Have we reached the end of innovation?

Want to talk espresso but not sure which forum? If so, this is the right one.
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shadowfax

#1: Post by shadowfax »

This past weekend I was in Austin for Caffé Medici Saturday Night Smackdown. Dan Streetman of Cuvée Coffee was the speaker, and he started a dialogue with the group about what it means to be a barista, inspired (in part) by Gwilym's comments in James Hoffman's interviews with him. That discussion covered a number of things, but the one that intrigued me the most was the topic of how to communicate great coffee to the consumer--how to educate them about it and get them excited about it. They all of course had good ideas, but one thing that struck my mind that didn't come up is how often skilled baristas can come off as pretentious jerks to consumers in that process, and how to avoid that. In the interest of not getting stoned by a gang of baristas, I resisted the urge to bring up some of my friends' stories of baristas spoiling the 3rd wave experience by acting like that.

How far does that go? It seems to me that the industry will only truly grow as consumers are educated, and a huge part of that is on the internet (IMO). It's a real challenge, now, I think. Dan S. and I were chatting after the smackdown, discussing the diminishing returns on espresso "innovation"--he felt like as a community we'd grabbed a lot of the low-hanging fruits that are real breakthroughs (PIDs Scace devices, etc.), and that further significant breakthroughs are going to be fewer and farther between. We're now measuring and controlling most of the things that can be easily measured and controlled, and the remaining variables are much more troublesome to measure and make generalizations about.

So, is that it? In other words, I've had my fun with internet discussions, but we've already read the book on grinders, PIDs, HX v. DB, and it's mostly repetitive now, educating people who are allergic to the search button. What can I tangibly get from that?

I guess these things are somewhat cyclical--at least I hope they are. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as the internet and the specialty coffee industry both continue to mature.
Nicholas Lundgaard

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HB
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#2: Post by HB »

shadowfax wrote:Dan S. and I were chatting after the smackdown, discussing the diminishing returns on espresso "innovation"--he felt like as a community we'd grabbed a lot of the low-hanging fruits that are real breakthroughs (PIDs Scace devices, etc.), and that further significant breakthroughs are going to be fewer and farther between. We're now measuring and controlling most of the things that can be easily measured and controlled, and the remaining variables are much more troublesome to measure and make generalizations about.
If all that remains is fine tuning, maybe we should write the end-all be-all documentation and close shop? (I'm not entirely facetious).
Dan Kehn

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another_jim
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#3: Post by another_jim »

I disagree on one point, agree on the other.

I think progress is a series of stair steps. A few innovations come down the pike, and that raises the level. But after a while it becomes nothing but fine tuning. But then a new innovation hits, and that creates the next stair step. The PIDed double boiler, pressure and temperature profiler innovations are probably hitting the point of diminishing returns. The most recent set of innovations: SO espresso, dosing variations as an SOP, and high end grinders, is just making its way into the mix, and I don't think we are anywhere close to having exhausted this vein. For instance, I expect that Andy and Terroir, etc, will perfect fast routinized extraction and concentration measures on espresso, and that we'll see this used to make shots over much wider ranges of grind settings, pressure settings and shot times. I'm also hoping to see this knowledge exploited by creating espresso bars (so far there's only one in Trieste) where you can order one of four to eight different SOs or blends, and they will be so obviously distinct that even a person who never drank coffee will be able to compare and contrast them.

But I agree on audiences, despite being temperamentally an elitist myself.

Having a wider popular, mass audience is crucial. For instance, the techniques of classical music composition have been rising steadily for the past 100 hundred years, and any active music professor could produce a creditable knockoff of large scale Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Mahler pieces in a few weeks. But the mass audience for modern classical music has disappeared, and there are maybe on the order of ten thousand people world wide who could appreciate a music piece using the latest techniques (they are certainly beyond me, despite my loving older classical music). The successors to all the 18th and 19th century high arts have suffered the same debacle, for the simple reason that for 50 years it was de rigeur for artists to have contempt for their audiences, and to be as incomprehensible as possible. The result is simple: anyone with obvious musical talents becomes a rocker, musical or film composer, since that is where the money, and more important, the audiences are. There have been no really great classical composers for a while; and the symphony and opera seasons have become the musical equivalents of an antique fair. (This is a mass audience for classical performers, who continue to shine)

The sociology of "worlds," such as the art world, fashion world, etc is well understood. In a simple craft world, there's a core group of high end producers and dedicated audiences, along with widening circles of less celebrated producers and less savvy and deep pocketed consumers. In mass consumptioon worlds, the craft world gets coopted and short circuited by mass production channels of distribution. In the best of all possible worlds, the mass and craft ends feed off each other. Rock has stayed vital, as has fashion and movies, because there are craft enclaves and subcultures that keep forming, getting discovered, and selling out to the masses. If the craft side gets completely wiped out, as happened to coffee in the 1930s to 1950s, the quality goes to hell. And the arcane ghettos of modern classical music and now jazz show what happens when the mass market side disappears.

