the narrative of a transaction

I was talking with a friend about coffee and coffee shops and we noticed that we moved from discussing the what and how of drinks and preparation to the what and how of selling a point of view, of customer service, and of opening and closing arguments in courtroom dramas (and i guess courtrooms)

Thinking later I wondered if the coffee shops I love best were often not the most progressive in terms of what and how they brew, but often the most progressive or considered or active in how they pitch their product and communicate with their customers

A transaction within a cafe could be considered in terms of the three act structure, a screenwriting methodology that focuses on a sequence of ‘chapters’ that inexorably lead to a message (or in the case of 007, another car chase) – the set-up, the confrontation and the resolution

the set up

a customer enters a shop, previously he has heard something or nothing about the shop, visual (and other) clues – signage, other customers, the position of the staff, and their dress inform the customer of where he should stand to gain acknowledgement, other clues impart a message about what the shop may sell, what it costs, how it contrasts or conforms to an expectation

the confrontation

the customer and staff interact – a possibly short or long interaction – this leads to a choice and an expectaton of what each is going to do – this may be a tacit or expressed transaction, more likely a combination

the resolution

the customer receives/consumes and responds – the customer may feel satisfied, or dissatisfied, he may have noticed nothing, or learnt something new

if we think about this framework, when should the customer pay?

why speciality coffee isn’t that special

ok it is, speciality coffee tastes amazing

but… the challenges in presenting speciality coffee to customers, in pitching a different style to the usually offered and expected, aren’t so unique we can’t learn from other people in different but related niches

close to my heart, craft bakers selling sourdough leavened loaves are selling something that is at once comparable and completely incomparable to the bread most people are buying and selling – they’re confronted with the challenge of communicating their differences, overcoming the barrier of what’s ‘normal’ and of differing flavour goals (including acidity)

there is also the challenge of customers receiving many messages of why the product is ‘better’ – better ingredient, artisan craftsmanship, slow food, and hard labour, independant business and being local all being reasons that a customer might choose to buy without considering the rest

craft style breweries sell a different product from more commercial breweries, both nice and nasty commercial ones, but using the same names – IPA neither means the same things to brewers nor to all beer drinkers even though it has a fairly rigid criteria – they often have their products sold side by side with something marked similarly but from a completely different understanding of what those markings mean

food comparisons are lazy too – every industry that sells things has layers of stratification, of quality, of geekery – specialist bookshops focussing on rare books aren’t the norm, but they exist in most cities satisfying a mixed tribe of collectors, historians, readers

in a less specialised industry – geekery and nichedom abounds on both sides of the counter – visiting a garden centre you’ll find highly complicated PH testing equipment sat next to the trowels and a hundred varieties of apple tree in multiple genders, requiring assistance from informed, passionate staff who really care that their customers learn from, enjoy and understand what’s on offer

we can learn so much from other industries if we focus on what makes the conversations we’re having challenging rather than laying all those challenges at the foot of our chosen products ‘unique’ position

aristotle on coffee

I consider the following a basis of my belief in speciality coffee’s appeal
Good coffee tastes nice
People like things that taste nice
People like good coffee
This is term or Aristotelian logic, a set of statements that lead to a conclusion, as true or false as the original statements are
I can be called naive for thinking this, that it’s a vast simplification of a complex product, industry, society and therefore, a bit stupid…
I disagree – I think this is complexity expressed in a focussed way, that possibly allows us to consider a key truth of what we do
Lets look more closely at the terms
Good coffee tastes nice
Good coffee – communicates that coffee is varied, there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – I could use the term ‘speciality’ but I feel that has a variable definition, seperate from this statement, and therefore confusing
Tastes nice – defines the difference, and the measure of quality (goodness)
Nice – arguably subjective but we can define this as positive flavour response (allowing wide interpretation, but definite acknowledgement) – we could use ‘non-offensive’ but that could be interpreted  as neutrality which does not equal nice
good coffee tastes nice – this is a basic proposition of the speciality industry – sometimes we change it to ‘different’, or ‘interesting’ or ‘challenging’ – these are the results of either adding more context, or assuming a pre-conception of the taster – assuming sometimes makes an ass of you and me – i think few in the coffee industry would argue that ‘good coffee tastes bad’
People like things that taste nice
People – we could sub-define this as ‘some people’ but then we would have to make a differentiation between two groups, based on class, wealth, gender, that I don’t believe is true – working class females like tasty things as much as male peers of the realm
we could argue that ‘tasting nice’ is determined by the majority assent of the people – that it’s a fashion – i think this is fair, and culturally relative, – if ‘insert nationality’ prefer less fruity flavours their ‘good coffee’ industry may highlight different good coffees than anothers, but I believe both would celebrate examples with less offensive traits (bitterness, defects, dirtiness) – i don’t believe it’s product specific – quality belgian, US and british beers share many positive traits whilst differing in style and character both nationally and regionally
people like good coffee
I think this is true, and a good thing, tell me why I’m wrong

Opting In – Scoresheets

part of entering a barista competition is accepting that you will let other people judge what you present – sometimes this feels like they are judging you, sometimes that they are judging your coffee, and sometimes it hurts

sometimes you have to accept that that is what you signed up for – questioning scores suggests that you don’t respect the views of your judges, that you don’t value their opinions and feedback, this in effect means you don’t value the competition you entered, that there would be little value in winning…

