December 2, 2010

Interest in coffee comes from vision, thought and experience. Its reasonable to suggest the thing that captures people in coffee is the same thing that makes us (baristas, roasters, owners, managers, waiters etc) tick, so why do we shelter our customers?

The single most damning thing a coffee company can do is underestimate their customers. I’ll add here that its very easy and understandable to do and that I’ve been known to write failed initiatives off to “them not being ready for x, y, z…”, overlooking or turning a blind eye to whatever the true cause of the failure was. I guess the key is clarity of communication and therefore, clarity of ideas.

People love information, especially information they can grasp. My suggestion is that we can access much more in our customers than we realise, IF we have good communication and we exhibit and expect intelligence.

All that is left then is courage. Belief in good coffee, good people and good ideas goes a long way, what an encouraging thing.



November 16, 2010

How much of what we do on a day to day basis can be attributed to habit?

Recently I’ve  been attempting to be more aware of what I’m doing at any point in time and what I’ve come to realise is simply this; I spend lots of time appeasing lots of little habits. Why, you may ask am I posting this in a blog about coffee and business? The answer is simple, how effective can you be if you are continually unaware of the habitual processes which constitute your business? What assumptions do y0u make and why? What kind of things do you aim for without realising it? Essentially, what kind of coffee business are you, and what kind do you want to be?

I guess a simple example of the habits and assumptions I have at work (I’m fairly sure I’ve kept where I work out of this blog, and I’ll continue to do so here) is a standard of quality. Recently we (the owners and I) implemented a directive designed to benchmark the quality of espresso served throughout the day. We decided to ensure that every espresso pour served whether in a milk based drink or black coffee drink, would be a coffee we actively would want to drink. Now there are a few things I should say at this point.

– We regularly bin espresso

– We are very picky about the coffee we do drink

– We try to drink as much coffee as possible to stay in touch with exactly how good the coffee can be

Our drink quality went THROUGH THE ROOF in a way I hadn’t expected, we discovered new highs and ways of maintaining them and excitingly customers noticed, WIN.

In hindsight, prior to this idea we had made an assumption about serving a thing called “high quality” coffee. Whilst in relation to many other coffee places around town this would still have been accurate, it created an area for interpretation that was based on unclear and unspecified values. This fact alone had potential to blind us, to remove the ever niggling pressure to out-perform ourselves and break trough.

Assumptions are related to perspective, and whilst entirely unavoidable, our subjective perception of what we called “high quality” prevented us from  recognising the potential we had to pour better drinks. This allowed us to see our processes and standards with an increased resolution, the ability to make ever finer adjustments to what we do.

My suggestion is that recognising the assumptions we make in all aspects of our coffee, our business, our management, our service and our thinking, is the single most empowering and mind blowing process we can embark on. Continually criticising and analysing our processes is THE mechanism to break through. Ultimately if progress, or communication are issues, if nothing being done is working, look to the assumptions. No matter how obvious they may seem, no matter how correct, our assumptions are key to seeing new and exciting avenues of exploration.



More coffee stuff coming soon

November 2, 2010

Hey y’all,
Its been an epic year of uni, I’ll begin the summer string of blog posts and a raft of mid year wonderings will be polished off too. Stay tuned.


University – project “brain melt”

April 29, 2010

I really don’t have time to be writing here – three major essays due in a week and a half, all three around 1/3 completed. You could reasonably assume my posting here to be a form of chronic and desperate procrastination. It is. HOWEVER I am determined not to waste this time, instead I’d like to ask a few questions of my amazingly dedicated readers – incidentally thanks for the support through the post free uni spell, nice to see hits popping up every day.

Ok. So until I get a chance to read all of the fallout from the SCAA conference – probably never going to happen, I would love to know in which direction you think the majority of discussion and growth is going to go for the next 12 months or so? The saturation of environmentally sustainable info in my head right now may be an influence in my thinking that the increasingly thoughtful and organisationally disruptive direct trade models are evolving in a cool way and I’d like to see more conversation about that. I’m interested to know what you folks are thinking and talking about.

