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Consistency: A roaster’s catch-22

In theory, if you have two coffee beans that are identical varieties that have been grown, cultivated and processed in the same way, the resultant coffees should taste the same.

However, there are still people who will go into a coffee shop and smile when they see a certain barista working because they make the coffee just how they like it – something which coffee expert Erin Meister laments, writing in Barista magazine.

Consistency is key to roasting and making a quality cup of coffee and if there are certain baristas making coffee 'better' than their colleagues, then something is going awry. Indeed, consistency and reliability is key to any commendable and sustainable enterprise.

Combine this with the fact that many coffee shops have outlets in multiple locations and the need for consistency becomes even more apparent. A consumer is likely to argue that they should be able to walk into any branch and happily expect to be served the same drink.

As Scott Lucey, head of barista training for roaster-retailers Colectivo Coffee in Milwaukee, US says, consistency is "very, very, very important".

Using one of the most famous coffee brands in the world as an example, the expert – a regional representative for Counter Culture Coffee's Counter Intelligence education programme – writes: "A fundamental part of what makes Starbucks appealing to millions of customers is that everyone from Albany or Albuquerque who's handed a green and white cup knows exactly what to expect from its contents."

Nevertheless, the coffee aficionado recognises that, for this particular company, a lot of this is down to automation. Indeed, specialist equipment eliminates the chance for human error – rather, human skill – as a machine does nearly all of the work, repeating the same processes and churning out the same coffees every time.

While this has its advantages, this leaves roasters in a bit of a catch-22 situation. While using machines can help to safeguard against human error and incidences of 'I prefer how that barista makes my latte', it eliminates the need for expert technique and tasting skills. Therefore, some may argue, such automation threatens to take away a large part of the magic of roasting and producing quality coffee, upon which so many smaller businesses thrive.

So how to get around this? She explains this using the analogy of a restaurant. A head chef will devise a dish and put it together in a very particular way. Then, they will teach a team to recreate their masterpiece. And yet, even though these other chefs are reproducing someone else's work, this does not make them any less skilled in their profession. 

Similarly, roasters need to establish a 'recipe', a particular way of producing a cup of coffee, and this is what baristas – with all of their skill and passion, just like a dedicated team of chefs – need to recreate. 

With faultless communication and training, there is no reason that baristas shouldn't be able to recreate the recipe for a 'perfect' coffee, without merely pushing the 'on' button of a machine.