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If you are a coffee lover, you’re probably already well aware of the online coffee courses offered by Seattle’s ChefSteps. That is, unless you’ve been holed up in Guantanamo or you avoid most social media like the time-sucking plague that it is (though I do, and yet I couldn’t avoid the subject).
This week coffee legend James Hoffman blogged about the latest ChefSteps course he’s involved with, and today we’ve already witnessed the promotional marketing for it bleeding out to publications such as Eater and Food & Wine — complete with obligatory use of the word “perfect” in their article titles.
To read the general press and discussion about publishers like ChefSteps, you’d think we were entering a revolutionary era of coffee education. But having taken ChefSteps’ free Espresso: The Art of Extraction course, and having a lot invested in the subject of how online education works (and does not work), I’m just not feeling the love. At least yet.
Let me explain. To begin with, I also need to start with a little about my “day job”. For over the past three years, I’ve been the co-founder and president of an online education start-up. We raised several million dollars from Khosla Ventures, a heavy investor in education technology, where Vinod Khosla himself sat on my board of directors. The only other board he served on was Square, so we were fortunate to have so much of his attention. (Side note: Khosla Ventures has more recently purchased the start-up outright for integration within its educational portfolio that includes the CK-12 Foundation, etc.)
Coincidentally, representing this start-up at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 is how I first encountered Blossom Coffee. And for those of you who have seen the brilliant HBO show, Silicon Valley, TechCrunch Disrupt is exactly like that.
Now the mission of this start-up may have been teaching users to program rather than to make latte art, but many of the frameworks and principles apply regardless: delivering educational content online, complementing lessons with resources such as online video, embedding discussions and interactions with the faculty and other students throughout the course, etc. Thus, over some years of experience, I’ve learned a few things about what’s good, what works, what’s revolutionary, and what’s — well — not so much in online education.
First: ChefSteps’ content. Taking their Espresso: The Art of Extraction course, I didn’t come away learning anything I didn’t already know. But as an introductory course, that’s to be expected. The videos, hosted on YouTube, are slickly produced and include legit instructors: Charles Babinksi, of G&B Coffee (he’s the ‘B’) and a former USBC finalist, and Scott Callender of La Marzocco Home.
The chief questions I struggled with as I took the course: was the material any better than any book or series of online articles I’ve read before? Same question for the videos. And did all of that help me learn something? My answer was generally “no”, or at least “not really”.
CoffeeGeek legend Mark Prince chimed in last week on a little of his mixed experiences with ChefSteps — at least regarding the “Espresso Myths” videos in the course. So let’s take the video on crema myths:
Now ChefSteps’ byline is “cook smarter”, but being “smarter” usually involves a more thorough effort of evaluating multiple perspectives, checking out references, and maybe performing a little analysis on all that before drawing hard conclusions. What we have instead in this “crema myths” segment (at 1’11’) is Scott Callender saying this:
“I think one of the best examples of that is Italian roasters include robusta into their blends simply to add this really thick, dark crema on top of their shots so it looks beautiful. But if you ever just taste a single origin robusta, most people would not tell you that tastes like a very good espresso.”
— Scott Callender, Espresso Myths: Magical Crema
I can almost get past the fact that Scott has essentially stereotyped an entire coffee culture by suggesting that Italian roasters blindly add robusta to blends for the sole purpose of enhanced visuals. But what really makes my eyes roll is that Scott dismisses the idea that anyone might add a robusta component to a blend for something as insane as flavor balance or complexity.
Scott’s attitude is also rooted in the Puritanical myth — common to many myopic self-described Third Wavers — that the ultimate expression of coffee can only be found in a coffee bean’s genetically and geographically isolated single-origin, single-farm, single-row-of-shrubs heritage, unadulterated by external contaminants. This is essentially a lite version of Adolf Hitler’s purified master race doctrine as applied to coffee. And yet some of the greatest pleasures of coffee today come from an incestuously muddled history of genetic and geographic mash-ups; mash-ups that have given birth to everything from Bourbons to Catuais to Caturras to SL28s to SL34s to Typicas to even prized Gieshas transplanted to Panama as recently as 2000.
