Is coffee art or science?

Last week I was back on the tools for a few days, bringing coffee to the masses, when a customer sheepishly asked me a question. "So, is coffee an art or a science?"

I can't remember exactly how I responded... from memory I laughed, said something like "it depends who you ask" and poured a rosetta in his latte for him. He seemed satisfied with this answer but it is a question that comes up fairly often in the industry. Some baristas approach coffee with a lab coat and safety glasses; drooling over their new set of precision scales, obsessing over micrograms, ratios, refractometers and the like. Others, take a fluid approach, "feeling" their way to the infamous "god shot" and view scales and timers as a form of cheating their art. How should we view coffee and the role of the barista? Are they are a scientist or an artist?

At the WBC (World Barista Championship) in Rimini, Italy last week, William Hernandez (the El Salvador barista champion) based his performance on this question. He even painted while making coffee! On the other hand our UK and Hong Kong barista champions focused on the science behind water and grind consistency respectively. So even at the upper echelons of the industry, art and science are balanced against each other to create an amazing sensory experience for others to enjoy. So is there an answer?

Coffee is all about the senses. The smell of coffee fumes wafting down the street, the whirr of the grinders, the sight of perfectly executed latte art and lets not forget the taste!

There is no doubt in my mind that coffee is greater than the sum of its parts. But does that make it an art-form? The talent of an artist is showcased not only through what they produce and deliver but also the reception it receives. True art can be said to evoke an emotional response from the observer. 

Equally, repeatability is an integral part of any barista's skill set. Using a scientific approach gives the barista confidence that each coffee will taste as similar as possible. But does this approach take away from their skill? 

For me personally, using science doesn't take away from the craft. It adds to it. I like to think of science as an extra tool in the barista's arsenal in creating amazing coffee. More than ever baristas can control more and more, from pressure profiling to brew temperature. Thanks to science we have more tools, more control of the variables and more toys to play with!

Albert Einstein once said: 'Creativity is intelligence having fun”. For me this sums up the coffee industry. As we push the boundaries, it has to be based on reason, logic, intelligence and science but we also need to think outside the box, and use our skills to experiment, play and translate these advances to the cup.

So is coffee art or science?

I see coffee as a craft, where science provides the foundation and art the interpretation. 

What do you think? 

What approach do you take?


Posted on June 23, 2014 .