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Some Thoughts on Specialty Coffee Industry, and the Lagom P64

Published on 2021年7月1日 22:55

A Gap

As you can LITERALLY see, the specialty coffee industry is booming in China. There are more and more Starbucks Reserve shops (one may call a Starbucks R a specialty coffee shop, I think) here and there. In downtown Shanghai, the density of Manner Coffee shops (originated from a dainty local cafe) is so rapidly increasing that you can reach any of them within 15 minutes. So is the density of independent coffee shops, springing up like mushrooms. In supermarkets or grocery stores, coffee related goods occupied more shelf-space than ever before significantly. And nearly half of them is freeze dried instant single-origin coffee (it is said flavor-preserving).

A question came into my mind naturally: with all the resources put into promoting, with all the efforts put into marketing, has specialty coffee entered the public domain as a kind of ordinary beverage? Or is it still something popular within a group of enthusiasts or “true coffee lovers”? (it is totally acceptable if one argues that being called specialty coffee means it is not for the mass) From what I have seen, the answer inclines towards the latter more likely. Indeed, the industry has turned lots of instant coffee drinkers (also some non-coffee drinkers) into coffee lovers who would pay more for a better cup. However, the transformation is not proportional to the resources and efforts, I would argue.

I became fascinated with coffee about a year ago. It was an afternoon in summer. I ordered an iced pour-over at a Starbucks Reserve while waiting for my barber to be ready. I was astonished by the first sip. I don’t know whether I was drinking coffee or apple juice. It is sour, but pleasing rather than irritating. This particular cup of coffee is quite an eye-opener for me. Since then, I began my journey into coffee making, trying to exploring the myth of coffee. (I think we all should thank Starbucks for its popularization of specialty coffee)

I have been learning from Barista Hustle, Scott Rao’s Blog, James Hoffmann’s Youtube channel, and many other professional sources. From ground coffee to whole beans, from blended to single-origin, from Ethiopia to Yunan, I have experienced many beans harvested from different areas worldwide. I have also purchased many equipments: Comandante C40, Kinu M47, Lagom P64 (love it), Lagom P100 (love it), V60 Dripper, Hario Switch, French Press, Moka pot, Cafelat Robot (love it), La marzocco Linea Mini, and 6 tampers (The Force, Pullman, Barista Hustle, Reg Barber, and 2 Cafelats). The list is getting longer. With a particular interest in the ‘frontline’ of specialty coffee, I have visited many coffee shops, including independent and chain shops. I have had conversation with many baristas and shop owners (sometimes the same).

Gone through all these, I think I can be called a home barista, at least a true coffee enthusiast. Confidently speaking (or being blindly confident), I can make better coffee than some people who make coffee for a living. I think my experience gives some legitimacy to my following words. From what I have seen and what I have heard of, a gap is forming between the suppliers and the consumers. Some practitioners are trying to make specialty coffee closer to the mass, while some are not. I would like to talk about the gap and its formation next.

The Gap

Firstly, I would like to show you what I have experienced in case one argues there is not a gap.

The consumption of specialty coffee mainly happens in coffee shops. Even those extreme enthusiasts can not completely avoid drinking coffee from coffee shops. Coffee shops are important places for discovery, especially the counter where the customers’ coffee journey initiates.

First of all, ordering. Most of the shops still adhere to the tradition, sorting their products by brewing methods, for example: Americano, Coffee Latte, and so on. Once a coffee brewed by a particular method is selected, some of the shops may ask their customer to pick from a selection of beans. This is the most common practice among specialty coffee shops. Meanwhile, some coffee shops decided to step forward, asking the customers to determine the bean to be used first, then the brewing method. I personally favor this alteration which stresses the value of beans. However, based on what I have observed, the most customers still order coffee in the traditional way. I have seen more than a few confusing faces when the customers ask for a flat white while the barista say they ordered wrongly. I heard some coffee shops even plan to step further, using flavors as the beginning of ordering. Imagining the SCA’s flavor wheel, I bet there will be more confusing faces if the barista can’t introduce properly. This is not me criticizing the innovations these coffee shops have done, but my call for more attention on the customers’ habit when introducing something new.

It is very important to reduce any barriers when the customers are ordering. The design of menu is one of the top priorities besides the barista’s proper guidance. There are two Japanese coffee chain shops beside each other on a street near the Bund of Shanghai. One prints a matrix on the menu as the guidance for ordering. It took me a while to fully understand it as its horizontal axis (roasting-level) is linear while its vertical axis is intervalic (flavors), as shown in Image 1. I ordered a No.3 coffee (which I thought is light roast), expecting fruity and floral flavors. Surprisingly, I could only sense very weak acidity. I looked at the menu again and realized the horizontal axis starts from medium roast. They don’t serve any light roast! While ordering coffee in another coffee shop is a much easier experience. Compared with the former which provides 9 options, it only provides 2 options: a blend and a lightly roasted single-origin.

