Last Friday, the UK edition of Wired magazine published one of those well-meaning articles that thoughtlessly got much of it all wrong: Computing the perfect coffee. At the article’s core is the myth of the “perfect” espresso — something we believe to be about as real as the tooth fairy.
Blame for the modern myth of the “perfect” anything lies plainly with Martha Stewart and her catch-phrases. The myth of perfection has been perpetuated ever since by just about every talking head who stuffs something in his-or-her mouth on TV for a living. However, since the 1980s and the pioneering work of Howard Moskowitz in the field of psychophysics, we can pretty much safely assert that the notion of a singularly perfect anything is a dead-end. An illusion.
Howard Moskowitz and the rise of pasta sauce segmentation
Back in the 1980s, Mr. Moskowitz broke ranks with the conventional wisdom of the times that believed in singular perfection — i.e., that one, true combination of physical properties and aspects could be held up as the model for which everything else was an inferior imitation. Mr. Moskowitz deeply believed in the rule of “different strokes for different folks.” He leveraged this idea to help make Prego pasta sauce — what many considered a superior product that languished and lagged in market share at the time — into a formidable competitor to the day’s rule of Ragu.
While conventional wisdom believed there was one ultimate mother sauce that all pasta sauces were beholden to, Mr. Moskowitz’s research showed there was a market demand for extra chunky sauce — which had no rational origin in all of mother Italy. Prego hired Mr. Moskowitz after he told Pepsi that they should seek out the perfect Pepsis instead of the perfect Pepsi — a radical idea at the time. Today we can count over 40 types of Pepsi, excluding all the diet variations.
Now take this logic a few steps further, and you can understand a little of why today Green Giant sells frozen vegetable mixes under the names “Immunity Blend” and “Digestive Health”.
If measurement was science, why isn’t there a Nobel Prize for weathermen?
But back to coffee, the lessons from Pepsi and pasta sauce suggest that there is no perfect espresso. Some consumers like a sharp, acidic espresso — often dominated by Central American beans at a lighter roast level. Others think these brightness bomb espresso shots are repulsive — and many of these consumers would rather have a more classic espresso defined by body and balance.
But there’s another area where the Wired article fails, and that’s in confusing the acts of measurement and tinkering for actual science and technology. Wired magazine lives and breathes on its celebration of cutting-edge science and technology. So they shoehorn the analogy of the Silicon Valley start-up-in-a-garage upon a couple of national barista heroes: the current and a previous World Barista Champion in Gwilym Davies and James Hoffman.
However, the article exalts the act of measurement as if that in itself has some magical, intrinsic value. And yet a GPS receiver in isolation — i.e., without the aid of cross-referenced maps — merely enables its owner to get lost with greater precision.
Measurement adds greatly to the reproducibility of results and as an aid to identify unconventional areas for experimentation. But it is foolish to compare someone’s experimentation with precise brewing temperature controls to the invention of the first personal computer, as the article suggests. What’s also problematic is that the more something can be measured, the more we tend to believe in a magical combination that unlocks the secrets to its perfection — a perfection that, as we pointed out above, doesn’t really exist to begin with.
When in doubt, stamp “Third Wave” on it
Of course, the article’s author, Mei Li, blew her technologist street cred by brandishing the ever-laughable Third Wave crutch. We dare Ms. Lei to pick up a an old school textbook such as Andrea Illy‘s Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality (2nd ed.). Its scientific foundation of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and biochemistry would surely make her latte-art-fawning head explode.
They do not teach this in barista school, folks.
With its first edition published in 1995 (as Espresso Coffee: The Chemistry of Quality), this decidedly “second wave”-era book exudes more coffee science and technology per page than we’ve seen in all the volumes of “Third Wave” coffee books published in the 14 years since. For a magazine committed to “the future as it happens,” Ms. Lei’s Wired article sets our standards for actual coffee science back by a generation.
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