Coffee and the Sixth Sense
Equipment matters. What about intuition?
These days, any person in pursuit of excellent coffee can discover the basics within a few clicks. But what happens when adherence to method overtakes pleasure—when the question: “Is this the right way” eclipses the more basic concern: “Do I enjoy doing this?”
Whether you call it intuition, instinct, or improvisation, we want to take a moment to acknowledge the lesser-celebrated aspect of brewing coffee that makes all the difference in how you enjoy your morning ritual. We spoke to two longtime colleagues at Blue Bottle whose very jobs are concerned with coffee quality. We were curious to know how intuition figures into their coffee lives.
Coffee Should Bring You Joy
“Willy-nilly” is how Coffee and Technology R&D Specialist Kelly Sanchez describes his approach to the double Chemex he brews for himself and his wife each morning. This is a person who, at Blue Bottle, quantifies the peak window of a single origin—those few days in a roasted coffee’s life when it is at its most expressive. Like a critic of avant-garde jazz, Kelly’s attention to nuance is impressive. And yet, when it comes to mornings with his wife, Kelly prioritizes an unhurried pace and good food over coffee perfection. If Kelly brews a new single origin, he’ll do so without altering the setting on his grinder. If the scale turns off mid-pour, Kelly estimates the remaining volume of water. Making coffee at home, in Kelly’s view, “should bring you joy.”
More than One Kind of Perfect
Of course, if part of joy is contingent upon competence, then we wholeheartedly recommend learning your preferred method's basic principles. But once you know the essentials, let yourself relax into the routine. Kelly tells the story of how, when training baristas, they’d pull entirely acceptable shots, but dump one after the other because they only wanted the “right” shot. The truth is, for a guest waiting in a cafe, a nearly perfect shot executed in a few minutes' time is usually preferable over one pulled “up to spec" after many tries. Impatience, it seems, has a way of altering the taste of “perfection."
Green Coffee Coordinator Carly Getz remembers how, when she first began as a barista, a Blue Bottle veteran came on bar and flouted all the “rules,” teaching the baristas that coffee is far more malleable than they imagined it to be.
Kelly likens it to cooking for friends—one of those unfortunate meals when all you seem to notice in every bite is what you did "wrong." Change your perspective, and just maybe, you'd be able to taste what went well—and learn something in the process.
Roasting Coffee Uses all the Senses
Carly’s role as Green Coffee Coordinator requires her to test-roast hundreds of coffees she’s never sampled before. Intuition, she said, is key, as her decisions of how to roast a sample coffee are based on her previous experiences of roasting coffees from similar regions. Once Carly begins, sensory cues overtake any premeditated plan. Roasting is a multisensory act, but for Carly, the visual changes in the beans as they caramelize guide her decision-making process the most. Carly believes that “everyone who roasts has their preferred, or most developed, sense. It’s important to trust that.”
We emphasize replication and a scientific approach in coffee brewing, but experimentation and shake-ups in routines are what lead to surprise. “So much of coffee knowledge is based on people’s observations,” Kelly reminds us. "So often, it's just one person," he says, "likely a thirty-year old man, who has let his intuition guide him, and now he’s telling you, ‘this is the way.’” Kelly reminds us that when he began at Blue Bottle, baristas didn’t use scales, but a few of them, aided only by their keen senses and venerable experience, could pull a beautiful shot every time.