Image 1 Matrix for Sorting Coffee

In independent coffee shops, especially the small ones, it is very likely that the customers would have a conversation with the barista. I often do. Once I visited a very dainty cafe, I ordered a pour-over which is said very ‘sweet’. The cafe is so small that a conversation is almost inevitable. At that time, I just learned the chemical composition of coffee beans. And I had been struggling with sensing the sweetness in coffee. So the conversation started with my question to the barista, asking what is the sweetness in coffee while the sugar in it is below the taste threshold. Surprisingly, the barista became defensive. ‘No. No. No. There is enough sugar actually. I have seen people who can not sense the sweetness in coffee. They need to be trained. Their senses need to be calibrated’, she retorted. I did not take the conversation further. I know there would be argument if I did. The specialty coffee would be too far away from us if one need to be trained to enjoy it. Besides, as a professional, she should know the basics of coffee. The question is still open: how do you describe sweetness in coffee to someone new to specialty coffee (who has not been trained/calibrated)?

I think what happened is not an incident. It seems some baristas tend to have high requirements on their customers. I make latte with latte art for my wife in the morning on a daily basis. More than once, she complains about the bitterness in the milk foam on surface. I guess it’s because something very bitter is trapped in the crema. I tried stirring before doing latte art. But it does not help much. So I consulted a well-known coffee vlogger about reducing the bitterness while preserving the latter art. He provided me a simple solution: stir the foamy surface into the base before drinking. He consider drinking without stirring in advance is a wrong way of drinking. So the solution is fairly simple: teach the customers the right way of drinking. I didn’t get what I need from him because we see things differently. I don’t think it is wrong that some one drink latte without stirring because he or she cherish the latte art. If you ever observe others in a coffee shop, you would know almost no one can be hardhearted enough to ruin the latte art.

And there is another issue. Some baristas don’t speak the same language with their customers any more. Once I complained to a barista about the ‘weakness’ of a nordic light roast. ‘No. No. Bro, you got it wrong. Light roast is not necessarily weak. And on the contrary, the flavors of this roast is very strong ’, he corrected me immediately. If I was an ordinary customer, I would feel uncomfortable being lectured by the barista. What the barista said implies either my senses malfunctioned or I know nothing about coffee. But I’m no ‘ordinary’ customer. It happens I possesses the same knowledge with the barista. I know exactly what was going on. When tasting the coffee, “weak” is my immediate overall perception of the coffee, which is plain human language that any ordinary customer would use. But in that barista’s eyes, “weak” may also refer to flavor intensity. So I corrected my self instead of being angry, ‘Sorry, mate. Actually, by saying ‘weak’, I mean the body of the coffee is weak’.

Comparing with drinking specialty coffee at coffee shops, more and more coffee consumers prefer a home-made cup, experiencing the joy of making. Bean selecting and purchasing is the beginning of domestic coffee making.

As to bagged beans, poorly designed product information tag is definitely a barrier between coffee and their customers. From my point of view, flavor description is the most important information to the customers. We picture the flavor of some coffee by associating our past sensational experience with the items used in description without actually tasting the coffee. However, I think most flavor description is “thoughtlessly” added. Some may not agree with what I said, and would argue that they strictly comply with SCA Flavor Wheel or WCR Sensory Lexicon. I would say this is exactly the problem. I argue that SCA Flavor Wheel and WCR Sensory Lexicon are references rather than standards. And without localization, they are not even appropriate references for Chinese market. I wonder if any untrained customer could picture the flavor of “butyric acid” or “isovaleric acid”. These are not ordinary things that we could easily encounter in our life. I also wonder how many Chinese customers could picture the flavor of “maple syrup” or “nutmeg”. These are not common food in China. Actually I found many food items in WCR Sensory Lexicon are rarely seen in Chinese people’s diet. I think roasters need to jump out from professional thinking when labeling flavor, and give due consideration to your customers’ identity and their past sensational experience. Image 2 is a good example where the roaster liken the coffee flavor to a popular chewing gum (DaDaJuan) in China, and use the name of this gum as the alias of the coffee. Seeing the alias and the pink color, one can immediately picture the flavor in mind.

