I am writing something on the subject of the SCAA announcing an end to USBC regionals with a little hesitation. There’s a tonne of blog posts circulating, twitter is very busy, and it could be said that there is already a surplus of opinion. It isn’t my national competition under discussion so I feel like something of an outsider in all this, but it is a good opportunity to share a few thoughts I’ve been sitting on for a while.
I write this with sympathy for both sides. From the SCAA’s perspective the regional competitions consumed a lot of money and resources. They did return, but it could be argued that they do not return equally across all participating. A few people have a very good day (one person has a spectacular one), and the rest come away in varying states of satisfaction. This is the nature of competition generally, rather than the specific fault of barista competitions.
I was inspired to get involved with the Barista Guild of Europe by the SCAA’s Barista Camp model – events that returned pretty equally for everyone who attends and, while I don’t have the numbers, events that seemed to attract a more balanced gender mix too. The SCAA’s resources are not endless, and their job is to invest where it most effectively rewards and provides value to their membership.
From this perspective I understand the SCAA’s decision. However, I am also someone who is a huge fan of barista competition. Not only as someone who has benefited greatly from their existence, but who believes they’re great ways to develop and push yourself (and those opportunities feel pretty rare). Regional events made barista competition available to a lot more people – a good thing – but struggled with consumer engagement. The lack of consumer engagement also hampers opportunities for things like sponsorships – the companies that have traditionally sponsored have been marketing to the coffee industry, and to some extent they’re pretty tapped out. Nick Cho puts forward one solution for making the actual events happen, but I still believe there are challenges around engagement.
This brings me to a question of format, another discussion rolling around on twitter. Is this an opportunity for a new competition format? Perhaps. The current format is built around credibility (I’m sure some of you disagree, but go with me for a moment). For the community the best barista should primarily produce the best tasting drinks (and ideally do it in a charming, welcoming, friendly and interesting way). This means that the bulk of the points must come from tasting, which in turn immediately disconnects the audience from the competition. I’ve watched competitions for a decade now, and I can watch a WBC final onstage and have no idea who has won because I don’t know what those exact shots tasted like. (This is a challenge when you’re there to provide commentary and insight…)
I was chatting a little to Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, while in Gothenburg last week, and we were talking about competition formats. We were talking about this point of audience disconnection, and about how to do a taste based competition without losing the audience. If we look to the world of food tv (terrifying as it is) then there are formats and competitions that work, and have been hugely successful. What’s required is transparency and openness of judging as part of the format. Things like live scoring factor would make a big difference. I’m all for increasing transparency of judging, and I think it would remove the group-think dynamic that is inevitable in competition discussions. My one concern – that a judge may have missed a piece of information, and that post match discussion is useful for this – was answered by Maxwell who suggested that at the end of the routine judges ought to be able to simply ask the competitor questions. I like this. Having the judges briefly explain their scoring, what they tasted and what they thought, would be entertaining. This does start to look a little like the panel of judges on a talent show like The X-factor, but there’s no denying that its format that engages a huge number of people.
The downside of this is that judges quickly become bigger personalities than many of the competitors, especially if they’re good at playing to an audience. You’d need credible (from a coffee perspective) entertainers. We know that we want the person on stage, the person who has spent time, money and effort on preparing to be properly awarded with our attention. I do think that, to compete in something like this, you’d need relatively thick skin to be comfortable receiving your critique on stage.
Am I suggesting something like the above should replace the current format? No. It’s built for a different purpose. I think something like this could run alongside. You could easily compete in both, but I think there are formats or events that could help bring in consumers, bring in new sponsorship opportunities and help support a nationwide competition structure. Such an event could easily be a one-off, it doesn’t need a national or world structure. It’s an opportunity for invention, for experimentation. That opportunity has, I suppose, always been there – but now there is incentive. It doesn’t have to have the production values of the WBC, especially at the beginning.
I don’t know how I could help, but if you want to create a new competition format, based around the consumer, and you think I could be helpful then get in touch. I’d like to see the USBC thrive, the barista community in the US thrive, I’d like to see something positive come out of this that could have an impact on the rest of the world’s coffee communities too.
Last year I was invited to take part in a short tour of Asia with Tamper Tantrum, and it lined up perfectly with some other work I’d been doing out there so it seemed too good of an opportunity to miss.
I tend to have periods of time where I think intensely about one particular issue. This talk was filmed last year, at the end of the tour and after a few weeks of events, talks and so on.1 I’d been obsessing about marketing, about communication and about the fact that much of what we want to achieve with our messaging… fails.