Charles Babinksi (who later uses big words like “quotidian”) then adds to this deconstructionist nonsense at 3’40” in the video:
“Also, it should be noted that crema tastes terrible. It’s one of the least enjoyable parts of drinking coffee. And more crema is not necessarily going to mean a tastier shot.”
— Charles Babinksi, Espresso Myths: Magical Crema
While Charles is factually correct, what he says reflects a deconstructionist and non-integrative approach to thinking — i.e., that any component that isn’t good individually in isolation is therefore potentially negative, detrimental to quality, and/or not important. This line of thinking borders on implying that nothing can be better than the individual sum of its parts, which is just plain wrong.
As Charles points out later in the course, in Taste the Extraction, progressively tasting an espresso extraction highlights how it transforms from sour-through-bitter notes and yet they all balance out in the end. That balance is arguably one of the most critical elements to a quality espresso and coffee in general: sour is important, sweet is important, salty is important, even bitter is important, and the balance between them all is what makes the beverage we obsess over.
I’m all for dismissing unnecessary espresso myths, but in the process you shouldn’t be creating new ones in their place.
Where the course excels is in introducing the “three legs of the espresso stool”: brew ratio, brew time, and brew temperature. Again it’s nothing that hasn’t been repeated before dozens of times elsewhere on the Internet (despite many student comments in the course to the contrary), but it’s summarized well in a concise place and format.
Overall the course is a bit short and superficial (hey, it’s free), serving mostly to improve general awareness rather than to teach any skill, method, or technique. Segments such as Pulling a Great Shot, for example, do very little towards the mission of actually teaching. Instead, it repeats a lot of minimalist common knowledge to a soundtrack of lounge music more suitable for getting a hot stone massage at a spa:
Last, we come to ChefSteps as a concept and overall learning format. Here’s where that rubbish about the day job kicks in. Is what ChefSteps offers any different or more effective than a book with a supplemental DVD of videos?
The threaded comment section to engage with the instructors and fellow students is helpful, but it feels a little wonky in the context of a course. It’s optimized more for commenting on Facebook posts than to facilitate any actual learning exchange, but it’s the easiest and most obvious thing to do in the early stages of any start-up learning platform. There are also Quartz-style contextual comments, but they barely get used.
The support component of any course — where students have questions or challenges that veer from the linear narrative of the program — is essential to its effectiveness. It is a core differentiator from merely reading a book or watching a video. One of my most critical insights was that many learning platforms are designed primarily as modified content delivery platforms, and support is often bolted on as an afterthought. My start-up’s platform was initially built around content delivery rather than support delivery, and effective learning platforms often require the reverse.
In other words: it’s the support, not the content, that’s often the primary driver of learning value. We choose university courses more for the professors and TAs than we do for the textbooks they use.
However, the primary glaring omission from ChefSteps as an effective learning platform is its complete lack of assessment or evaluation capabilities. A few years ago the Gates Foundation developed a compelling universal data model to represent learning systems and environments. While not yet made public, it was extensively shared among many tech-minded educators as a potential learning blueprint. In this fundamental data model, learning resources are paired with assessment or validation resources, and the pairs are typically combined in a sequential series. That much is so fundamental to the human learning model that the Gates Foundation proposed it as a standard.
And it makes obvious sense when you think about it. What education is there without quizzes or tests, midterms and finals? The human brain simply does not learn in the absence of useful feedback, without tightly integrating the practice of the very things you are supposedly learning.
You can only go so far learning to play a piano just by reading a book and watching videos. Hearing how you actually sound playing a piano — or better: having your piano teacher assess your performance — is the only way to know if you’re really progressing.
Hence why Charles Babinksi wisely suggested that ChefSteps streamline, if not eliminate, the course’s latte art section: teaching such a skill with the platform would be something of an abject failure. But without any assessment in the mix, you might make the same case for the entire course overall.
So it remains that ChefSteps is a nice reading resource, but it offers nothing you couldn’t recreate on Facebook other than its paywall. Accept it now for what limited reference value it provides. Any actual online education is a long, long ways off still.
