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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.

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Most apps I have used focus on London, and do it really well. They are mostly comprehensive and easy to use, perfect for the coffee enthusiast who’s fortunate enough to live in London. CoffeeGuru is not like these apps, as it has tried to extend its reach to the whole of the UK – and not just the UK. CoffeeGuru attempts to list all direct trade, speciality coffee shops in the UK, Ireland, the US and Canada! Quite ambitious, and obviously there’s no way I can describe its comprehensiveness given the scope of the app. However, the first thing to say is that it picks up many of the good coffee shops I know in small-town areas. It achieves this through a strong user-recommendation system which allows people to upload their local coffee shops. This is a dream for people outside of London, or people travelling, because they would previously have had to go through websites to get this information.

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The user interface, though, is rather lacking. It almost looks like it’s unfinished. The design is crude in some ways, and the coffee-shop search is lacking in the kind of fluidity that one gets from more shiny and opulent apps. In a way this is disappointing, but it kind of adds something to the edginess of the app. This might not be to everyone’s tastes, but what this app provides is something fundamentally different to the other apps on the market. It feels like it’s been designed for no-nonsense baristas. There are a few features that back this up, and make it a real alternative, despite its simple UI.

Firstly, it has the SCAA flavour wheel embedded for whenever you need it. This means that tasting coffees or cupping coffees can be joined by this app. It’s a simple touch, but well worth having for a serious barista. Next, there is an (incomplete) list of direct trade roasters, each with some information on the roaster. I was particularly interested in this as I know very little about roasters in the US and Canada, so if I see one on a guest roast in a coffee shop, I can check up on them before I decide to try. Lastly, anybody serious about coffee wants to know where they can get good coffee when they’re outside of London (or outside of the UK), this app provides a seriously needed service by including more coffee shops than just what can be found in London.

As a result, I think this app feels primarily like a tool. A tool that has been designed to provide alternatives to the other coffee apps. In that sense, it’s definitely worth the £1.49 simply because it fills some gaps that baristas and coffee geeks will find handy and can’t be found anywhere else. The UI could definitely be better, and so could the search function, but where most of the UK apps designed for coffee do exactly the same thing, the CoffeeGuru app is refreshingly unique.

The @CoffeeGuruApp is £1.49 in iTunes and can be found here.

This week is UK Coffee Week! This is a short, fragmented consciousness FAQ explaining it, and letting you know how to get involved. (Stole the format a little bit from the Guardian’s passnotes.)

UK-Coffee-Week-Logo


What is UK Coffee Week? It’s a week where the coffee industry celebrates the glorious black, caffeinated substance that keeps the world spinning.

Does that really deserve a whole week? Yes.

Okay… But is it really just about coffee? Not just coffee. The purpose is dual. Coffee professionals and coffee enthusiasts come together to raise money for ‘Project Waterfall’, a charity that works with coffee-producing countries to improve infrastructure that provides clean water.

That sounds worthy! How does Project Waterfall work? The need for cleaner water in these countries is great, and they are frequently amongst the poorest countries in the world. Despite this, they produce much of the best coffee in the world, and coffee is the second most consumed beverage in the world.

So it’s a way of giving something back? Exactly.

Is contributing as simple as buying coffee? Amazingly, yes. Different stores are participating in different ways, but you can find a list of participating coffee shops here (just scroll past the chains to the indie shops at the bottom).

It seems like a great time to support non-chains too, and celebrate the quality coffee that the UK is producing right now. We’re at the forefront of a wave, and it’s rare that you can say that of the UK. It really is a celebration.

Is there anything else? No.

Are you sure? What will you be doing this week? Drinking lots of coffee, but no change there.

 

… Oh right. This weekend is the London Coffee Festival. It’s a once-a-year showcase of coffee talent and industry in Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery. Tickets are still on sale (50% of the ticket price goes to Project Waterfall), and it’s set to be awesome. I’ll be there on Friday eve taking snaps, and preparing a blog for those who can’t get there.

Are you going? Yes, you are too.

Am I? Yes.

It recently emerged that Starbucks are paying very little in tax and have paid no corporation tax for the last three years. There is nothing illegal going on in terms of tax evasion, they insist, but the discovery may do damage to a brand that puts itself out as a carefree, mildly redistributive form of doing business. Being involved in Fairtrade, for instance, is one of the reasons why a customer chooses Starbucks over, say, Costa or Caffe Nero.

But why opt for another chain when there are so many independents out there making better coffees, in an ethically-aware way. I write on this blog about the many coffee shops all over the country that produce great coffee, and though I haven’t audited all of them, I’m sure the majority are too small to be running funds through other countries. On top of this, because the quality of the beans is higher, and the craftmanship is deeper, independent coffee shops often produce far better cups of coffee for very similar prices to the big chains. This is how I can afford to harp on about the complexities of a single cup, as if it were a wine.

As a result of the shattering of the Starbucks veneer, a small group in South East England have started the ‘Campaign for Real Coffee‘ on Facebook, attempting to raise awareness of Starbucks’ tax avoidance and the effort that goes into making every cup special in independent, artisan coffee shops. Not only do you get better flavour for your money, your money is also not going straight to shareholders.

 

Notes
Campaign for Real Coffee
BBC news Starbucks story
Starbucks ‘commitment to the UK’
If you want to learn more about the advantages of artisan coffee shops either read more of this blog, or  something like this is a good place to start.