This may be a contentious point, but I argue in the talk why I think the way I do. It isn’t really a talk about what we’re doing wrong (I promise), but a way of looking at what we do and thinking about whether or not we’re really meeting our goals. How much of our story telling is truly our own? How can we tell stories that reveal things about our coffees and our businesses, that will delight and captivate our customers?
Here’s the video:
If you’d rather just listen then the audio is here:
(I start at around 2.00)
This is why my voice was going a bit at this point ↩︎
This is why my voice was going a bit at this point
This is the first in a little series of posts looking at how and why Nespresso works the way that it does. There’s a few things I think when it comes to Nespresso:
1). We continue to underestimate their success, and their ability to leverage technology to overcome hurdles of quality.
2). Speciality coffee roasters share more customers with Nespresso than they’d like to believe.
3). There’s a lot of speculation about the technology they use. Lots of it is clearly proprietary, so I wanted to dive into it a little bit more to try and understand what is happening.
So this is the first of the experiments (there’s more to come) and it is a pretty simple one. I wanted to look at how tolerant the pods were to variance in how user’s want to brew their espresso. This is a pretty simple experiment to conduct. I’m grateful for the assistance of Sang Ho Park in helping with some of the work.
For testing I purchased the cheapest machine directly from Nespresso: A Magimix Inissia in black. They’re painfully easy to use. Fill the removable tank with water. Plug it in. It heats up in under 30 seconds. You put a capsule in and push espresso and in 12 seconds you have an espresso.
The first experiment
I chose one particular capsule (in this case I chose Livanto) and brewed it at a variety of brew ratios, and measured the extraction.
Different Nespresso capsules actually have a range of dry coffee weight in them (I think from about 5.5g up to about 6.3g – but I haven’t tested them all). These particular capsules had 5.7g of ground coffee in them. This means you’re pretty much instantly going to brew at a totally different brew ratio to traditional espresso. I might favour a 1:2 ratio (e.g. 19g ground coffee, 38g liquid espresso). A Nespresso capsule works on a totally different flow rate, and I was at a 1:2 ratio in under 9 seconds!
I tested a range of beverage weights, from 15g of espresso liquid up to nearly 75g. Here’s a chart showing the extractions:
Now, I think (based on a few different factors) that what Nespresso is aiming for here is extractions above 20%. The pre-programmed espresso button produced a 30-31g shot that hit 21%. This is pretty impressive work for 12 seconds of brewing. If you’ve played with things like the EK-43 then your target extraction range probably moves from 18-22% of the Gold Cup standards, up towards maybe 20-24%. If this is your window then a Nespresso capsule hits that window regardless of where you pull it, between about 25g of liquid and about 60g of liquid.
The next thing to do was to test this with a capsule designed for their Lungo setting to see how this varies. For this second experiment I used two different capsules, both with a heavier dose of coffee – 6.2g.
The preset button on the machine produces (quite repeatably) 95g of liquid in the cup. What surprised me was the difference in extraction between the two lungo capsules I used. The first clocked up at 25% extraction (The Vivalto capsule) while the Ethiopian lungo came in a little lower at around 21.49%. The second of these was much lighter roasted, and tasted distinctly like coffee from Ethiopia.
Absent-mindedly I decided to throw a lungo of the Ethiopian capsule (Bukeela ka Ethiopia) through a paper filter to see how it tasted without crema. This also seems like a good time to remind you what Nespresso have shared about crema. There’s a lot of speculation about how Nespresso achieves the crema it does. I have a few theories, but they’ll come later. For now, watch this video:
Back to my experiments: What surprised me was how quickly the coffee drained through the filter paper (if you’ve filtered a lot of espressos or lungos then you know this is weird). What surprised me even more was how few fines were present on the paper afterwards:
So – you’re probably going to think the first thing I thought when I saw this: they’ve gotten rid of fines! There’s a lot of speculation about the grind profile in Nespresso capsules, and suddenly it looked like there was evidence of something interesting going on.
I can’t do much in the way of grind analysis, but we do have a few sieves at the roastery. These, I thought, would give us a little bit of insight into what was happening.
