Battling a Bias

As a barista and a student of coffee I think I can safely say that I’m not alone, in the industry, in having a bias. It is my opinion that we all have a bias. No matter how hard we try to be as objective as possible, unless it’s a double blind tasting experiment we will always have a bias. Even when it is, we will have a taste preference, and therefore a bias.

With this post I had more than just the obvious intention of setting out that this happens and giving an example of it. I also wanted to point out what I have noticed in having a bias and how it has negatively affected experiences that I’ve had, both as a barista and as a consumer.

Some of our biases are set in “better” equipment i.e. More expensive (Robur E, for example)
Some are set in the underdog, or opposed to the more expensive equipment. This is imaginably either out of hope that the more expensive equipment is in fact not “better” hope that the cheaper equipment is better/good enough or that everyone using the more expensive (Robur E) is simply blindly following what seems to be a really great piece of equipment. Double Speak I’ve heard Nick Cho call it. My understanding is that something false happens, is backed by influential figures and is therefore taken as truth.

The biggest example of this that I can think of is preinfusion. Please correct me if any of my data is incorrect, I don’t hold to any specific timeline, but a simple generalization of a timeline. The original La Marzocco Linea did not have preinfusion or flow restrictors/gicleurs. This was bad. The coffee puck was hit with water at 9 bars, super fast. Bam. Broke. Channeling. To fix this, La Marzocco added a simple preinfusion program, when enacted, the pump was engaged for a burst allowing a small amount of water onto the coffee puck, then it paused and was engaged again after that pause for the rest of the “infusion”. Some time later, flow restrictors/gicleurs were added to these machines. Primarily negating the need for the burst style preinfusion. The water came out at a slower pace, and needed to ramp up to 9 bars of pressure, giving the puck a decent amount of time to swell before infusion (depending on restrictors size). After this, there was still a flurry about preinfusion. From my perspective, this is why Synesso machines had preinfusion. Though the preinfusion time was now adjustable and at a different pressure, it was still primarily not necessary unless used for longer than 4/7seconds which would create a different shot altogether. This is what baristas wanted. So this is what Synesso did. From there, I know of a number of baristas who swore by preinfusion. Heck I was one of them. Point being, the facts weren’t really laid out, we were given the equipment, understood the expectation, and stood behind it. Whether it was right or wrong, we only now know. Or at least in my experience, preinfusion is not necessary. At our shop we’ve gone through using a Synesso Hydra, A WBC Aurelia, a Kees Idrocompresso, and now back to the Aurelia. To me, with our coffee my bias, hopefully more taste focus is on towards the Aurelia. I’ll have you know I was super skeptical at first. I thought the Synesso was Bomb. After tasting shots on the Aurelia, I was amazed that a machine without adjustable preinfusion, without control, could produce such delicious espressos.

Maybe you have a different perspective. If so, great! I’d love to be proven wrong, but in my experience tasting our espresso blend, I have had the best shots off of the WBC Aurelia.

Now to the point of dismay. After using the other machines, I don’t know if I could go back to them and happily serve my customers. They would be different espressos, yes. But would they be great espressos, I don’t know. In my experience, with a new piece of equipment, a new blend, or anything in the shop that I’m having trouble with, if I have difficulty dialing in to it, I almost give up. If it’s not going to be fantastic, or I can’t make it fantastic (in my eyes/perspective/to my taste) I have trouble finding a starting point. If it’s not going to be what I want then I struggle. This is maybe a bad thing to say. Sure, I’m the last person to touch this coffee, and the last one to make it “perfect” so that it live up to the potential that that coffee had. I most certainly don’t feel like I am the strongest or the last link in the chain and therefore most important, or that because I’m dealing with customers I have the toughest job. That’s a bunch of hooey. I’m not more important. But I still have trouble fighting a bias against things that are not designed around my taste/flavor profile.

As a customer I’ve experienced this as well. Asking a barista for something that they’re really excited about and getting a blank look, or a “well, this week is ok. We don’t have that really special coffee we had last week, sorry” my experience from that point on is almost always doomed. I’m sure there’s a coffee this week that’s fine, and I’m sure there are redeeming qualities in it.

As a barista, in the shop I find myself clinging to those coffees that I can stand behind, and having at least 2/4 menu items that I’m actually excited about. Without that I fall into the same “doomed experience” pitfall. The best, easiest way for me to sell coffee is to actually be excited about it. I’m a bad faker.


4 Responses to “Battling a Bias”

  1. Keith, I like the article but I need a quick clarification. I totally understand the first part on bias, but am not sure what you are trying to say with the second part. Are you saying that bias is such a pervasive issue that it sometimes seems like one can have days where it is possible to serve something that one is proud of and thinks is good?

    If that is what you are saying, I agree on one hand, but on the other hand I would say that this is just another different example of how bias negatively affects us, because it it not necessarily true that, on those bad days, we really cannot serve anything good. Our own preconceived notions of good and bad are just preventing us from thinking that what we are serving is good. Is this what you are getting at?

    Great post, though, bro.

  2. I’m saying on bad days it is possible to serve good coffee/product, but our outlook on the day creates a bad experience for the guest.

    Extreme example: bartender hands you a beer that you thought sounded really great. You picked it.
    They hand it to you and say “here’s the shittiest beer on the menu, enjoy.”

    Obviously you’re not going to enjoy it now. Maybe it’s not something they enjoy. But you might. Now you won’t. It’s all about perspective and your overall experience.

  3. sanford c bledsoe iii Says:

    This was a refreshing post. It’s not always easy to encounter something that challenges your opinion or bias, or forces you to challenge your own. The most we can hope for is to be professional about it. Now I’m going to be spending my next few days at work thinking, “Why do I believe this? Why do I assume this?” Thanks, Keith!

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