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Something I learned from my recent abstention from my automatic coffee maker that I didn’t mention in my previous post is that I am capable of making some pretty outstanding cups of coffee.

Unfortunately, I also realized I am capable of making a very unremarkable cup of coffee as well. In fact, I found out that my coffee can be a little inconsistent. It runs the gamut from “outstanding” to “mediocre at best” making stops at “something is a little off” and “not my best work” along the way.

I may have mentioned once or twice that I am a huge fan of consistency…

Diagnosing the problem

What’s the problem? Taking a peek into my every day manual brewing habits would reveal several prime suspects.

I have a lot of brewing methods at my disposal- I sat down and made a list of possible brewing methods and brewer combinations I have to choose from. The number is ten. There are ten different ways that I could reasonably brew a cup of coffee manually every time I start up my electric kettle. Each one has different nuances, subtleties and things to learn and remember. Thats a lot to keep track off.

I have a lot of different coffees to choose from- I like to have a variety of origins, roast levels and processing available at the same time and I like to switch it up. I rarely drink the same coffee with much consistency and each coffee brews differently.

I brew a lot of coffee while distracted- My household can get a little chaotic at times. Hence, at times I make ‘mistakes’ when I am brewing. (The other day I almost poured water from my kettle into my grinder hopper, true story.) Manual brewing has become almost a product of automatic reflexes for me. Sometimes I don’t pay attention. No wonder I get the occasional surprise in cup quality.

The coffee journal- Keeping a record

When you break it down, I need work on memory and focus. I’ve spread myself thin over a lot of methods which leads to mistakes, a general lack of practice with each method and forgetting things I want to “remember for next time.”

If you think that the solution is to specialize on one brew method and become adept before moving on, you would have a good point. That is one very viable solution. This would be taking some of the fun out of things for me.

I enjoy brewing coffees several different ways and experiencing how the brewing methods change the final brewed cup. I don’t want to specialize. I want to collectively improve all my skills gradually, even if that is not the most efficient way to do things.

That’s where a journal comes in. It is a way to bring focus, negate the limits of my memory and allows me to juggle several different brew methods at once.

What you keep in your coffee journal is up to you. Here is a list (a very ambitious list for me) of things you can record:

Date and Time (Time of day could have an impact on how you taste the coffee)
Brew Method
Coffee Info (Roaster, Roast Date, Origin…)
Grinder Used and Grind Setting
Water Temperature or Slurry Temperature
Brewing Profile (Bloom Time, Pour Time, Total Time)
Any Other Brewing Notes
Tasting Notes and a General Rating

Benjamin Franklin once said “I didn’t fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.”

Digging a little deeper into my problem reveals that I don’t have a problem at all. I have an opportunity.

Inconsistencies are a chance to learn what not to do. The only way to truly do it wrong is to keep making the same mistake over and over again. Don’t look at a bad cup of coffee as a failure, look at it as a way to learn something you should not do again.

The best way to catch these inconsistencies is to keep notes. It’s impossible to keep all the variables straight inside your head.

Finding 100 ways to do it wrong- Using deliberate practice

Now that we have redefined failure, it is time to pursue improvement.

It is relatively easy to eliminate variables and make a cup of coffee that keeps up with your status quo. You should be able to make good coffee on a fairly consistent basis by using basic, good techniques and journaling.

What if you want to make an even better cup of coffee?

The book Drive by Daniel H. Pink uses the mathematical concept of an asymptote to illustrate the concept of mastery. If you haven’t spent much time thinking about mathematical concepts lately, an asymptote is simply a curve that approaches a line but never reaches it (it gets closer for infinity). That is how we should view the mastery of something. We can always get a little closer to it. There is always something else to learn.

Pink also talks about a concept called deliberate practice. This is how you can make a better cup of coffee than you did last week. It is a manual brewing goldmine.

Once you have redefined what constitutes a failure, deliberate practice becomes pretty intuitive. You will never improve your coffee if you keep brewing it the same way over and over again without putting much thought into the process. You need to take risks, try things and learn your “100 ways of doing it wrong.”

Reading about coffee and following in others footsteps is a good way to get ideas of what you want to try, but the best way to learn it is to try it for yourself.

I would like to add two items to the list of possible journal entries:

Things I want to try next time
Questions, Comments and Ideas

If you are writing things down that start with “I wonder what would happen if..” and “Next I’m going to try…” you are on the right track.

A new challenge

At this point, it should be relatively easy to figure out what the challenge is going to be. Let me break it down into three parts:

  1. Start a coffee journal- I have a coffee roasting journal but I do not have a manual brewing journal. Most of my notes consist of 4×6 notecards with my hard-to-read handwriting scrawled all over them. I’m going to get organized and keep a brewing journal for the next month. I think it is unrealistic for me to shoot for logging 100 percent of my brews. That is just never going to happen. My goal will be to thoroughly record one session a day. Anything else is gravy.
  2. Use deliberate practice- I’m going to be changing some things up. My goal is to make a better cup of coffee than I did last week. Inconsistencies will be inspected and explored so I can find my “100 ways of doing it wrong” and learn from them. I hope to make this more than a month long challenge. I want trying big and small changes to be a permanent part of how I brew coffee.
  3. Share the information- If I learn something that is good or bad, I want to share it. I want everyone to make a better cup of coffee than they made last week. Sometimes this might lead to blog posts or it might be as simple as telling my wife information I learn about our personal brewing set up. Hopefully, in the future, I will learn enough to have some “100 ways to do it wrong” themed posts.

Feeling a little stumped? Here are some simple things you can try:

  • If you drink the same coffee every day, try a new coffee
  • If you always drink out of the same mug, try a new mug
  • If you pulse pour your pour over, try a continuous pour
  • If you always drink your coffee piping hot, try it at various cooler temperatures
  • If you always use a 1:16.6 dosage, try more or less coffee
  • If you are a very meticulous brewer that relies on instruments, freestyle and see what happens

Have fun!

An epilogue- There is more to life than coffee

When I was reading through this post, it struck me as feeling a little extreme. I realized than not everyone will want to pursue mastery in coffee. (I’m not sure if mastery in coffee is something that I will always be pursuing.)

Some of you want to simply enjoy a cup of coffee for what it is worth without going through the mental exercise of evaluating every aspect. I get that.

That shouldn’t stop you from pursuing mastery in something though. I would like to put out a secondary challenge to all of you. If you don’t want to pursue mastery in coffee, find something that is worth pursuing to you and use these same principles.

The concepts of journaling, deliberate practice and redefining failure as learning what not to do can be applied to almost anything.

You should always be pursuing mastery in something, there is always a little more you can learn and you can always get a little better. Deliberately work to improve your skill level.

Try it out and let me know what happens.

If you like some of the concepts I talked about in this post, I would encourage you to check out the book Drive by Daniel H. Pink. It talks about how intrinsic motivations are so much stronger and effective than the extrinsic type. It is primarily written as a business book but still very interesting.

Also, I now have a link for Audible on the sidebar of my website. If you go through this link and sign up for a 30 day free trial, you will receive TWO free audiobooks. I love audiobooks they make a long daily commute seem like nothing. You can also go through my link here. The blog gets a kickback when you sign up for a free trial so it’s a win-win all around. Have a great week!