In a semi-related aside I’ve been delving into academic studies on trade liberalisation and fairtrade for an essay on Inequality and Sustainability and will (once written) post it here for y’all to read – it’s been a full on journey let me tell you, and if I’ve learned anything at this stage it is this, question everything about the attributes you give your coffee. What do we mean when we say ‘fairly traded’, ‘organic’, ‘shadegrown’, ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘sustainable’? I’m going to post the Fair Trade standards for coffee here and also the Rainforest Alliance standards which incidentally are actually the ISEAL standards.

Sorry about the lapse in posting too – I’d love to say that’s at it’s end but alas I doubt that to be true.

Other questions I’ve been thinking about are the following.
– What effect does the cross germination of coffee communities with other interest groups have on each of them and how should we approach their introduction?


– How much would you pay for a french press or pour over (brewed coffee) coffee consisting of 2-3 cups in volume?

Hit the comments section with your responses,



here are the two documents I mentioned –

Size Matters

January 27, 2010

Every transaction we make as consumers is a conversation, a to and fro of needs/wants, verses products/services/experiences . These conversations are ENDLESSLY analysed by the companies/shops which host them, and decisions which impact the customers are made based on this analysis. So, when buying coffee, either a cup or beans, what message are we sending, and what do we want?

Firstly I think we need to consider what coffee companies use to measure customer satisfaction, and how effective these methods are. The obvious benefit that smaller independent places have is that decision makers can personally gauge the experience their customers are having, getting a really good idea of the feel of the shop, and how well their vision is being received. Unfortunately for the bigger companies this personal evaluation of their operations is just not practical, especially for the guys responsible for making the strategic calls. This means two things; 1. Bigger companies, for the most part, rely on accounting numbers and staff observations to evaluate store performance and customer satisfaction, and 2. Customers have way fewer tools with which to communicate their needs, therefore their message is communicated only by voting with their feet, that is either buying coffee or not. In essence a Binary vote. Independent shops however tend to have smaller numbers, that is, fewer instances of customer interaction comparatively, which often leads to statistical variances to look like trends – leading to statistical info being less useful in the immediate decision making process, but still fine for longer term analysis after the variance has corrected itself.

I’ll add here that this generalisation is somewhat incremental, some bigger operators have a better mix of feedback and metrics than I’ve mentioned and some smaller guys have the opposite, however on the whole it comes down to this; larger coffee companies are less able to gather relevant and detailed information about what their customers want than smaller operators who can interact with and listen to customers needs and wants.

Now, what to say as a customer? In my ideal coffee shop there would be a distinct absence of the following gag-encouraging adornments often seen infecting coffee joints…

  • Awkward grinder mounted up tamps
  • Gravy jugs used to froth anything more than 1L of milk at a time
  • 16 oz cups
  • CD displays or merchandising of annoying unrelated products obviously intended to boost the average sale
  • Cold drinks that the people involved with getting coffee to the masses have to get distracted by

The list could go on and on, believe me. The point of all this though, is that without effective avenues of feedback there is NO WAY I could voice any of these concerns with a binary, to purchase or not to purchase vote. More important than moaning about silly stuff as above though is the need to voice constructive stuff to our coffee places. Personally I’d die happy if I never, ever drank Gj’s coffee again, and as specialty coffee grows more people are thinking the same thing – coffee can be and is much better than we had previously thought.

So we need to be able to cultivate vibrant coffee culture in our areas, by stimulating and growing great new shops, and encouraging their owners to work together to increase their collective market share. I find it interesting to see which companies feel threatened by strong competition and which ones see the potential for mutual growth. I know this has been flogged on the net over the last few months but for anyone who hasn’t seen Gwylym Davies’ ‘disloyalty card‘ check it out – a perfect example of how competitors can work together and build their reputation as a group, bloody visionary.