Skillshare, as with Chefsteps, fails to integrate a feedback loop for students to gauge and measure their progress and success — thus making Skillshare also no more of a learning platform than a Facebook page sitting behind a paywall.
As we noted last month, tonight on Rai 3 — a regional TV news network in Italy — they aired an investigative exposé on the state of espresso in Italy titled “Espresso nel caffè”: Report Espresso nel caffè. Rai 3 produced this as an episode of their Report program, which has been something of a platform for barebones investigative journalism since its inception in 1997. (Think a scrappier 60 Minutes on a shoestring budget.)
The 51-minute segment isn’t groundbreaking for either journalism nor for any awareness of coffee standards. That said, it is aspirationally legitimate coffee video and television. Far too often on the Internet, the idea of a good “coffee video” — with few exceptions — is equated with a sensory montage on YouTube or Vimeo packaged like a roaster’s wannabe TV commercial.
There’s never any storytelling (“Plot? We no need no stinkin’ plot!”) — just coffee porn close-ups of the stuff either roasting or brewing, complete with a coffee professional’s platitudes voiced over B-roll. Coffee fanatics have largely only encouraged these low standards by joining in on the self-congratulatory social media circle jerk that follows video after identical video.
The Report episode begins by covering the necessary espresso machine hot water purge before pulling an espresso shot — and by noting how few baristi know to follow this practice. A Lavazza trainer notes how 70% of the aromatic properties of coffee are lost within 15 minutes of grinding it. Comparisons are shown of a correct and incorrect coda di topo (or “rat’s tail”) pour from an espresso machine, showing how equipment can get gummed up without proper and immaculate cleaning. The program also reviews how few baristi know how much arabica versus robusta is in their blends, noting the resulting impacts on flavor and costs.
They visit cafes such as Gran Caffè Grambrinus and Caffè Mexico at Pizza Dante, 86 in Napoli. They interview some heavy hitters — from Lavazza to Caffè Moreno to Kimbo, from Biagio Passalacqua himself to Davide Cobelli of the SCAE (featured last month in Barista Magazine) to Luigi Odello of Espresso Italiano Tasting fame. And probably too many guys in lab coats.
Overall, the program is a bit condemning of espresso standards across all of Italy. But remember, this is a national news program that targets the general public: the goal is to educate and, in some ways, outrage the public about what they may be putting up with currently. If only one percent of the coffee porn videos in English would attempt something so high-minded as that.
Defensive posturing aside (he’s not alone), the commissioner also welcomes those interviewed for the program to visit local Napoli coffee shops and producers to witness the mobilization Napoli has mounted in response. As such, Andrej Godina has done God’s work: raising public awareness of lagging coffee standards, starting a dialog, and inciting action to improve these standards.
Returning our series of café reviews to Napoli proper, it’s not easy to top the local reputation of a place like Gran Caffè Cimmino. This is a true grand café, and multiple sources in Italy regard it as one of the best places in Napoli for espresso — if not the best place.
The Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia thought so throughout much of the early 2000s: awarding it its highest rating for both coffee and the café itself: i.e., three chicchi and three tazzine. By 2007, they dropped their café rating a touch (two tazzine), where it has remained since. But as of the 2014 edition, no café in Napoli rates higher.
This location resides in the heart of Napoli’s Chiaia district — known for its fashionable shops, well-heeled businessmen, upscale nightlife, and high rent addresses. The mothership Gran Caffè Cimmino, established in 1907, still resides further out in the nearby Posillipo district. As a true gran caffè, they offer full bar service, amazing pastries (they even have an “artisan pastry lab” in Posillipo), and other quality edibles short of a full-on restaurant.
Here there’s plenty of outdoor seating for people-watching on the fashionable Piazza Giulio Rodinò under insanely large parasols. Using a four-group La San Marco lever machine at the inside bar and wood-roasted Italmoka coffee from Napoli, they pull shots with an even medium-brown crema in proudly local MPAN cups.
The flavor is of milder spices, and we found it to be surprisingly tepid and mild for what’s considered a Neapolitan classic: it tastes more of Milan than Naples. (And it’s no secret that we’re continually underwhelmed by the espresso in Milan as an Italian underachiever.) This is likely due to their reliance on 100% Arabica blends with no robusta.
