Note: I wrote this blog post before Christmas 2020 and never got around to publishing it at the time.
James Hoffman is arguably the closest thing the coffee industry has to an influencer. I have viewed many of his videos and delighted in his ability to make speciality coffee more approachable. His videos are light and easy to watch. When I was thinking about what book to purchase next, I thought that the collection of Hoffman's best blog posts, The Best of Jim Seven, would be a prudent purchase. His blog is sadly not available online but this book was worth it anyway. The book curates posts so that I was immediately able to read the posts that Hoffman wanted to highlight to the world.
The book starts with a chapter on espresso. I do not typically read about espresso explicitly because I am not a barista and I do not brew espresso. But I thought there would be some useful knowledge in this section so I decided to read ahead. I was pleasantly surprised. Although some of the posts, such as the descriptions of the EK43 grinder and Hoffman's response to criticism about the grinder, did not directly apply to me, I found them educational. I learned that the EK43, at the time of writing, was still very much an experiment. There is still room for improvement in professional grinders. I learned about what the espresso dialling in process looks like, or at least what baristas should do if they want to brew the most delicious cup of coffee they can.
Some of Hoffman's posts on espresso were opinions, such as when he discusses his "love-hate" relationship with the brew, developed in part due to the amount of time he spent on competition. But throughout this chapter, and the rest of the book, it is clear that Hoffman has evidence and/or experience to back up his beliefs about coffee. In his post about cappuccinos he talks about what he has learned studying the history of the drink. He discusses why single origin espresso can still be good; espresso does not need to be a blend. He conducts an experiment where he places espresso in a centrifuge to see what would happen.
The next section in the book discusses coffee brewing. Like in the first section, Hoffman is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. He talks about how he would prefer a different ratio of water to be used with iced coffee. One of my favourite posts in the book was the one where he analyses the affects of various variables—such as breaking the crust at different times and the amount of brew water used—by conducting experiments. This post featured graphs and charts as well as an insightful look into what the data Hoffman gathered means in context.
This book does not read like any other coffee book I own. Each post discusses a new topic, although some posts are sequential. I find this a benefit of the book: my mind was exposed to many topics I may otherwise not have read about. Some posts are short whereas others are long. I decided to read this book from cover-to-cover and I found this was not a problem. All of the posts in each section fit well in their respective theme—careers, coffee brewing, and so on—and so I did not find that my mind was too far stretched when I was reading.
In the third section, I learned about the business of coffee. Most of my reading to-date has been about brewing. I did not know much about the factors involved in running a coffee shop until this section. Hoffman challenges the status quo again by talking about the negative impact loyalty cards have on a cafe. He talks about how you cannot remove an option from your menu if a customer has already ordered it without opening up the possibility of causing offence. I had never thought that removing a drink for reasons like "not meeting quality" is like telling a customer that what they have liked is not good enough.
The section on coffee business talks about what baristas and coffee shop owners can do to open up the world of speciality coffee to new customers. Coffee shops should never assume customers want to know everything about the coffee they are drinking. Coffee shop owners and baristas should stand in line to see what the customer experience is really like when they walk into a store. Hoffman discusses how important it is to think about how to get customers to try new things. Customers should not be forced to try something new; the cafe needs to consider consumer preference, and their willingness to try something new.
To end the book, Hoffman collates a series of posts on what it is like to work in coffee. Hoffman talks about how competitions are a learning opportunity unlike any other. He makes recommendations on how to improve your coffee palate, most notably by conducting comparative taste tests. Hoffman gave me the idea that I should buy different foods in the same category and try them side-by-side to improve my palate. Whether I will do this or not I have not yet made a decision but the idea is still in my mind. Hoffman also discusses some learning theories in the context of coffee, making recommendations as to how coffee shop owners should think about training customers.
I enjoy how Hoffman talks from experience throughout the book. He talks about the situations he has been in which make him think that it is only reasonable to pay for coffee even if an industry colleague made the drink. He wrote an entire post on why he likes to ask the question "have you had coffee yet today?", which he thinks is a good way to judge how open a customer would be to trying something new. I am still comparatively new to coffee but reading about Hoffman's experiences has helped me broaden my awareness of what coffee is.
I have more respect now more than ever for the cafe owners who have been able to operate a sustainable shop. Some of the posts in this book were written at the height of the financial crisis and Hoffman did predict that there may be some saturation in the market. Coffee shops have to think about training, overhead costs, staff retention, and developing a vibe which is unique to the business. Indeed, the success of an independent shop is influenced heavily by the atmosphere. Coffee shops can learn from chains but to really thrive a shop needs to do something different or open customers up to something they otherwise did not think was possible. The goal everyone in the industry has is to encourage consumption but without forcing views on people; a difficult goal indeed.
I found this book on HasBean for 25 British pounds, more than I've paid for many coffee books. I feel as though the cost was well justified. I found each post in this book interesting, albeit in different ways. From learning about the role of proteins in the success of foaming milk to the importance of factoring in not just quality but all of the business work when opening a cafe, my view of what coffee is was opened widely. If you're working in coffee, I'm sure this book would have even more to offer. Although the posts are older, much of what was written is still relevant; more so in some cases, where I was able to consider the subject matter in its historical context and what is going on in the world of coffee today.
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