The skill in making coffee

Perhaps for the first time ever in life, I’m working in an office without a coffee machine. I don’t mind that so much for two reasons – firstly, having to go down 27 floors and then pay explicitly for a coffee means that my coffee consumption has come down drastically. Secondly, there is a rather liquid market of coffee shops around my office.

As you might expected, there is one particular coffee shop close to my office that has become my favourite. And while walking back with my flat white on Wednesday afternoon, I noticed that the coffee tasted different to the flat white I’d had at the same place the same morning.

Assuming that even artisanal coffee shops like that one are unlikely to change beans midway through the day, I’m guessing that the difference in taste came down to the way the coffee was prepared. Flat white involves some effort on behalf of the barista – milk needs to be steamed and frothed and poured in a particular manner. And this can vary by barista.

So this got me thinking about whether making coffee is a skilled task. And this might explain the quality of coffee at various establishments in Bangalore.

When the coffee bar is equipped with an espresso machine, the job of making an espresso involves less of a skill since all that the barista needs to do is to weigh out the appropriate quantity of beans, press it down to the right extent and then pop it into the espresso maker (I know these tasks themselves involve some skill, but it’s less compared to using a South Indian style filter, for example).

When you want milk coffee, though, there is a dramatic increase in skill requirement. Even in South Indian coffee, the way you boil and froth the milk makes a huge difference in the taste of the coffee. In Brahmin’s Coffee Bar in Shankarpuram, Bangalore, for example, the barista explicitly adds a measure of milk foam to the top of the coffee lending it a special taste.

And when it comes to “European” coffee, with its multiple variants involving milk, the skill required to make good milk coffee is massive. How much milk do you add.. How hot do you steam it.. Whether you add foam or not.. These are all important decisions that the barista needs to make, and there is a lot of value a good barista can add to a cup of coffee.

One of my biggest cribs about chain coffee shops in India is that the taste of the coffee isn’t particularly good, with hot milk coffees being especially bad. Based on my analysis so far, I think this could be largely a result of unskilled (or semi-skilled) and inexperienced baristas – something these chains have had to employ in order to scale rapidly.

The cold coffees in these places are relatively much better since the process of making them can be “fighterised” – for each unit, add X shots of espresso to Y ml of milk, Z ice cubes and W spoons of sugar and blend. The only skill involved there is in getting the proportions right, and that can be easily taught, or looked up from a table.

The problem with hot coffees is that this process cannot be fighterised – the precise way in which you pour the milk so that there is a heart shape on top of the cappuccino foam, for example, is a skill that comes only with significant practice. Even the way in which the milk is to be foamed is not an easily teachable task.

And that is the problem with chain coffee shops in India – lack of skilled labour combined with the need to scale rapidly has meant that people have tried to use processes to compensate for skills, and in most parts of coffee making, that’s not necessarily a good way to go.