I’m attaching my scoresheets from my semi and final performances here, not because i question them, but because I believe that transparency is key to valuing what we do – that these are a great tool for judges and future competitors alike to improve what happens at these events

I want to thank my judges for their time, their comments – positive and negative, and their contribution to a good event – i apologise for the tomatoes

In debrief – people who want to understand these scores should watch the performances –  I’ll attach links to any videos when I’m able – on both days I felt my coffee was tasting incredible in the practice space – i was relaxed and confident and excited about the set

semi finals

during the prep time for the semi’s performance I knocked over a messy wood neck of pulped tomato, covering my spare cloths, my cream apron and some of my serving ware – for the following 15 minutes I improvised around this – I felt I had not done enough to earn a place the following day so was surprised and gratefull to get another opportunity


that night Pete and I worked hard to remove potential problems from the set and I was really happy with what I delivered in the finals – It was exactly what I wanted to offer the judges

the scoring and placement indicates I did not deliver the tastiest coffee and drinks of the day – I believe that I had the best sourced and roasted coffee available, i wouldn’t have competed if I didn’t believe this – therefore I let it, Camilo and my boys at the roastery down in my preparation and my communication

it’s easy to blame judges, just like we can blame customers for mis-interpreting what we offer them but I think it’s important to remember that if you want someone to catch a ball your throwing, you throw it gently – it’s always the communicators fault if something is lost, misinterpreted or ignored, i’ll continue to try and improve how I present coffee

that said… year on year I’ve received feedback that i ask too much of judges, that i deliver something too complicated, or word heavy, and should edit more, say less, this device makes sense…  but….

coffee is complicated, and complex, and begs questions – this excites me and we should present what excites us, I also think we should always try hard to deliver interesting and challenging, presentations – baristas don’t have many opportunities to talk for 15 minutes without interruption :)

Veni, Vidi, V.

There are lots of things that I want to say about barista competition this year – some are relevant to scoresheets, some to organisation and some are just, well, thoughts, I’ll post each as they reach completion but some will take a little time and perspective

Some really matter to me though – the following sentence matters the most

I love barista competitions

From my first go four years ago to the present day barista competition has allowed me to spend some time with some of the best people I know – I have built friendships, traded ideas, whined over alcohol, stressed over napkins and hung around trade shows with people who share my belief that coffee tastes interesting and good and that more people should experience this

I’ve grown in knowledge, found better employment, learnt to work smarter, made and tasted better coffee, and been inspired by others on the same journey

I was gutted by my placing and scores in this years finals – the dream of standing at the WBC stage has never seemed so close and yet so far away and yet it doesn’t matter so much when I remember….

They were probably the best 2 days of my life

Staying up polishing till 2am then hitting borough market at 7, custard donuts, John and jess, tasting others shots, hearing people clap, looking for barista shoes, wooden spoons, the best intro music ever, pete, estelle, more pete, my kids abd wife meeting my friends, lucky chip, ipa’s…

And pete…

The list goes on, and if these don’t make sense – well you should have been there, it was unreal

And ultimately, standing on a stage, saying something you felt was interesting, about a product and industry they means obscene amounts to you and little to too many people, and saying it the way you wanted to say it,

No regrets

it wouldn’t have been possible to do this were it not for the support, friendship and time of some remarkable people – Steve leighton is not only my roaster and employer, but also my hero, and I can’t say thankyou enough for not just letting me indulge this part of me time and again, but also for sourcing the best coffee I’ve ever tasted – thanks are also due to Andy and Roland, who not only made stuff go brown, but came on the journey too and ate a lot of tomatoes – i promise never to inflict salad on such men again – Dispatch team – I love you too – apologies for wandering around the roastery with cups of stuff you really were lucky not to imbibe

to those who visited and were subjected to run-throughs – from Gwilym and Nadia who experienced the concept a few hours after it occurred to me, to Nicolas, David, Attila and Marty who helped me with final construction and outside insights, thankyou for your kind words and patience – it means the world to me

to those who helped on the day or came to show support, martin, estelle, tim, richard and everyone else – I was honoured

to my wife, who advised me against competing, suffered with every late night, and ultimately had to sit in a room of geeks – thank you – i love you, please forgive my selfishness – i love you more than coffee, but coffee is pretty cool

and to Pete – who I learnt bad words and stuff about wet garlic and asparagus from – thankyou for your time, the imposition and the acceptance of my ‘approach’ to practice sessions – your help wasn’t just invaluable, it was the greatest gift ever – so glad I didn’t win – I refuse to compete at WBC without you

I won’t be competing next year – the emotional cost is high and I need time and practice, and to make coffee better, before I can face the challenge again – I hope maybe I can earn the right to sit on the other side of the table a few times to learn more, and maybe one day I will try and make my dreams come true, but till then I encourage other competitors to continue to bring new ideas, personalities and routines to the table

thanks to the judges, fellow competitors and volunteers, I’m looking forward to watching Maxwell do what he does best in Vienna – great coffee