One of the two brother co-owners of Gran Caffè Cimmino — Antonio Fantini — previously worked Caffè Mexico at Via Scarlatti from 1948 onwards for a number of years, using only 100% Arabica blends. The classic Neapolitan blend typically contains a measured amount of quality robusta for strength and balance, and Caffè Mexico today uses decidedly robusta-friendly Passalacqua roasting.
Given the price of everything that surrounds it, it’s ridiculously cheap at €0.90 at the bar. The 2014 Bar d’Italia calls out their cappuccino, calling their milk-frothing particularly dense and consistent (it is). They are also known as a “cult” location for their caffè shakerato.
It is not our favorite espresso in Napoli, and it’s flavor profile may be a bit atypical for local tradition. But we’ll definitely place it on our “must stop” list.
Read the review of Gran Caffè Cimmino in the Chiaia District of Napoli, Italy.
We’ve written about coffee in India before, but this Sunday’s piece in The Seattle Times is one of the best-researched, most thought-out pieces we’ve seen on the subject in the mainstream Western media: As India gains strength, so does its coffee | Special reports pages | The Seattle Times. At least on the growing side of things. (Coffee consumption in India is another story that’s poorly reported globally. The Seattle Times‘ Part 1 was dubious and a bit patronizing.)The article notes the long history of coffee growing and coffee consumption in India, dating back to the 1600s. This while most of the Western media has treated the news of Starbucks‘ recent entry into India as if the American fast food chain was on a mission to liberate the uncouth India masses from their coffee ignorance. (This is a little like introducing potatoes to Peruvians.)
The article also does a great service by introducing Sunalini Menon, who was formerly the head of quality at the Coffee Board of India and is credited with much of Indian coffee’s quality gains. Of particular interest is the controversy Ms. Menon raises by suggesting that robusta, when handled properly, should be eligible at Cup of Excellence competitions.
Over the past several years, far and away some of the best robusta we’ve ever tasted has come out of India. In India, robusta can be handled like the most precious of arabica beans, and we often love what a measured dose of it does to round out an espresso blend. (Insert the *gag* *spew* *hack* of professional tastemakers here.)
Copy-editors are strange beasts. They can take a perfectly valid story, dress it up with titles and subheds, and transform it into something that sounds completely irrelevant to the contents within. Take yesterday’s Wall Street Journal piece on efforts seeking the genetic diversification of consumable coffee: The Indiana Jones of Coffee – WSJ.com (subhed: “Companies Go Deep Into Africa in Search of Perfect Bean”).
No, it’s not a bio piece about some swashbuckling snake-charmer in search of lost coffee gold. The Orchid Thief would be a more appropriate movie reference for just one of the characters in the article. It’s also not about Africa, as the genetic diversification effort is global. It’s not even about the ever-abused mythical “perfect bean” — as any single genetic coffee bean lineage would be just as susceptible to a mass extinction event as the limited coffee progeny we enjoy today.
But peel back the superficial layers of Hollywood pomp, general cluelessness, and deceit, and you’ll discover a decent article on efforts to develop more genetically robust and diverse options for our drinkable coffee stocks — something of a follow-up to a post we wrote six years ago. Of some 26 documented coffee species, only two are cultivated to produce something humans would actually pay money to consume. And of those two, many consider only one of them as drinkable.
Tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal features an article on the Lisbon espresso, the bica: The Best Cafes in Lisbon – WSJ.com. It touches on Lisboeta coffee culture — e.g., drinking many shots each day at the local pasteleria (a sort of pastry shop/bar); a dependence on slower roasts, good quality coffee from Brazil, but also a proportion of robusta from former African colonies; and 40ml espresso shots instead of the Italian standard of 20ml (something we never saw as a positive, btw).
The article’s title is something of a misnomer, as it overlooks some of the best and most notable cafés in town. In part, this is due to the article’s focus on Delta Cafés coffee. Cafés such as Pastéis de Belém and A Brasileira are mentioned. But then again, our definition of quintessential Portuguese/Lisbon experiences includes headbanging to Da Weasel in Praça do Comércio whereas it probably doesn’t rank with the Journal.
