Mark Knopfler used to write some pretty bad lyrics that still managed to make for some really awesome songs. Or my teenage hormones are still dictating my adult tastes. Hard to say. Don’t care, really…”Making Movies” is still one of my top albums.
I used an analogy the other day of running a school being like running a coffee shop. Mr Norling made a comment about the analogy, saying we really weren’t making espresso. I disagree with that, and as usual I find that when I am inspired to respond to something I have read, it’s a good sign that I should use that inspiration to instead write a blog post.
I do love my espresso. I like coffee in general. It wasn’t easy for me to like. I hated the taste right up until my thirties. Much like my taste for wine, tobacco and whisky, though, it wasn’t a dislike of the thing itself. It turned out to be a dislike for the cheap and watered down versions. Nescafe still turns my stomach, and tastes just like the coffee I remember from my childhood. Horrid stuff. Comparing that to my first proper Cup of Excellence prepared correctly? Different worlds.
Learning to love coffee was an exploration of the potential of the beans. Being able to identify the origin of a bean with a sniff and a few sips meant I had to learn all about each variety. I had to learn the flavour profiles from each region, and how small changes could affect the taste. Started with the big differences…learning the floral and citrus notes of the South American superstars, the deep earthy cocoa of the Africans, the sublime Blue Mountain perfection, the dizzying array of caramels and butterscotch’s and grapefruit and lavenders and…You can do a lot with a bean. It took time to learn the basics.
Once you’ve got the bean, you have to bring out it’s potential. You know the general characteristics of the region, the farm, the season, the wash, the dry, the selection…all those things give you a potential. It means nothing without the roast. Dark roasts are ideal for espresso, yielding complex and powerful flavours. Medium roasts excel in the land of the vacuum and clover press, yielding body and subtlety. Light roasts can erupt into a dizzying array of flavours in a french press. With the bean in hand, you have to know what roast to aim for. What process will yield the best flavour? What is it in this bean that deserves to be highlighted? If it’s capable of a solid floral bloom, it should be roasted light. With a heavy chocolate flavour and zippy high notes, a dark roast might suit best.
And once roasted, it goes into the hands of the brewer. It’s a whole new art here. The espresso machine demands the highest skill. Anyone can make a poor espresso, a touch of talent can produce a good one. It takes a dedicated artist to create a great espresso, someone capable of communion with the arcane secrets. The Clover lends itself to the scientist, the one who has the patience to test, to gather data, to pay attention to things like the weather of the day and knows how it all combines with each bean to craft different requirements for the perfect cup. All of that, of course, means nothing without a customer who has the developed taste to enjoy what they have asked for and been presented.
The teacher has to know his students, and know sort of process they will need to hit their full potential. A good teacher can handle all the roasts, and guide each student towards the best expression of their inner flavour. A poor teacher has only one taste, one flavour, and tries to fit every student into that profile. McDonalds is successful because you can go to any location, and all the coffee tastes exactly the same. It doesn’t matter if the cup comes from a wizened old vet or a bored teenager, it will taste the same. Some people only value the familiar, but I say there is no art or worth in that. Some students are meant to be espresso, some are meant for the french press.
When a student starts, you have to first understand what sort of bean they are. It’s rare, but sometimes you get a bullet instead of a bean. Coffee grows in wild places, and finding the odd thing hidden in a canvas bag of raw beans isn’t unheard of (yes, one of our local roasters did find a bullet.) If you try to roast a bullet in with your other beans, it’s going to blow up and trash your other beans and you. It’s a lovely fantasy to take in the troubled student and try to make something out of them, but recall that dealing with such people is a specialist skill that people put years into learning. If you haven’t got the background, don’t feel bad about sending them to train elsewhere. It’s better for everyone.
The roasting process with students is the process of gradually building them up to being themselves. Don’t fool yourself that you are teaching them anything for the first while. Most people will arrive broken, and your first task is to fix them. All the skills and drills at this point are just something to keep them busy while you put in the work of shoring up weak spots, correcting structural issues, or providing long-term workarounds for things that can’t be fixed. You can’t do any of that without observing and interacting with your students and really understanding what has made them what they currently are.
Once they’ve been roasted correctly, they’ll fit into different roast profiles…dark, medium, and light. People settle into categories, and if you teach or have enough experience, you know this implicitly. Some people are superstars of movement, some are tight and technical, some are plodders with real power when it counts, etc. The process of roasting lets someone settle into a certain category, and now you can begin teaching. The grinding process is how you prep a bean for a certain brewing process. The dark roasts get the finest and hardest grind, the lights gets the coarsest and gentlest grind. Each grind is designed to bring out the maximum flavour potential of each bean. One is not better than the other, and each needs to appreciated and groomed separately.
With students, we do this by increasing their potential. Now that they have had all their flaws taken care of and we know the general arc their progress will take, we need to change that arc. We build up core strength and increase their athletic potential. We teach them to move in new ways. We let no part of their being find comfort. We challenge everything they do, to different degrees. We understand that the roast will guide us to the best approach to each student. Some will be put into a narrow path of mastering linear movements and tight control of a restricted game, others will learn to dance and eat space. Technical training and fitness training should progress hand in hand, and mostly individually. Group classes should be structured to allow everyone to work on their own things within the context of each drill, and give the coaches time to do some work with each student. This is the hard technical learning where real growth happens, and students learn to consume what will become their body of knowledge and technique.
Grinding and brewing means nothing without someone to drink the finished coffee. A learned customer is the best, and this is still the student. Being the summation of the bean, the grind, the brew and the consumption, the student expresses the finality of his art as it exists at the moment in combat with another student. The senses must be opened to full awareness of the experience, the mind must be prepared for exactly what has been ordered, and the whole body relaxed, unified and focused on the totality of the experience.