In the school of traditional thought concerning espresso, there seems to be a consistent focus on primary characteristics that attribute to the quality of espresso extraction. Undoubtedly, two primary factors in espresso quality are the equipment and the the person using the equipment. Needless to say, a high caliber machine only produces quality espresso when used by a well-trained, well skilled, and knowledgeable barista and vice versa. This seems to be common sense in our line of work. We see it mimicked in many other lines of work. Tiger Woods doesn't use cheap clubs when he's playing the masters, and a brand new Taylor Presenter acoustic guitar in the hands of an amateur musician does little to cover up their lack of mastery as they fumble around the fret board. While it seems to be a common understanding that the tools and the hands play an equally critical role in coffee, I can't help but wonder if there is a slight imbalance these days.
We all know about the "demise" of Clover as a prevalent way to advance brewing methods. It was met with speculation from the beginning, yet it was relatively quickly established as a premier way to brew coffees. I even found myself tripping over my gaping jaw the first time I saw one of these sleek, sexy little machines in action at Intelligentsia a few years ago. The extraction characteristics were unique and fresh to the palate, and there was a certain amount of mystique to the cup. I often pondered after that interaction what coffees familiar to me might taste if they were "Clovered". I really don't find anything wrong with this, except that my perception of the coffee was based more on the novelty of the brewing method rather than the merit of the coffee independent of the hype that a 10,000 dollar, cutting edge brewing machine it was prepared on. I was far more enamored with the technology than the coffee quality. And I don't think that I stood alone in jumping on the wagon. Most of the magazines that I have been reading prior to this spring have been plastered with pictures of high end coffee bars sporting these expensive little brewers, sitting center stage on the front counter right next to the espresso machine. And I don't believe the equipment obsession is confined to Clover.
We are all familiar with names like Synesso and La Marzocco. I would say that, of all the machines I have worked on preparing coffee, they are clearly the most consistent at producing the highest caliber of espresso that I have prepared. They are great machines with a wild amount of technology and thought to the barista's work infused into their design and general usability. However, I have encountered a certain level unwillingness to wander outside these machines when preparing espresso. In competing the GLRBC and USBC, I found many people completely unfamiliar with anything other than dual boiler machines. Many people had no concept of or ability to make adjustments for equipment that is less than ideal to create quality extractions. People marveled that, while I was competing, I was also not using a Robur as my primary grinder for competition. It was then that I began to wonder what, by definition, is a "skilled barista".
Taking into account that there are many people who have less opportunity to play with all types of equipment than I do, I understand some of the wariness of people working on only top, cutting edge equipment to prepare their coffee on other equipment. But how much should we rely on a machine to define our coffee? Is it fair to say that we can only experience it correctly when we have the next greatest brewing/espresso machine? In no way do I want to undermine the pursuit of clarity and quality in our craft, but I do want to question what our primary focus is when assessing what we are doing as a coffee community to affect the overall quality of our craft. In reading "A Code" last week on Barista Exchange, the question was raised, "Should we give input to shops we visit who need help?" The most consistent answer was focused on growing the industry through teaching people the craft of the barista. Right now, Starbucks is communicating to our culture that coffee is only exclusive when it's brewed on a special machine. They are trying to quiet a whole culture of quality by communicating to people that the machine always wins. This is part of why super automatics have become so prevalent in chains; there is a false hope in machines that does not factor in the very artistic component of our culinary world. We could have machines make our coffee, our music, and our art, but without the heart and soul behind these things there is no emotional connection.
Forgive me if I am nearsighted, but I appreciate the changes beginning in shops like Stumptown and Zoka who are going back to pour over stations and French presses. I appreciate hearing about people like Aaron Duckworth that require all their baristas in training pull fifty shots at 14 grams exact dose from sight and feel before getting on the bar. I really appreciate the wisdom of my coffee mentor who simply says, "A good barista is one who understand their equipment and can use whatever equipment is laid before them to create quality coffee extractions." Let's continue to grow in emphasizing the the high standards of skill in preparation so that people who are not in this enclave of culinary world will take note of our abilities as masters of an art form. And, most of all, let our effort be toward using both our hands and equipment in a way that the coffee speaks for itself.