I have had a couple of interesting conversations about the last Cut Coffee email and the idea that ‘coffee is hard’. For those that missed it, I argued that “growing and processing is tough work, roasting is an elusive and always changing art, brewing to unlock the potential is forever a challenge”. So to ask a simple question:
According to several of my friends and industry colleagues, the clear answer is no! I was met with the nearly identical responses of “roasting is not rocket science” and “honestly, roasting is and should be easy”. While contemplating these exchanges, I happened upon an interview with Esben Piper from the always-delicious La Cabra Coffee Roasters. He says they “don’t want to look at roasting as a complicated thing”. In their approach, they “do quite the opposite of what Scott Rao is writing right now” because they “just want to do things in a very simple way”.
Roasting, like many creative tasks, opens itself up to multiple approaches and philosophies. By virtue of changing air and gas over the course of twelve-plus minutes, there are endless possible outcomes for a roast. The system easily veers towards complexity. However, just because you can change heat or airflow or pressure, does not mean you must; simplicity is equally possible.
To clarify my roasting is hard mantra: learning the first ninety-percent is easy but the final ten-percent becomes a lifelong pursuit. If you buy specialty level green, your base starting point is high. If it is fresh, add a couple more percentages. Roast using a set of protocols, cup the results, and shift batches accordingly: you have likely hit that ninety mark! In other words, I think the rationale behind ‘roasting is easy’ stems from the relatively small distance you need to cover to get to very decent cup of coffee. For a roaster like La Cabra, who work with some of the world’s best farms like La Palma & El Tucan, simplicity is easy.
To address that final 10-percent stretch, allow me to borrow from Friedrich Nietzsche’s the Gay Science. He asks a simple question: “what if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?” He argues that one might gravitate towards stoicism, reducing pleasure in order to ensure minimal displeasure. Alternatively, one can embrace displeasure and have an “immense capacity for making new galaxies of joy flare up”.
Difficulty operates in these same terms. Once happy with a cup, one could reduce the number of adjustments or changes during a roast. Pare it down to the shortest, simplest route to the approved flavour profile. But this seems to close the door to improvement – it is simply maintaining a level. To quote again from the Gay Science: “ask yourselves whether a tree, if it is to grow proudly into the sky, can do without bad weather and storms?” I suggest we embrace difficulty because until the cup is absolutely perfect, roasting should be hard.
Every batch inevitably fails to fully lay bare a coffee’s potential. Something is always lost in the roast and left in the seed. Yet, this conceit comes with a considerable consolation. It makes roasting fruitful, fun, and meaningful! As Nietzche states, “the tree needs storms, doubts, worms, and nastiness to reveal the nature and strength of the seedling”. Not a bad trade-off for a galaxy of joy and an ever-better cup.
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