the leap to embrace EK43s, whilst James Hoffman, of Square Mile, meticulously took apart this criticism. Without going into too much detail about this debate, it is worth pointing out that Hoffman’s points were substantially directed against Harris’ decision to criticise the EK43 without having experimented with it first.

I don’t intend to make any contribution to that debate. However, it does illustrate the paradox of the expert nicely. It was all very well that Hoffman had used the EK43 and drawn his own conclusions from it, and others had too. However, the actual dialogue has been constrained by the fact that the array of blogs written on the subject are unable/unwilling to publish empirical evidence showing the effectiveness of the EK43. (I believe they are unable to: the EK43 has been espoused in classes given by Ben Kaminsky, who, understandably, doesn’t want the contents of these classes outlined.) This may have led to frustration from Harris; it is certainly frustrating for me.

This frustration is initial, and will disappear as more and more information trickles out with regards to the EK43, and maybe when I get the chance to try a shot pulled from EK-ground coffee. I also don’t judge the lack of information available: who would share such vital information without first extracting some kind of money first? The paradox, however, is an interesting one. The coffee expert wants their information seen, wants the status of being an expert to be justified, and wants (and this above all the case for the coffee industry) the quality of coffee available to go up and their values to be vindicated. The coffee expert also wants some kind of renumeration for their hard work, and has other kinds of interests that permeate the small world of coffee. The resolution of this paradox is not straightforward, though further professionalisation of the industry will require some kind of solution to be found.

  1. I don’t really think there is a paradox. We’re one of the few industries that doesn’t put a cash value on knowledge, and as such most of us expect information to be free – regardless of the costs to generate or transfer it.
    Most non-members of the SCAA will balk at the $45 price tag of the new paper on staling, though the work done has to be paid for somehow. That knowledge doubtless exists in a great deal more depth as proprietary information in several dozen companies around the world.

    I’m getting off topic. The EK43 thing is a little out of control, and I don’t think people really understand how nascent this idea is. There is more than enough information in the public sphere for people to realise that they probably shouldn’t be jumping on it yet, but our industry loves an equipment arms race and to cry “first!” with puffed up chests. We have this weird belief that our customers really desperately care about exactly how we make a cup of coffee. They just want it to be tasty, and to be served by someone who is nice to them.

    We’re going to put an EK43 on a bar soon, but it will be heavily modified, because people like John Gordon have put a lot of time and effort into actually understanding the grinder, and its possibilities.

    We bought our first EK maybe a year ago now. We already owned enough grinders but we put in the cash to try and learn and experiment with it. In comparison a class is a pretty cheap shortcut to most of what we know.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for spreading information. I’ve tried to share a lot on my own website over the years, and I could probably have gone further but there isn’t really any incentive to do so. I don’t really make my living being an “expert”. I make it running a coffee roasting business.

    Our ability to develop and disseminate new information is, I believe, really quite poor. I’d agree that it is frustrating. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable of how you fix that to offer up any solutions at the moment.

    • Thanks for your response James. My post was not intended as a criticism of any individual, but rather of the attitude of the industry.

      I’m glad you recognise the problems I outlined, and I have taken into consideration the counter-points you have made.

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