Dedication to your craft

A scene from "A Film about Coffee" has been haunting me for the last few days. I love this documentary because it does an excellent job of showing where our industry is now. I like to show this documentary to friends and family who want to know what in the world I am doing running a coffee roasting company. It shows the coffee from seed to cup with a great focus on the people who make coffee happen from the farmers, processers, and importers, to the roasters, baristas and finally the customers. If you are looking to get an elementary view into the coffee world as it is today, I cannot recommend a finer film. That said, I have seen the film more than a few times.

The scene I am thinking about is one of the final shots of the film. It shows an old-school Tokyo coffeeshop owner named Katsuji Daibo preparing a simple cup of coffee using the Nel drip method ("Nel" is short for flannel, referring to the cloth filter that is used for brewing). It is similar to a pour-over in that hot water is poured over ground coffee in a filter, but the comparison ends there. Watching this old Japanese man who has spent his lifetime perfecting his craft, is like watching a work of art being created. He chooses just the right coffee from the batches he roasted in a small, hand-cranked coffee roaster, grinds it, and then selects a single, small porcelain coffee cup from his wall of mismatched cups. He fills his gooseneck kettle with water at the perfect temperature and preps his Nel drip filter. Throughout this, there is a slow, methodical, almost devotional focus. The ground coffee is added to the filter and the thinest stream of water imaginable is poured out over the grounds. Every movement is perfect and has meaning.

Daibo displays the concept called shokunin, an artist with a singular focus on his craft; who is content to plumb the depths of a single work of craftsmanship. If you have heard of Jiro Ono (Jiro Dreams of Sushi, another great documentary!), Daibo is the coffee version of Jiro. The concept is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and it is a great honor to singularly devote yourself to a craft. In the article about Diabo by Matt Goulding of Roads and Kingdoms, he says "These are people [the shokunin] who pursue perfection down to its last decimal point, whose persistence and focus wear away at the sharp edges of life’s ambitions like a stream of mountain water over a granite stone."

The finished product is a tiny cup (maybe 3 ounces) of coffee that has been extracted at as little as a 4:1 ratio. If you remember my brewing recommendations, this is far outside what would be considered proper brewing (I prefer a 15:1 ratio). But the Tokyo coffee scene has perfected a seemingly impossible brewing style. I have not had a chance to make it to Tokyo yet, but I hear this style can bring out complexities in coffee that are achievable by no other method. It also excels with darker roasts and coffee that is at least a week post-roast.

Daibo's shop closed for good after 38 years of business a few years ago. If you want to learn more about Daibo, here is the article I mentioned earlier.

While I know in our fast paced suburban lifestyle, this slow and deliberate style might be lost, I hope to instill the spirit of this into every cup that I brew, and every batch that I roast. I have been reading the "Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee;" which is a great book by the way! James Freeman (the author) is quite complimentary of the Japanese Nel drip style but he also writes quite poetically about the coffee profession. 

Freeman says about roasting: "As a coffee roaster, your life is divided in roughly 17-minute segments--enough time to load the green coffee, roast it, dump it, cool it, and send it on its way. That means you have about twenty-five chance in an average day, 125 chances in a week, and 6,500 chances in a year to make something beautiful."

I sometimes forget that I am creating art with every batch I roast, and every cup I brew. When I am midway through I roasting day, it is easy to see the next batch as just a set of numbers and a representation of dollars made. I miss the simple fact that I am making something beautiful. Freeman again shares beautiful insight, "People will wake up in the dark and pad to their kitchen needing strength, and the reassurance that something delightful is about to happen--and hoping that this small chore of making coffee might set the tone for a day filled with difficult, wonderful things."

I am blessed and honored to make coffee for people so that they have the strength for "difficult, wonderful things." 

Bryan HibbardComment