Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The end of Longberry

The time has come to formally shutter the short-lived publication that was Longberry Magazine. We started it as “an occasional journal of coffee”, with some strange ideas about not having any ads in it, and trying to pay people well (or at least better) for their work.

It lasted all of two issues, both of which I am proud of. Perhaps, prouder than I really have any right to be considering my contributions were so much smaller than my colleagues who edited and designed it. If I am honest, I found it frustrating that it never really managed to connect meaningfully to its audience. I was always surprised that it didn’t stir more reactions, more conversations, more thought.

It was never a viable business and was never really meant to be. It was a spare time project for three people with very little spare time. I will miss it, I will remain frustrated that it never really met its potential or found its audience, but I learned a lot in the process and more than anything I really enjoyed reading it. There was a part of me that wanted to dive deeper into why it didn’t work, why it failed – because I think those things are interesting and worth talking about – but it didn’t quite feel right. Perhaps saved until another time…

Thank you to everyone who supported it, bought it, read it, shared it and enjoyed it.

    Wednesday, 6 December 2017

    Coffee Brewing Dice

    I’ve enjoyed working on how-to guides for coffee brewers, but one particular brewer gave me a headache: the Aeropress.

    There are just too many different ways to use it, too many potential outcomes and, for a while, this made me a little frustrated. Then a ridiculous idea surfaced, which became another ridiculous idea and so on and so forth until we go to this point: coffee brewing dice.

    This is a set of 5 dice, that will produce one of 7,776 different potential recipes for how to brew your Aeropress. I decide to make this because I thought it would be fun! I’ve made a single run, once they’re gone they’re gone.

    They cost £12 including UK shipping, and not much more for the rest of the world. You can buy them here: Coffee Brewing Dice. Hopefully, they’ll make a fun little stocking filler or Christmas gift for someone who would enjoy them. They will start shipping at the end of the week.

    I made a little video about them too:

      Tuesday, 28 November 2017

      Quality Vs Scale

      The thinking in specialty coffee has long been: quality doesn’t scale. There’s plenty of evidence that this is true but I’ve become increasingly interested in the why, because there is evidence to the contrary. I’m going to look at an aspect of the industry that is closest to home for me, and probably the area in which this is generally held to be true: coffee roasting.

      In a technology obsessed world, scale has been something of a buzzword but I think it is important to differentiate business that are reliant on scale, where scale is baked into the financial model from the beginning. These are businesses with high fixed costs, but the cost of a new customer or sale is very low or effectively zero. The classic modern day example is Facebook. The people and the servers are there, and adding one more account costs nothing. Aside from a potential spend on marketing, there is no cost of goods. In addition the labour involved doesn’t scale with customers in a linear way. A business like this can lose money, and lots of it, at the start but once it reaches a critical mass it becomes incredibly profitable.

      A coffee bar is different. Not only does each drink have a fixed cost of ingredients, the busier a coffee shop gets the more staff it needs. The ideal theoretical model for coffee shops would be to find the maximum number of drinks a fixed staff could serve, and then balance price and quality to be as busy and expensive as possible for that fixed labour cost. However, any additional growth would have to come from additional coffee shops – a whole other challenge of decentralised scale.

      This is a roundabout way of discussing why scale is often talked about as good or necessary. Coffee roasting is one area of the coffee value chain where some scaling is possible relatively easily: buying a bigger roaster allows the same team to scale, or a new roaster plus packaging equipment does if there is a desire to not have to scale production labour at all.

      So, if we are to consider why quality doesn’t scale then we should consider the aspects of coffee roasting that may be the barrier to retained quality. I’m going to ignore the practices used by business that intentionally compromise quality to grow new markets or opportunities. Those are just strategic decisions and not limits to quality’s growth.

      Quality Doesn’t Scale

      1. Raw materials

      An area that many would point to, when looking at the decrease in quality when a company scales, is in its raw materials. This constraint is almost always self imposed – it isn’t that there isn’t enough coffee of a sufficient quality, it is more likely that the decision has been made to leverage some form of capitalist growth, and to leverage volume for lower prices. This has likely led to decreasing sale pricing to gain growth, which the company feels the need to continue to feed. Thus they spend less on their green coffee, to make their product increasingly inexpensive and able to gain the growth.

      However, this is a strategic decision and not a barrier to quality. At some point the decision could have been made not to compromise quality to retain gross margins at lower price points, leadership in the company could have insulated the buyers from the pressures of the sales team. The implication is that perhaps there isn’t a sufficient market at the higher price point and that you can only grow at lower price points. I’m not convinced this is true, and the growth of speciality as a whole indicates that there is significant growth left at higher price points as long as the value of the product matches the price.

      2. Manufacturing

      There are two ways in which I can see scale impacting roasting negatively, though one remains more theoretical. If a roaster grows and has to run more batches per week then this is going to introduce some level of inconsistency. (My recent complaints about roasting machines seem relevant here.) Time constraints on a team mean less time to QC, and increased workloads take a physical tole –  a more fatigued team is likely to make more mistakes, or let more mistakes through a QC process.