One of the long running jokes among the (these days: masochistic) fans who follow Italian soccer is that — at least according to the Italian sports media — teams tend to go from “crisis” to “crisis” several times in a given season. If a top-caliber team doesn’t win for two straight matches, sono in crisi (or “they are in crisis”). It’s as if the Italian media have a mission to create melodrama.
We think about that sometimes when we hear about the new coffee crisis: global warming, or climate change if you prefer. If you weren’t keeping score, the last coffee crisis was rooted in the collapse of coffee prices. With the 1989 dismantling of what was essentially a cartel among coffee producing nations, mass market coffee greens went from a high of about $1.50/lb to an all-time low of $.46/lb in 2003 — a pricing collapse catalyzed by the influx of mass-produced, low-grade Vietnamese robusta. It was this crisis that gave root to Fair Trade and other economic initiatives — to stave off the inequities of the coffee trade from spreading poverty and putting coffee growers out of business.
However, today coffee has a new crisis. From papers [pdf, 622k] presented at the 2007 SCAA conference to some of the key talks at the conference last weekend (not to mention posts here going back to 2006), there’s been a lot of chatter lately about how the forces of climate change are reducing crop yields, eradicating available land use for coffee production, and extending the breeding grounds of harmful coffee plant pests. This month’s CoffeeTalk cover story comes with the apocalyptic headline, “Can this really be the end?” and the quote:
Nearly all of the specialty coffees in Latin America are sold and shipped. There simply are no quality Latin coffees left except Brazilian and those are going fast.
Something is seriously going on. But is it a bit premature to declare the end of coffee? There’s real danger in being false alarmist.
Whether it is quality coffee or anchovies off the coast of Chile, one of the biggest safeguards for a product’s survival is a group of consumers willing to pay a decent price for the good stuff. So when we read lamentations that coffee is going to disappear, and that coffee consumers are going to flee for cheaper energy drinks, we get the sense that these are primarily concerns for the lower grade coffees we generally avoid anyway.
Yesterday we attended a Meet the Producers event hosted by the Epicenter Cafe and Barefoot Coffee Roasters and got to test this theory. There we talked with Barefoot’s “Chief Espresso Officer,” Andy Newbom, to ask his opinion on the subject — in addition to the opinions of visiting coffee growers from El Salvador and Guatemala.
Sure enough, they all confirmed our suspicions. As long as there are consumers willing to pay for good coffee, there will be a market for good coffee. It does leave concerns about supplies at the mid-range and low end. But the best way to ensure there will always be supplies of good coffee is to keep demanding it and paying a premium for it.
Just when we write about the stifling conformity among roasters and coffee professionals of this modern era, today’s New York Times blog reports on the use of robusta beans in espresso blends: Robusta Economy – Times Topics Blog – NYTimes.com.
Although there’s nothing in the post we haven’t heard before, it’s the tone of the post that we find a little sad and almost incredulous. To read the author, Oliver Schwaner-Albright, you’d think measured use of robusta beans in espresso blends were akin to the medicinal practice of bloodletting — and that those who continued to use a little robusta in their espresso blends were akin to underground disciples of Falun Gong in modern China.
We may not seek out robusta beans any more than necessary. (Ain’t that the truth.) But the apparent belief that there is a singular, conformist voice about what definitively does and does not make good coffee today smacks of a “taste totalitarianism” — not to mention a historical and factual revisionism.
Whether it’s coffee or Slow Food Nation (or both), today there’s a strong public undercurrent of knee-jerk, reactionary dismissiveness of anybody who dares suggest that the generic brand-X-in-a-can isn’t good enough for them.
The mistaken public belief is that most of the things we eat and drink today are somehow normal, inevitable, and “natural” outcomes — and not necessarily the result of a series of cut corners to even outright scary practices made to industrialize food production and minimize costs (while also maximizing profits).
Now minimizing costs is a good thing. But when it’s the only thing, when lowest price is the rule and all consumables are considered interchangeable commodities, typically all the production tradeoffs made to minimize those costs are swept under the carpet and consumers are kept blissfully unaware.