Next time you see an advertisement for a coffee place, read it carefully to see if it knocks or rubbishes its competition, see what observations you can make and leave your findings in the comments here.



    Pics from breadmaker roaster

    January 15, 2010

    Here are the promised photos from the roasting session a few days ago – so far the five 200gm batches I did have cupped much better than previous batches and are only going to mature in the next few days. I took a hacksaw to the breadmaker body to aid the speed with which it cools, worked well and way lots of fun. Apologies for horrendously shit photo quality, the ol’ N95 camera certainly does not cut the mustard, but a real camera would have required me to have a third (and possibly fourth) arm, not very practical. You get the idea though. I also relocated the thermocouple probe into the base of the pan, making for very predicable and useful temp readings.

    Just before I cooled the batch

    Right before First crack

    Early on

    Breadmaker lite™

    Thanks for the great readership so far folks!



    Old Vs New

    January 13, 2010

    I have to say that I had until very very recently somehow been unaware of Ryan Willbur’s blog’s awesomeness. I had subscribed to it for some time but for whatever reason not really twigged as to how interesting what he had to say was. No more! For those of you who have paid more active attention to the coffee blog world this revelation probably seems a touch old school, but hey Otis Redding is old school, and he is radical. Ryan W’s relatively recent post “Faces”, prompted me to think about the customers we serve and how their attitudes and expectations often prescribe our approach to them, particularly when retailing whole beans.

    Some companies have a massive range of coffee, I’ve worked in shops with  up to 50 whole bean products on the floor all the time, so when a customer expresses an interest in trying something new, a veritable torrent of information is endowed upon them; the royal treatment and rightly so! However when a customer is an established one with a usual product of choice, the temptation as a retailer is to sell the product and move on. This seems paradoxical to me. Surely our established customer’s money holds the same value as our new customer’s money, and in fact our reckoning of their value should be influenced by the investment of time and energy spent selling coffee and talking to them in the past. It follows that we should by rights be spending at least an equal amount of time with our established customers as with our new ones. It seems like we are in effect allocating existing customers to an imagined mass of ‘acquired’ customers, and new ones as potential customers waiting to be bagged. The reality is however that customers are transient and constantly need to be re-stimulated and considered, not put out to pasture.

    On a different note, my bro has been developing a kickass spreadsheet which I’m planning on using to plot and analyse espresso. Essentially its an excel spreadsheet into which data from each shot is placed and compared. The cool thing is its an evaluative system too, although the results are only going to be as good as the taster’s palate and perspective on espresso, I’m thinking the system might be a useful tool for giving barista’s a detailed run down on what has worked for a particular coffee and where to start their process. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about I’ll take a few screenshots.

    Ok, so the screenshots didn’t turn out great, but you get the idea, this screen is where you enter shot data and tasting scores. It is preceded by a session screen, with date, time, location, barista, coffee, machine, objectives etc.

    Here is the screen with the comparison choices

    and this is an example of the graphs.

    Pretty cool, lots of work to be done though and as they say the system is only as good as the data you put into it. Also worth considering is the evaluation of the results that enables this tool to yield results that reflect a positive or negative value, obviously there will need to be some definition of what are desirable attributes of espresso and what are not. A kind of calibration I guess. That however is another kettle of fish for another day.



    p.s. I’m off to do some roasting right now, and am going to take some long overdue pics.

    Who do you work for?

    January 13, 2010

    Fairtrade, RFA, Direct Trade, NASA, Australian Certified Organic. These are the labels we use on our coffee that represent what each of them deem to be the desireable and responsible way of trading, growing, processing and handling of coffee. Transparent and auditable, these organisations and arrangements aim to adopt the ‘nothing to hide’ principle to prove their credibility beyond reasonable doubt. I am a big advocate of such transparency, and indeed these more ethically traded and produced coffees, but I’d like to make an assertion here about what I consider to be ‘retail transparency’.