      This problem should be alleviated by capital expenditure: buying a bigger roaster. There is likely a sweet spot when it comes to the size of a production team, the number of machines, and the number of batches. Busy enough that profiles are developed and have time to be well refined (for additional learning and understanding of future profiles) but not so busy they are stretched. a

      The theoretical second challenge is the idea that a larger capacity roaster is not able to achieve the same results as a smaller batch roaster. It isn’t uncommon to see the words “small batch” used across industries to denote the handmade, careful quality of something. However, I think too many small batches is likely a bad thing. As for whether or not larger roasters can achieve the same level of quality – I believe it is possible, but difficult. There’s also the challenge of the expense of a learning curve. Throwing away a bad 10kg roast is annoying, but throwing away 69kg of a failed batch is far more painful – especially when there may be very limited amounts of a coffee. This can all be factored in, but it would likely drive sale prices up (marginally of course, but they’d certainly make reducing prices as a route to grow… challenging). I may be proven wrong, but I believe this is a challenge and not an absolute barrier.

      3. The Human Factor

      Coffee roasting remains an extremely human affair. There are certainly those who will always relish that, and those who would be delighted to replace humans with automation – especially if it improved coffee. For now, we need people who care about the results to roast coffee, and it isn’t possible to build external systems that relibaly control quality. (Or, if it is – I haven’t seen it). In a competitve market the human resource becomes extremely scarce. Lots of roasting companies would like to find great people, but currently demand outstrips supply.

      I could imagine one argument about why quality doesn’t scale is that people who care about what they make may be less engaged when producing larger volumes. It would feel less “craft”, less “intimate”. However, this implies that they couldn’t achieve great quality at scale and surely if you cared about great coffee then producing larger amounts of it at the highest level should be incredibly desirable – there would be undeniable positive impact on lots of people. Again, if you grow to the size where you have the largest viable machines and are still producing incredible numbers of batches – I could see that being dispiriting and frustrating and, when you have so many customers that they become faceless, a loss of intimacy with the customer would take away a pressure for excellence.

      Scale Enables Quality

      I also want to discuss the ways in which scale might increase or enable quality. What makes it all so confusing is that I believe scale is necessary to increase quality, and allows significant jumps in cup quality and consistency.

      1. Raw Materials

      Buying coffee is uttelry entwined with scale. There are endless stories from frustrated exporters, who have given up time to visiting buyers, toured them round farms and mills, only to have the buyer purchase a couple of pallets of coffee. I think there is a significant change in the buying process when you’re able to buy at least one full 40ft container from a single origin.

      Scaling up buying can come with better access to what you need. Scaled up buying means buying with greater impact, which can be used positively (in terms of quality b).

      I think many coffees buy better and better as they scale, until they reach a point when the requirement from sourcing changes. That isn’t a consequence of buy, but of a changing strategy. I think scale clearly enables better quality purchasing.

      2. Manufacturing

      The primary area I believe that scales enables quality in manufacturing is through improvements to equipment and to quality control. Colour readers are useful. Better probes and roast logging software is useful. Having the resource to train and upskill production team members all enable quality, and all have significant costs that scale can help overcome. Scale enables greater control of packaging – should you want to go down the route of modified atmosphere or different materials. It isn’t a requirement, but it helps.

      There’s a bell curve in roasting, as mentioned before. I think getting roast more often makes one a better roaster, increases understanding of a coffee and makes it more likely that you’ll work through a lot before it begins to change or degrade.

      Increased scale should also produce sufficient profit to invest in R&D (though so few speciality companies do), and in product development. Increased scale should also allow for the setting of tighter benchmarks of quality, because losing a single missed roast is less consequential (unless you’re going through the jump phase when you’ve scaled up equipment but throughput doesn’t yet match it).

      3. The Human Factor

      A form fill and seal machine, that takes a roll of foil, valves and coffee beans then spits out finished bags of coffee is a troubling thing. It forced me to contemplate a difficult question: Is it better for a company to create several low paying jobs, or fewer jobs that pay better and are more enjoyable? While we decided on the latter, I do concede that there are arguments for both sides.

      As mentioned above, scale creates resources that can be invested into staff: better renumeration, better benefits, more training and education. This should lead to better retention and improved performance – and hopefully increased job satisfaction to go with it.

      So why doesn’t quality scale?

      I genuinely look forward to people refuting some of the ideas above, and arguing with me – this is the real point of sharing ideas on here. I am aware that I have argued absolutely that quality can scale, certainly to a very large size – larger than we have seen people scale in practice. So, how can I argue this in the face of what I see out in the world?

      I’m going to make a counter argument: Quality can scale, but the financial models we’ve chosen prevent it doing so. At some point businesses make a decision about how to increase net profits, by choosing to decrease costs. Under these pressures quality very quickly falls by the wayside. This implies that there is no ceiling to the market, which is obviously not true. Growth certainly becomes more difficult as you scale up and a market feels saturated or fully mined for value, and many companies chase that tipping point of scale where the power of the brand becomes a multiplier of its own. Blue Bottle spring to mind as a business chasing this brand inflection point. There will be many pressures to get to this point as quickly as possible, and we haven’t really discussed the rate of growth. Many businesses may have pressure to grow quickly in order to return the investments that enabled that growth, i.e. an investor who wants a return within a certain timeframe.

