Freedom through control

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Josh (my friend and coworker) recently told me that we shouldn’t ever have wasted espresso when we use the Anfim grinder, since it times each dose to the 1/100th of a second.

I asked him why. I have to know why I’m doing something before I do it, or in this case don’t do it. Also, I think I have a problem listening to authority figures. So when Josh told me how I was to use the grinder I’ve been using for some time, I instinctively bristled. I didn’t understand why he was stifling my creativity (what if the moment called for huge overdosing?). And he didn’t understand my resistance.

After some thought, I realized he was right. This time. We talked and hugged (something we do a lot at SCW). What I wasn’t prepared to appreciate in that moment was that he was actually helping and not stifling my creative process by trying to eliminate the variable of inconsistent dosing. He was trying to help me and every SCW barista control the outcome when we pull a shot of espresso. I realized right then that creativity and control aren’t enemies, they’re partners.

This may seem obvious to some of you. To me, it was an epiphany. Creativity provides the raw material to be controlled, and control keeps creativity from tripping over its own feet so it can achieve better results.

Another great example of this dynamic in action arrived a few days ago. The Trifecta coffee machine provides precision control of 11 variables in each cup of coffee. Overly mechanized? Maybe. Artisan? Definitely not. But we’ve been making consistently very good (by our standards) cups of coffee in it so far, and we’re still fine-tuning the variables. Soon, I believe that we’ll be able to make consistently superb cups of coffee, given enough time to learn what each variable does and how they all interact. I believe this because the variables are under constant computer control. Without that control, the ground would always be shifting under our feet a little bit.

To be sure, I wouldn’t trust an automated espresso machine to make my latte. Espresso is too fussy and I think it needs a human brain and heart to work with it and make it taste great. And in general, an excess of standardization without innovation is stifling and boring (see Sebastian’s latest post). But in my experience, pure, uncontrolled creativity often falls short of its potential. I wouldn’t have thought to nix the espresso waste from the Anfim. But now that I’ve adopted Josh’s policy, I know just how much espresso is in each dose, and my results have been a little better. I’m that much closer to serving you absolutely amazing espresso every time.

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