    I define retail transparency as the freedom or restriction of accurate information provided to the customers who buy coffee over your counter. Think about what exactly you tell your customers whilst selling them coffee. (For the sake of the context here let’s assume this person is obviously very interested and wants to know as much as possible) Is it detailed information about processing methods, origin specific stuff, varietals, roast info and flavor profile? If not, is that info available? and if it isn’t, why not? I recently worked a few shifts at a local roaster and was dismayed by the lack of integrity with which they treated their coffee sales. Selling at least two different coffees under two names each, thus doubling their perceived product lines, and mislabeling one of each as organic, was an obvious faux pas for me and that approach was evident throughout their operations. What does this say about their credibility? More importantly what does it say about the way they think about their customers?

    Other things to consider when buying coffee are;

    • How is the coffee displayed?
    • Can you see how they store their coffee? Why/why not?
    • Do they weigh and seal the bag to order? Or is the bag being handed to you a bag from the end of the stock rotation?
    • Do they hide behind labels? “Its a mocha” only rarely relates to a Yemeni coffee
    • Can they actually talk about the coffee? Or do they just know the pitch by heart?

    There are lots of other things that can give an idea about how straight your coffee retailer is being, please leave your ideas in the comments section.



    I’m sorry son, we don’t do that here…

    January 7, 2010

    I’ve got a few concerns about being a barista. Funny as it may seem, I find the reality of being behind the machine every day a very conflicting situation to be in.

    The actual job itself is GREAT and I love it. There is so much about being a barista that is awesome, and here are a few things that I find to be most rewarding.

    • Technical skills and using them every day
    • Serving people
    • Getting busy and smashing out a morning rush
    • Building the shop’s business and popularity by making excellent coffee i.e. the validation of what I consider to be real value in my product
    • Feeling free of the bonds of ‘Nine to Fivedom’
    • Not ironing anything…

    I’m finding it difficult to list the drawbacks to even out this equation, mostly I think because they are too complicated for my melon to shoehorn into a list, so I’ll try to explain them.

    To me, the difficulties of being a barista are quite separate from the job itself. They are concerned with the handling and perception of baristas, the way in which they are hired and employed, and how people interact with them, both socially and professionally.

    Now don’t get me wrong, there are significant career paths for dedicated baristas and lots of opportunities to be had, the problem is employers often don’t have the means to measure a barista’s career progress, they have no tangible milestones to compare and evaluate prospective employees with. The problem here is that the only real means of promotion is internal to the company the barista is working for. This situation has turned that particular job market into a sea of ‘everyone for themselves’, which is ok in itself but actually means there is little incentive to be extraordinary as a barista, because when interviewing for your next job chances are the boss a) wont know the shop or company you worked for, and b) wont care about previous experience or knowledge, probably using a variation of the age old ”because we don’t do it that way here.” cliche, its frustrating and damaging to the employees not to have some sense of progression or recognition of past efforts.

    Too often it seems managers and owners are preoccupied with ”their way” of doing things that unless you know and follow their procedures click for click and tap for tap, in their opinion you cannot be making good coffee. I concede that this is not unique to the coffee industry, nor is it new, however it is a concern and when it is rectified the result will be happier, more dedicated baristas, making better coffee.

    I recently moved from Melbourne to Canberra, having worked in coffee in both towns previously. What has struck me most about the difference between the cities is the glaring cultural void in Canberra where solid coffee culture should be. In essence, Canberrans are currently way less likely to embrace serious baristas as people with ‘real jobs’ than they are to entrust the treatment of their serious illnesses to an Inuit witchdoctor. I think this is both a symptom of how Canberran coffee shops roster their staff, and also of  the expectations of Canberra’s coffee customers. That is, they have been exposed to a coffee culture in which Barista’s were typically not very engaged or knowledgeable, thus an expectation of mediocrity has created less than optimal circumstances for modern, more capable professionals.

