There Are No Points for Difficulty in Coffee

In Olympic diving, a diver’s final score is derived by multiplying the average dive score by the difficulty rating of the dives. In coffee, there are no points for difficulty. Coffee customers generally care how good a coffee is, how much it cost, and how long it took to make, but not how difficult it was to make. Obvious, right? Then why do so many roasters and baristas make coffee preparation more difficult than it needs to be? I offer the following examples as suggestions of how to improve coffee quality or consistency with only trivial increases in effort or cost.  

One of the first things I tell roasting clients is that to make their roasting consistent, their green-coffee temperature must be the same, every batch, when they load the coffee into the roaster. It is, literally, impossible to roast consistently if your green temperature varies before roasting. Almost every client has protested that maintaining consistent green temperature would be too expensive, too much of a hassle, or too inconvenient. Even after I pointed out that all they really need is a small room with a space heater and flimsy walls, just big enough to store one week’s worth of green, almost all still didn’t want to bother. (Several clients finally took the advice months or years later, and they are all happy they did.)


The simple math involved in building such a room would imply that it’s a no-brainer. The room would cost about $1000 USD and would massively improve roasting consistency for decades, or at least until the room collapsed. For a company roasting a mere 500 kg/week, the room and its associated heating would cost about $0.01 per kilo over five years.


Roasters are not alone; baristas have historically made good coffee more difficult in numerous ways. Years ago coffee quality was challenged by baristas' refusal to use scales, dismissiveness toward the coffee refractometer, and rejection of volumetric espresso machines as not “artisan” enough (remember that?).  All three practices still persist in many companies. Currently, some best practices with no downside, such as using a milk thermometer ($10), bothering to align flat burrs (one hour per six months), and buying espresso machines with preinfusion (the same average price as machines without preinfusion) are still uncommon.


Perhaps the simplest way cafes could improve their brewed-coffee quality without much effort would be to use smaller batch sizes and carafes for serving batch brews.  (Please see my recent post Batch Brew Basics.) For example, if a cafe serves 8 liters of batch brew per hour, the added barista time to brew four 2-liter batches instead of two 4-liter batches would be approximately one minute per hour.  Meanwhile, that minute of effort would halve the average holding time of 25+ cups of brewed coffee.  Please ponder for a moment the difference in quality of brewed coffee held in a thermal carafe for 30 minutes vs. one hour.


Cafes readily pay up for very expensive coffees but don’t take many low-cost steps to get the most from those coffees and justify their prices. For example, the cost of a set of new grinder burrs is perhaps $0.02--$0.06 per kilo, depending on burr type, frequency of burr replacement, and average grind setting used.  Changing grinder burrs twice as frequently would add $0.02--$0.06 per kilo, and would dramatically improve average extraction quality at a cafe. If you could make your average cup of coffee dramatically better by spending ∼$0.05 more per kilo, wouldn’t you do it?  If you are hesitating to answer, please consider how readily roasters spend an extra $0.50--$1.00 per kilo for modestly better green.


Similar math applies to water-treatment systems. Most cafes could easily improve their water quality for coffee brewing; among other problems, very few cafes have chosen their water-treatment systems based on a comprehensive, accurate water analysis.  The cost of a new water system and its upkeep, over many years, is approximately $0.02--$0.10 per kilo of beans ground and brewed. Again, it is hard to argue with such a small expense for a potentially large improvement in quality. (NB: This only applies to cafes not already optimizing their brewing-water chemistry.)


In these examples, I’ve done my best to estimate the USD costs of the recommended changes. I’m sure there’s room to quibble over the exact costs (though I'd rather we didn't), which, among other things, vary by country.  I'd love your suggestions of other low-cost or low-effort ways to improve coffee quality and consistency.


Thanks for reading.