Image 2 Coffee Flavor Visualization of Some Beans Roasted by Square of Eight

There is another problematic situation where the customer know the flavor of the referential items but cannot sense it from the coffee. I often encounter this kind of situation when I was a newbie, and blame my tongue. I chose to believe the professionals who do the cupping rather than my tongue. Later, I realized it has nothing to do with my tongue, but different ways of brewing/tasting coffee between cupping people and the customers. I wonder how many customers would drink coffee from a cupping bowl. I also wonder how many customers would slurp coffee before actually enjoy it. We do know the TDSs of coffee brewed by different methods have significant difference. And slurping makes a huge difference by quickly distributing coffee-air mixture on taste buds. So I do think we should switch between two modes of thinking. When pricing beans or selecting beans, one may do professional cupping to reveal all the flavors and flaws. When labeling flavor references, one may brew/drink coffee as ordinary customers do, using the equipments they use, sipping or gulping instead of slurping.

Now that we are talking about brewing coffee, I would like to discuss the impact of domestic coffee makers on the popularization of specialty coffee. I found when people talk about specialty coffee, they are actually thinking about pour-over instead of espresso-based coffee. I personally think this is good. Making a good cup of SOE is not an easy job, especially with hard, light roasts. But I have to admit there is joy in making espresso. Sometimes my focus is on making rather than the final cup. Anyway, those bulky espresso machines are not for the most specialty coffee consumers. They are pricy, and hard to tame. French Press, drippers, and their derivatives should be the protagonists in the kitchen.

I think it is a consensus of professionals that French Press can do very good coffee. However, it seems not “special” enough to brew “specialty” coffee. Many coffee shops feel ashamed to display their French Press though the baristas often use it. It is said the customers consider drippers as the “true” brewer for specialty coffee. It is by no means a problem in a coffee shop, as the most baristas can handle it well. However, it might be problematic in someone’s kitchen, especially someone who is very new to making coffee. One does need some knowledge about extraction and some skills to achieve a good cup using drippers. Otherwise, one can easily be frustrated by some bad or inconsistent cups, though there are professionals who has been promoting easy-to-understand frameworks and easy-to-follow methods, e.g. Tetsu Kasuya’s 4:6 method. The difficulties that coffee consumers may encounter is inherently determined by the brewer, in this case, drippers.

I think it is a misconception that good coffee can only be achieved by using professional equipments or equipments used by the professionals. Thinking about brewing Chinese tea, we would know this is such a fallacy. In the realm of Chinese tea, no matter how precious, delicate a tea is, a traditional Sancai cup (Image 3) or a simple tumbler can help you nail it. The idea is to reveal the true flavor of tea using minimal processing in case of damaging it. Aren’t there any simple coffee brewers in the market? Yes, there are. Including varied French Press, there is a bunch of simple coffee brewers that can easily reveal the true flavor of coffee, e.g. Hairo’s Switch, SIMPILIFY the Brewer, Mr.Clever Dripper, Tricolate. But why did not these brewers jump into popularity? Are these brewers less challenging, therefore, less fun? Does the word “specialty” mean special brewers rather than special coffee beans in the consumers’ mind? If so, who is it implanted the misconception into consumers’ mind? We will need to figure it out if the industry want specialty coffee to be seen in more consumers’ kitchen.

Image 3 An Ordinary Sancai Cup

The Problem

Well. If you are not convinced of the existence of the gap so far, you can leave the article and blame me for wasting your time. If you are still staying with me, I would like to share some of my thoughts on the cause of the gap. In short, the specialty coffee industry is being developed one-dimensionally, technically. Simply put, the practice is technology/technic-centered rather than consumer/human-centered.

The development of specialty coffee industry is led by top practitioners. Knowledge is transformed from scientist to competition champions and influencers, to general baristas and roasters, to consumers. The suppliers play a bigger role than the consumers in shaping the industry. Actually, it is technics, technologies, technicism that have been steering the ship. In this case, people are merely the agent of technology, who have been turned into technical-minded. In this technical context, coffee brewing becomes rigid science, where the encounter of water and coffee ground becomes complicated process profiled by flow indicator or pressure indicator, where the distribution of coffee particle sizes matters a lot. A new language has been created. It is a technical language empowered by equipments, instruments and tools. Comparing someone who owns “scientific” knowledge about extraction and someone who doesn’t, they probably speak “the same but different” language. One may use numbers to describe the strength of a cup of coffee by the help of a refractometer, while the other only has human senses. Gradually, the cognitive framework they use to perceive things may become different. One may see coffee as certain amount of varied chemical compound solved into certain amount of water, while the other only have human senses. In the end, they may not even be able to communicate. Not believing? Recall the conversations between me and the baristas.