    Small town mentality aside, its vitally important for baristas to be presented and viewed seriously. Thanks to cultural trends and good marketing this is slowly happening in the major cities, hopefully the smaller ones are about to follow suit. It’s also worth noting here that the specialty coffee infrastructure in Canberra is virtually non-existent, the AASCA presence here is minimal, with barely enough interest to run a competition, let alone any other community minded events or campaigns in support of the local roasters and their coffee.

    Having attempted to set up a Coffee Professional’s guild or association for the ACT folks last year, and been met with a pretty tepid response, I’m trying to figure out a workable, practical and effective way of bringing about some change, interest and excellence in Canberra coffee and putting in on the map. Please leave your thoughts in the comments here and check out the proposal for the ACT Coffee Professional’s Group that I put to the people last year.



    Also here are some pictures, in order they are; me pouring todays plunger – Columbia La Bella 29gms in water at 91 deg C, 6 Cup avanti SS plunger, the Columbian beans and my Iced coffee jug with 2 glasses, which has copped heaps of work this summer, iced plunger coffee…yum!

    6 Batches, 5 long waits, an annoying breadmaker and rosetta coloured glasses?

    December 21, 2009

    Had some solid breakthroughs with the home roasting setup last night, the most telling one being the installation and calibration of a k-type thermocouple into the pan of my breadmaker. I had drilled the hole for the thermocouple a few weeks ago, intending to calibrate it in order to take the bean temp, rather than air temp by essentially burying the probe into the base of the pan where the beans would always cover it. Having  neglected to do this for 2 frustrating roasting sessions in which I accurately measured the temperature of the air blasting from my paint-strippingly hot heat gun, I decided to finally get it right. After bending the probe to sit beneath the surface of the beans, and positioning it out of reach of the bread kneader, it started to yield almost predictable results. but alas, not entirely predictable. Every so often there was a spike in temp of up to 40 deg C above the curve, then a corresponding drop, back to the progression of temperature I was expecting in the pan. A few head scratching moments later, I decided to relocate the probe to the other side of the pan, which is slightly shadowed in terms of where the heat gun shines it’s heat. The results were much, much better.

    Getting accurate temp readouts is so, so flipping handy and just quietly, I am inordinately excited to get my nerd on and plot some time vs temp stuff, oh the graphs, OH THE GRAPHS…

    This gratifying breakthrough however has spurred me into more seriously looking at my breadmaker setup. Whilst I find selecting the “dough cycle” to stir my coffee to be mildly humorous, my particular machine has a quirky charm of its own; it wont run (AT ALL)  if the unit is 40 deg C or over, and as you can imagine, 180 is out of the question. So every batch begins with a ten minute wait for the residual heat to disperse before I can start.   So I’m considering chucking the breadmaker, keeping the pan and driving the stirrer with an electric screwdriver, or similar low rpm motor. I’ve also got plans to refine my cooling system which consists of me holding a vacuum cleaner underneath a colander and stirring the coffee with a wooden spoon. Effective but very tedious.

    I’d like to take a poll today too, it’s inspired by a mate of mine who is, frankly, a bloody genius and has taught me a great deal about a great many things. Hanging around his coffee lab and discussing various things, he mentioned his strong dislike of latte art. As you can see from some of my photo’s I’m not all together adverse to the concept, but I thought his argument made a lot of sense; people pre-judge coffee based on its appearance, its natural and obvious, and frankly a pretty reliable indicator of the basic skills of the barista, but with so many places these days focusing on latte art as their main presentation tool, the benchmark is changing, and perhaps we need to close our eyes a bit more to appreciate what we are being served.  So, my question is this: If you were served a coffee without ANY latte art (literally brown milk colored on top) would you take it seriously? Now to put a finer point on what we are talking about here I’ll also stipulate that the coffee in question appears to be well textured, and neatly poured.

    Are we seeing latte art adorned coffee through rosetta coloured glasses? Or is this a fair call to make?



    p.s. sorry no pics today, camera was on the charge and I’m WAY past drinking more coffee today, I’ll make it up next time!