Burr grinders, good coffee, and magical thinking

I’m not a huge fan of magical thinking, received wisdom, dogma, etc, etc. Sure, there’s going to be some value in received wisdom and we should have a bit of a think before tossing it out the window. But in general, unquestioning adoption of anything is a bad idea.

One place this kind of quasi-religious thinking shows up a lot is in cooking. Mostly, I think, because for a long time we knew that something did something but we didn’t know why. So people built up narratives about why because apparently we can’t say that seared steak tastes better without saying searing “seals in the juices” or whatever.

The worst of the worst, though, are a subset of cooking people, the coffee snobs. These people have turned a drug into a fetishistic individual or communal act. They know that your “average” coffee drinking prefers weak, milky coffee (maybe even with, gasp, sugar). These are the benighted, the heathens, who must (but frustratingly often can’t) be evangelized into the sacred cult of the good cup of coffee, whose sacraments are the fresh-ground bean and the burr grinder, the French press and the espresso machine.

Understandably, there isn’t much scientific data on whether or not any of this stuff really matters. Take burr grinders. There are two types of coffee grinders (leaving aside pre-ground coffee, that-which-must-not-be-named, the anathema, the Great Satan): Blade and burr. Blade grinders are essentially blenders. They’re what you use for spices. They whirl about and take a bunch of whacks at the beans until they’ve beaten them into submission. Burr grinders on the other hand gently caress the beans until they fall apart on their own. Or something.

Now as with most magical cook-think, the reasons not to use a blade grinder are many and change depending on who you ask. But there’s a general consensus that blade grinders produce a more uneven grind, tend to heat up the beans, and can’t make decent espresso grind. All these things are easily testable. But somehow no one has. Not really. And no one has tested whether or not an uneven grind makes a worse cup of coffee. Its seems like it should… but there are lots of things that seem like they should but aren’t. No one has tested whether a slight temperature increase makes a worse cup of coffee.

By the way, I’ve personally tested this, and I can’t tell the difference between burr and blade. I’ve been given lots of reasons for this (my eyes aren’t good, my equipment isn’t good, I’m too skilled a blade grinding, etc), but I see what I see. Lots of variability in grain size

And you can’t test this! You see the coffee nerds have constructed a completely test-proof ivory (but coffee-stained) tower where once we start a scientific approach they can say “oh but taste tests aren’t any good!” Why? Because the average people who do taste tests just don’t get it. The priests of the coffee cult get it, but some guy off the street isn’t good data. We’re not making coffee for them after all. The real reason is, of course, that no priest of the coffee cult wants to have their actual taste buds actually tested. They know what’s happened to the wine community with that.

I think at the end of the day, once there’s some science done here, we’ll find the same thing that we found out about wine. Everyone can tell the difference between terrible wine and decent wine. Very few people can tell the difference between decent wine and good wine. And almost no one can tell the difference between good wine and really, really good wine. I could be wrong. Maybe a lot of coffee snobs really can distinguish good coffee from really, really good coffee. Maybe they’re not using any kind of product or process signalling to make that decision. I could be wrong. But I don’t think I am.

This kind of investigation may strip the emperor of his clothes. But it doesn’t invalidate your personal quest to make the best cup of coffee ever. That’s your own hobby. Still, I think we can stop pretending that if only we could tell the unwashed heathens of the good news of Jesus Christ Aeropress or whatever that they’ll suddenly join the crusade.