We took 50g of coffee ground for a lungo, and we shook it through the sieves we had. There’s limited data here but still interesting:
Trapped in the 500 micron+ sieve: 39.3g
Trapped in the 350 micron+ sieve: 4g
Trapped in the 150 micron+ sieve: 6.5g
Smaller than 150 microns: 0.2g
That’s clearly bimodal, and there are also clearly fines present. I then did what any sensible person would do: I put 12g of Nespresso coffee into a portafilter and pulled a lungo of a corresponding brew ratio. I then tested the extraction (it was higher – approximately 23%), I tasted it (worse than from the Nespresso machine) and then I poured the rest through a filter paper. The results were again interesting.
This is a filter paper after filtering a lungo using Nespresso grounds pulled through a portafilter:
This is a filter paper after filtering a lungo using Nespresso grounds brewed in a Nespresso machine:
So – a pretty notable difference. There are fines in the capsules, they just don’t end up in the cup when using a Nespresso machine. This leads us to two possible theories: the machine is filtering out the fines or the pod itself is filtering out the fines. This needs more exploration and this is going to happen in Part II of this blog post.
What I haven’t really talked about here is how it tasted. I didn’t really like how the shots tasted, but I have a very different preference for many aspects of coffee and espresso compared to the typical (Nespresso) consumer. I’ve repeatedly tried to make the point that thinking we are somehow safe from the dominance of Nespresso, because we can make coffee taste better, is not a smart way to think. Should Nespresso want to make their coffee taste better – perhaps selling more than 6 billion capsules a year doesn’t feel like enough – then they face a technical challenge. No company is better positioned than Nespresso take on such a technical challenge, and while I’m not a fully paid up member of the Clayton Christensen school of “Disruptive Innovation” this does look like a pretty classic case.
They have a business model where they can buy whatever coffee they want, because they’re selling it at high prices. They’re selling their Ethiopian coffee at £53.23 per kilo (delivered of course…).
Am I trying to scare monger? No.
I am trying to pay a little more attention to a serious competitor. Here we have an option where you can put a capsule in a machine that is switched off, and in under 50 seconds have a shot of espresso better than most coffee shops around the world (accepting that most coffee shops are not good coffee shops). Our counter proposal: Spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, dial in a grinder for a while once the machine has spent 30 minutes getting up to temperature, then eventually pull a good shot. Drink it, then start cleaning up. Nespresso might be shockingly expensive, but so is a morning espresso pulled at home if it took a couple of goes to dial it in just right. Pulling shots of espresso is huge fun, if you want it to be. It’s a massive inconvenience if you don’t.
Speciality coffee doesn’t offer anything to the consumer who wants to drink great espresso at home, but doesn’t want a new hobby.
Whether or not I consider them a true competitor, or even if I don’t think they’re a threat to my business, there’s plenty to learn from them. I look forward to picking it all apart a little more and sharing it here in the future. If you’ve got questions or suggestions then let me know on twitter.
There was a great little video about Re:co posted today, that really gets to the heart of why I think the event is an essential part of our industry. It isn’t just about the speakers and talks themselves, it is about being in the room with the people to talk about the talks.
Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood spoke wonderfully Symposium this year, and I’m sure it will be online on their youtube page soon. It was a great presentation, not only because of its content and delivery, because as soon as it was done I had three or four different conversations with other attendees about it. Here I was challenged, a little inspired and a little relieved to find people struggling with the same issues as me for and looking at different solutions. Watching the talk online later will have its own value – and I strongly recommend you do it – but to only think about a Symposium’s value in terms of the talks themselves would be to misunderstand the event.
As the list of speakers for June’s Re:co is slowly being released, I hope lots of you will take the opportunity to join us to talk about the talks there.
This week is the return of the biggest coffee event in the UK, and surely one of the biggest in Europe. Last year had around 22,000 visitors across the four days and I’d expect at least that again this year. It’s an interesting event so me, in that it mixes it’s audience. The first two days are for trade – and this means it is free entry those days if you work in coffee – so all baristas need to do to attend is sign up! If you’re not trade then the tickets are still pretty cheap, and there’s a few left – and the proceeds do go to charity. 1 The weekend is dedicated to a consumer audience, with a different program of events and workshops.
While I’ve attended, and taken part in various aspects of the show since the beginning, this is the first year where we’ll have a stand and I’ll be there every day. I’m looking forward to sharing a load of fun things we’ve been working on – and obviously we’ll be making lots of coffee for people. There are once again signed copies of The Atlas back in stock, and we’ll have a few at the show as well as some delicious and unexpected things to eat!
Hopeful if you’re in the UK, and you read this blog, then I shall see you there. Come and say hello!
I should disclose that I am a trustee of that charity ↩︎
I should disclose that I am a trustee of that charity