I'm not sure if the internet will let crafts declare their independence from mass marketing. I hope so, but if not, then all the outreach to regular consumers, from in-cafe tastings to Schultz putting an SB on every corner, are necessary.
Jim Schulman

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malachi

#4: Post by malachi »

I think we are far from done with innovation.

I feel like there are several areas where we are still really in the dark ages still. The obvious ones are green coffee processing, varietal specific cultivation and treatment of coffee, and roasting (in general).

I also think that there is likely to be at least one more round of innovation in grinder technology in the next 5 years.
"Taste is the only morality." -- John Ruskin

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shadowfax

#5: Post by shadowfax »

I think that Dan S. (and myself) would agree with both of you that we are far from done learning things in the espresso/coffee world. My point is/was that we're getting to much more complex problems--solutions that may be very specific, or phenomena that are much more subtle and difficult to understand. Even if this turns out not to be the case--I think that's a general perception. We don't seem to be inspired with a problem that we think we can investigate. I feel like we have little or no inspiration that approaches the genius that was, say, the TGP or the lever machine smackdown.

And neither of those problems are closed books by a long shot. We have hypotheses, some with limited support, and a general understanding that helps us place things. But of course those books aren't closed. The question is, where do we go from where we've been there? I sure don't have an answer, and as far as I can tell that's been left floating out to sea.

We're human beings--there's always more to know an understand about anything you want to take a look at. However, fact and perception are two different things, and I'm thinking the general perception is that the internet coffee community isn't seeing/testing/discussing brave new ideas. And again, I hope that's just a doldrum that's a part of the cyclical nature of progress.
Nicholas Lundgaard

JimG

#6: Post by JimG »

malachi wrote:I think we are far from done with innovation.
Agree. For instance, espresso machine and grinder manufacturers have just barely begun to incorporate modern digital controls.

Jim

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malachi

#7: Post by malachi »

I do, however, think that innovation in espresso machines is likely to be incremental at least for a little while. This is largely (IMHO) due to the fact that the "gating item" is really not the machine anymore for many folks (and is instead the coffee, the roaster, the grinder and/or the barista).
"Taste is the only morality." -- John Ruskin

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TimEggers

#8: Post by TimEggers »

shadowfax wrote:and I'm thinking the general perception is that the internet coffee community isn't seeing/testing/discussing brave new ideas.
Amen.

This site (from the ones I visit) is more the exception than the rule, but 85% of the online coffee talk (again from the sites I visit) are the same recycled discussions. When something new and interesting does come up (the latest being James crema skimming piece) it goes unnoticed and largely undiscussed.

And it's a shame and leaves me frankly wanting more. Admittedly I often feel like (especially here) the little kid eavesdropping on the parents table at thanksgiving. I have no right to complain about the discussions if I'm unable to contribute, but alas if I knew more I'd post more. :roll:
Tim Eggers
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Vad

#9: Post by Vad »

shadowfax wrote:intrigued me the most was the topic of how to communicate great coffee to the consumer--how to educate them about it and get them excited about it.
I would like to know the results too. Is there some kind of a list of do's and dont's? Or it is as in an interview by Mr. Hoffmann. Where is it, in Barista magazine? Or somewhere else? Thank you.

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shadowfax

#10: Post by shadowfax »

The Gwilym/James Hoffman video that Dan mentioned was a Video 11 from James' blog. The question posed to Gwilym (By Chris Deferio) was, "What is the ultimate goal of the professional barista?" Gwilym's initial answer was simple: "to give your customer a lovely coffee." Upon a bit of seeming reflection, he asked to restate it and said, "to keep the enthusiasm and the drive going is the key," presumably to the aforesaid goal of giving customers "lovely coffee." A good, if maybe frustratingly incomplete and slightly generic answer. It's a good springboard for a deeper discussion, though.

Earlier in James' video he touches on what you might call the "other half" of the professional barista's job, to educate the customers you're serving the lovely coffee to. Interestingly, education becomes a huge issue when we're talking about continuing innovation: I think innovation is stimulated when new people with new perspectives join our community. Also, as an educated market demands the better coffee they've learned about, manufacturers with the equipment and know-how to bring innovative products to market will be driven to get off their laurels and pay attention to a market that's suddenly worth some serious cash.

Conveniently, that brings me full circle: Are we in an doldrums full of noise and nothing new, as I've suggested? Or, does the influx of new people with old questions just another (less interesting to the veterans) important part of the process of specialty coffee getting better and better? Perhaps we really should put some thought into consolidating, organizing, and making more easily available the mass of knowledge we've obtained. Maybe it's as simple as getting on Wikipedia and using HB threads and guides as citations and external links.

[for the record, I don't know that I agree with that]
Nicholas Lundgaard