As a barista, I’ve often been asked, ‘So what do you reckon? Is making coffee an art or science?’. And I don’t like it. It’s often asked with a supercilious arch of the eyebrow, a smirk in the corner of the mouth, and I know they’re leading me into a coffee knowledge death trap. What’s the right answer? More importantly, what do they think is the right answer? There’s a lull in service and a quick witticism won’t get you out of this one. How do you maintain super hospitality decorum, the integrity of your industry and not fall into a spiral of jumbled words and despair at the same time? Well, to get out of this pickle, I answer their question with another question:
¿Por que no los tres?
Snap. You’ve momentarily confounded them by speaking in tongues and misquoting a taco ad. Get yourself together, and rattle off the following:
Making coffee is a science! Well at least has greatly benefited from the systematic study of the physical realm (just casually drop in the definition for nerd-cred). There’s chemistry, studying the chemical structure of the beans, how it changes under pressure and heat, what effect does water have and at what temperature? How do molecules move and react with our senses? There’s biology, studying the varietals of coffee trees, the soil, the process of washing and drying the beans. Heck, there’s even anthropology, why do humans do what we do? Why and how do we even drink this stuff? Science helps us understand coffee, so we can extract as much from it as possible
But also, making coffee is an art. Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination (yep, more cred), and is the fuel and the spark that ignites this industry. Making coffee is an expression of what pleases our senses, fruity and bright or rich and chocolately, sipping a warm mug of filter or slurping a syrupy espresso. The sounds of steam wands and bustle or a kettle boiling and page turning. It’s an art that cherishes the personal and celebrates the variety.
But also, making coffee is a craft! The tres option you can stun and amaze them with. A craft is an activity involving skill in making things by hand, and a beautiful way to describe what we do as coffee makers. It warms us with notions of the care, knowledge, and expertise that goes into creating each cup of coffee, armed with intimate knowledge of the tools and raw product, and uniquely tailored to express the values of the maker, and honour the values of the customer.
You’re done! Both you and your patron are left feeling heartened by the intricacies and philosophical nuances of your trade, and you can get back to work, ignited with a renewed appreciation of your craft.