If you operated a business where you produced a good or product that consumers thought the only difference was price, how would you run that business? You’d make the cheapest stuff available — using as low-grade supplies as you could, and performing whatever compromising processes and practices you could to keep expenses down. You’d follow Henry Ford’s rules of industrialization, add scale, find innumerable ways to cut corners. This is how you’d make your profits. The only other challenge would be ensuring that whatever came out the other end of your machinery still qualified as the product in the eyes of indiscriminate consumers.
These practices in the mid- to late-20th century ensured that we were sold unripe oranges shipped on trucks and painted orange for consumer appeal. It ensured that supermarket tomatoes were hard and flavorless. It ensured that the chicken we eat came from factory farms where the animals were raised in impossibly tight quarters, succumbed to various diseases and illnesses because of the conditions, and then had to be pumped with drugs and antibiotics to combat these illnesses and keep them alive under those conditions. All the things that would horrify our grandmothers in contrast to what they used to call “food”. But even what do they know, given the transparency and accountability of the sausage factory these days?
The analogue for coffee today is embodied by the Big Four. Coffee beans were treated as the equivalent of nuts on screws — so producers were incented to find the cheapest, lowest grade stuff available. This is how we got in the Fair Trade mess in the first place. The major international coffee producers sought robusta supplies from Vietnam and other emerging markets — bean supplies that were cruder, and yet far cheaper, than their existing suppliers. They added chemical treatments to make it taste more like their “old” coffee, and violá! No transparency. No accountability. Just give me a big can of generic “coffee”.
Today people are coming to a greater awareness that their tomatoes don’t taste the same under these conventional rules of industrialization as they do from the backyard. And so there’s a growing consumer interest and demand for accountability and transparency in what they are actually getting for their money. A tomato isn’t necessarily like every other tomato, and the same is true for coffee in how it is grown, handled, and prepared.
It’s always been true: you often get what you pay for. But how many of us truly know what we’re getting, or what we’re contributing to, when we demand whole chicken at Safeway for 69¢ per pound?
A lot of people still want lowest common denominator products. All fine and good — that’s a matter of choice, and economics. But should someone remember what a ripe tomato really used to taste like and asks for that experience again, does that make them an elitist food snob? If so, we will proudly wear the badge of elitist food snob with honor. Food snobs everywhere are saving our food supply from becoming one giant Play-doh Fun Factory fed by tubes of high fructose corn syrup.
Interestingly enough, yesterday The Consumerist highlighted a Pittsburgh-area video from WTAE-TV. It featured someone’s grandmother, and she demonstrated some of the clandestine production practices a Big Four coffee producer followed to squeeze every last drop of profit out of their “tastes like crap” coffee. As if we’re surprised…
Today Condé Nast posted an general consumer article on what to look for in good coffee: Coffee Drinking Guide – Portfolio.com. However, it reads more as a quick guide to following what’s “trendy” today — rather than as a guide to seeking good quality coffee experiences. (Not to mention that the article’s title, “Eat Sheet: Coffee,” takes on a whole other meaning with a Middle Eastern coffee grower’s accent.)
For example, the pro-“light roast” movement is really just the flavor du jour. And after so many years of over-roasted and darkly roasted coffee, who can blame anyone? But as much as we tire of the ubiquitous wine analogy for coffee, the recent focus on light roasts isn’t far off from all the people who are now drinking rosé wines again.
Once people get it out of their system, they’ll be interested in darker roasts again. Just as when they get off single origin and single estate coffees, they’ll come to appreciate well-crafted coffee blends again — and the merits of high quality robusta beans again. And just as we explore enough with Clover machines and vacuum pots, something like espresso becomes interesting again. Each has their merits, and there never has been one way to appreciate good coffee.
For example, it’s true that lighter roasts exhibit better characteristics of certain beans. But for other bean varietals — such as those from Indonesian estates in Java and Sulawesi — a lighter roast is no better than darkly roasting a delicate island coffee: instead of the great body and lower acidity inherent to these beans, they come out tasting thin, bland, and even a little grassy at times.
Coffee is often best roasted to maximize the best, most unique qualities in the bean — and no bean is the same, really. And there is no one way to appreciate it all.