I am by no means against coffee science or scientific approach. I am against one-dimensional technical perspective on everything. In the pursuit of the optimal taste, many important factors involved in the whole experience of enjoying coffee has been ignored, such as value, attitude, habit, emotion, preference, etc. The consumers are regarded as people who only pursue the ultimate flavor of coffee (I believe you know they actually do not). Empathy is missing here! I appreciate coffee scientists and professionals who have been devoting themselves to the exploration of the edge of coffee for higher efficacy and efficiency in the production of a good cup. It is necessary and essential for them to adopt a scientific/technical approach/perspective/framework for accurate/valid/repeatable result. But what they are using are not for the practitioners whose job is to interact with the customers. However, almost the whole industry is technical-centered. Two cultures are formulated: one prizes the optimal, the other seeks enjoyment. The consideration of human experience as a unity of multiple elements is missing. The practitioners are parted from the consumers, which results in the gap mentioned above.

The Future

Now, for the popularization of specialty coffee, for the sustainable development of the industry, what shall we do in the future? Since there is a gap, I suggest we bridge it. Since empathy is missing, I suggest we build it.

It is time for the industry to turn to consumer/human-centered. Matt Perger at Barista Hustle once said EK43 empowered espresso extraction would change the world’s perception of espresso thoroughly. Well, it has not yet, and I assert it will not. EK43 has become a symbol of specialty coffee, which almost every coffee shop owns. However, based on my observation, at least in China, it is rarely used as it is not user-friendly (If you ever used one, you would know what I am talking about). It will not work if we only focus on higher extraction and the optimal taste. There are many more factors to be considered. It is time for us to see things from the consumers’ perspective, and to push the development of the industry based on their expectation, attitude and preference.

From above, it seems practitioners are becoming a different group of people from the consumers, no matter culture-wise or knowledge-wise. Don’t worry. I think design could help, designers could help. Designers naturally, inherently speak two kinds of languages: one is technical language for the communication with engineers, scientists and professionals, the other is human language for the understanding of consumers. Some people have already realized the importance of design, because design could differentiate you from your competitors. Actually, design is more important than making differences. It can bridge the gap. Designers, the dual-language speakers are able to re-connect practitioners and consumers.

ADVERTISEMENT: It happens I am a designer. I am founding a design firm named “Covalence Design”. As its name implies, we are going to do something based on shared values. We are open to any conversation related to design, coffee, UX and experience design.

The Lagom P64

Disclaimer: Neither Covalence Design nor me personally have any affiliation with the Option-O team. However, I know one of their founder. I hope we will collaborate on some interesting projects soon.

Warning: A lot of images are coming.

While many top-grinder manufacturers were competing in commercial domain, Option-O launched a single-dose grinder named Lagom P64 in 2019, aiming at families and small coffee shops where 64mm flat burr is totally competent. As its name implies, nothing more, nothing less. But it is by no means ordinary. Quite the opposite, Lagom P64 is innovative in many ways. Option-O is a pioneer who is exploring the form and function of a grinder using a human-experience centered approach. You can tell from its apple-product alike packaging that there must be something beautiful inside (image 4). Actually, it is beautiful, made by shiny anodized aluminum, in a minimalist style.

Image 4 The Packaging of Option-O Lagom P64

Option-O designed this grinder based on an understanding of home baristas’ common pain points in using other grinders. It sees the vacancy of single-dose grinders. Home baristas have long been modifying commercial grinders into quasi single-dose ones, e.g. replacing huge bean hoppers in small ones. We hate residual ground in the grinder. We love equal in and out. Now comes the most attractive feature. This grinder does not require any calibration at all, even in the case of burr exchange. Easy cleaning, easy assembling and disassembling, a novice can easily handle it. It is designed not only for utility, but also for great enjoyment. We already know sometimes utility-advanced products may not be emotion-wise or experience-wise advanced, like the EK43. Aesthetics is the key, especially in the domain of domestic appliance, not only the appearance, but also emotional and sensational aesthetics. These are essential elements of great user experience.

What is more, Option-O has organized a Wechat group as a place for its users to post reflections and thoughts. It is also a place where Option-O could get a better understanding of its users from the discussion. Iteration by iteration, they can continuously improve their products based on first-hand user feedbacks. I think this is the first time users’ opinions are so deeply involved in grinder design. I consider it as a preliminary form of participatory design.

Image 5 Easily Deformed Aluminum-made Bean Cup Covered by Silicone. DIY by a User.

Image 6 Counterintuitively Designed Bean Cup Holding System.

Image 7 Leather Dials Made by a Talented User

I am not saying the Lagom P64 is perfect. The accessaries provided as the appendants are the weak points, e.g. easily deformed aluminum-made bean cup (image 5), counterintuitively designed bean cup holding system (image 6), etc. In addition, the users are longing for a dial for the ease of adjustment. The community seems autarkic. A talented craftsman who is also a user supplies well designed leather dials for others (image 7). In China, particularly, there is a strong need for anti-dust lid. Almost everyone has his or her own solution. It is becoming a game for fun somehow. I would like to end this article with some pieces of art for your enjoyment. Images are coming…