      This pressure of speed is another reason people alter their financial models. Quality can scale, but I think there are hard limits on how quickly it can scale once it is a mature business.

      Disclosure: a large part of this thinking has come as the result of SQM buying a larger roaster. We’ve grown steadily over the years, and I genuinely believe that we’re roasting better than ever, and more consistently too. While I’m frustrated by the roasting process, I’m proud of what the team accomplish. I’m not really interested in scaling at the expense of quality, so it started me down the line of this thinking.

      1. The challenge of where that CapEx may come from, in a business growing rapidly that has its profits tied up in inventory or trade debts is a whole other conversation. I understand one route would be investment, and that may come with an expectation of scaling up to return on that investment. I agree this may add a pressure that makes growth difficult, but as a single example it didn’t seem enough to bring it into the main discussion.  (back)
      2. what defines ethically better is now extremely fuzzy and outside of the scope of this piece  (back)

      Friday, 24 November 2017

      Dear Coffee Roaster Manufacturers

      Note: A few years ago, I wrote a post addressed to grinder manufacturers. I was frustrated by the lack of innovation, and I think my complaints resonated with a lot of people. I bring this post up because I believe there are parallels to roasting machines. I think manufacturers underestimate the demand for better – something we’ve seen very clearly when it came to innovations in espresso grinders.

      I am embarrassed. Not by the coffee we roast, but by the machines we use to roast it. They are beautiful, vintage machines that were crafted with skill and care 50 years ago from materials clearly built to last. However, they highlight the utter absence of innovation we’ve seen from roasting manufacturers in the decades since.

      Coffee roasting proudly describes itself as an art, as a craft, as a multisensory discipline of small batch manufacturing. This is one of the two ways it has hidden itself from a truth: We are not acceptably consistent in our roasting. For a long time we also managed to hide this behind coffee brewing. Cafes struggled to brew in a consistent way, and brewing was such a complex black box of variables that it was hard to really pin the blame for a disappointing cup of coffee on the roaster and not the barista, or the grinder, or the machine, or the water etc etc.

      Roasting coffee is a deeply frustrating business. The inconsistencies in coffee roasting do not often come from a lack of care or effort. Roasting teams around the world work incredibly hard to do the best they can, to cup and QC their product, to improve their roasting curves and knowledge, and to convert the potential of the green coffee they work with into something excellent, transparent and enjoyable. Despite this, I think every roaster would agree that they aren’t able to have every batch turn out exactly as intended. It might only miss by a little, but a roaster with high standards would likely confess that it wasn’t exactly what they wanted that batch to be.

      The fault lies with the equipment. A drum coffee roaster built today is really no different to a drum coffee roaster built in the 1960s. (This was true of espresso grinders for a similar period of time…) While some level of automation is now possible with new small batch roasters, mostly there is similar level of data capture and guidance offered by adding a third party product such as Cropster to an older roaster.

      A trite definition of madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. For a very long time we’ve known that exactly replicating a roast profile with the same coffee does not necessarily produce an identical batch. We dismiss the cognitive dissonance by waving it away with the excuse that coffee is an agricultural product, so… what can you do?

      Yet we know the data we get from a roaster is bad data. Sticking a small probe into a drum full of churning coffee beans, and expecting that to tell us the bean temperature is ludicrous. Here’s the most obvious example: We seem to ignore the fact that we’re all ok with a probe clearly telling us lies for the first minute of the roast.

      The temperature of the coffee is not dropping at the start, all we know is that the probe is dropping in temperature. It’s not useful data, yet it is something every roaster around the world has to trust and make decisions upon. We have no control because we have no insight.

      The world of coffee brewing is changing. Consistency and control in brewing are going to start applying increasing pressure on coffee roasters to up their game. I believe they lack the technology to do so. I believe commercial coffee roaster manufacturers have failed to innovate in a meaningful way. If 7 out of 10 cups of coffee drunk around the world are roasted on a Probat – where’s the incentive? We keep buying the same old technology, at high prices.

      I’m not dismissing innovations from Loring, primarily around emissions control and environmental impact, alongside things like ease of cleaning. However, I don’t think roasting companies with Lorings are producing more consistent coffee than someone with a new or old Probat.

      I’m proud of the coffee Square Mile roasts. I also believe it is important to have very high standards, and that you should live in a constant state of dissatisfaction with your product. I think lots of other roasters should be proud of their product, and I’m not claiming we’re an industry of charlatans. I do think, however, that roasters the world over are deeply frustrated by their equipment. No one wants to talk about it, perhaps because it involves an admission of imperfection.

      There is an opportunity here. It would require R&D spending, it would require experimentation and resources. I believe that there is a very large audience out there looking for something better and willing to spend sensibly to achieve that. This is an industry ripe for disruption.