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Art, Craft or Science?

June 29, 2012

There’s an ongoing discussion in coffee about the role of a barista or a roaster (or, for that matter, a farmer) – about whether what they do is a science or an art. In my view, the difference between art, science and a third class of activity – craft – is important and can lead us to better understanding and valuing of the different roles of coffee professionals.

There is very very little speciality coffee science. Science is an experimental testing of a hypothesis – use the current thinking to posit a theory, design a test which would disprove the theory, carry out the test. If you disprove your theory, change it – if not, expand it and test again. Science is looking for understanding and nearly all coffee professionals are predominantly involved in creating a product – understanding is a byproduct and is not done is a scientific pattern. One of the big issues in what speciality coffee science there is, is pier review. One of the key features of main stream science is that you have enough experts that work by one is scrutinised my the others. This ensures the work isn’t just plausible, but is thoroughly, rigorously tested – if it holds up, we know it’s very strong evidence. An established issue with more obscure areas of science is that the group of experts, with relevant knowledge and interest, is too small to properly critique research. This is very true in speciality coffee research.

Much of the work of coffee professionals falls under this heading. The goal of a craft is the production of a product, using manual skills, meeting a defined criteria. That criteria can be broadly defined (make a shelf, make coffee to fit in this cup) or tightly defined (make a shelf of 1000mm x 30mm x 150mm to within 5mm, or pull a shot of espresso using a dose of 17g, in 27 seconds, of mass 31g). Craft requires manual skills (including sensory skills) and some theoretical skills.

Art is imaginative. It may or may not make use of physical skills & techniques to express itself, but the distinguishing feature against a craft is the lack of strict criteria to achieve. Certain roles in coffee are an art in this sense – and we should value these all the more for the artistic talent they require. As an example, consider the person in a shop who decides what the coffee should taste like (be they head barista/owner/whatever). They make an imaginative leap – to see potential in their coffee beans and decide how that should be experienced by the customer. It’s the craft of the other baristas to recreate that flavour consistently for customers.


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