I’m at the “Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room”, it’s a concept store I guess. It’s prompted me to write a few things.

I’m drinking a coffee made on a Clover brewer. The machine is identical to the one that my last Clover brewed coffee was made on at Brother Baba Budan half a decade ago by Talor Browne*. The experience is very different but the coffee is essentially the same1.

*Talor gets a special mention because her recent writing, and reposting of others’ writing, has put my brain in a situation where this idea is even possible. She’s also fantastic at serving coffee in the broadest possible sense.

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My coffee came on a neatly laser engraved tray. I’m not quite sure why though; if it’d been a cup and a pouring vessel of some sort I could see the point of the tray. ¯\(ツ)

I ordered and paid a man at the till, an unseen person made the coffee, then a lady called my name and handed me the drink. If we refactor the process2 none of the humans were actually required. It would take minimal engineering skill to make the Clover fully automatic3. Starbucks have already made online ordering a core part of their business.

The main coffee making skills of a barista are (1) knowledge of ingredients and (2) knowledge and skill in how to operate and maintain the equipment4. My guess is that those two skills only account for a small part of a successful barista’s repertory5. (I’m probably going to be contradicted on that because I can only guess, having never been one.)

As automation gets better and better, and human tasks are replaced by robot tasks6 then the division of labour is worth thinking about a bit harder. Ricardo’s unintuitive explanation of comparative advantage is useful here. He says that focusing on what each individual is best at is best for them, and the group as a whole. Machines are better at making things in a repeatable way7 but people are best at being people. We are good at doing people-stuff like empathising.

What I wanted to talk about was experience. When I buy my Clover in mega-Starbucks then I’m buying a coffee. When I’m buying a coffee from someone like Talor then I’m being served a coffee. There is a subtle difference and that’s what matters here.

I’d guess that a lot of people have been imagining some kind of clinical future. One where something resembling a modified photo booth brews spectacular coffee. Ordered by an app, finely tuned to our individual tastes and dispensed without queues. I’m actually pretty sure that this will happen. In our techno-utopia future there is space for this, but I don’t think it will be the norm. It misses out on the other major factor in one’s interactions at a café—the products of emotional labour.

Frank and freddy chat

If your barista8 interacts with you as a human who cares about your wellbeing then it’s of value to you. This might be the only time it happens in your whole day. Your life might be some kind of Frank Underwood power struggle and the only person you can talk to is Freddy Hayes.

This has been an issue recently; the uncompensated, or indirectly compensated, emotional labour. There have also been calls for baristaing to be thought of as skilled work. I agree that it should be, but for different reasons to most people.

The work of making coffee is undeniably skilled. But when you effectively refactor it it makes no difference if a person makes it or a machine9. Where I’d place the burden of skill (to misuse and misquote) is on the service aspect. To be skilled in human interaction, in empathy, is an under-appreciated and under-compensated ability.

In his book “Religion for Atheists” Alain de Botton talks about some of the things that modern, secular society could learn from religion10. Most of the things that are built into religion were absorbed from general culture over time. As society rapidly became more secular it jettisoned a lot of these ideas, some that we shouldn’t have. One of those things is the public psychiatry that a local religious official would provide.

The (still needed) role of the neighbourhood psychiatrist has been filled by baristas and bar tenders. Once we recognise this it allows us to develop into a phase where it can become more developed. The skilled barista can listen to your woes while engaging in that most British therapy: a cup of tea and a chat. (Or coffee, let’s not have any hot-drink-apartheid).

To summarise this position:

  • It will be possible to automate coffee making soon at a level that surpasses human capacity.
  • Coffee serving is part making and part communicating.
  • Once making is automated, serving becomes the human value-add.
  • There is potential to formalise the relationship building aspect of this skilled work. Making it into an important social support mechanism.

This might not be popular with everyone. Some of the public might want to be left alone—that’s fine, they can app-order their coffee from a hole-in-the-wall-auto. Some baristas might cling to the craft of infusing magic beans in water—also fine. We seem to have a preference for ‘hand made’ even when the quality isn’t as high. It seems to me that there is potential to make something of this. After all, there is precedent! Insurance came from baristas talking to their customers and betting them that their ships wouldn’t come in. Perhaps the next round of coffee related success might come from shepherding customer sanity?

  1. I think the BBB coffee as a raw product was better. By the time you are up in the rarefied world of these kinds of coffee, it’s all very good so lets not split hairs. 

  2. I talk a lot about refactoring processes. I often link to my post from last year called delegation==programming. I’m not sure that just linking is enough for people to know what I mean. Refactoring is a term used in programming to refer to the process of reorganising your code to make it better. ‘Better’ usually means more readable, or more maintainable. So in non-programmer terms we can use the classic recipe metaphor: If you are making a doughnut then one of the steps is heat the oil to xxx°c. If you needed totally specific instructions you’d need to write out an explanation of what a frier was, and how to use it but the explanation has been refactored out to the frier instruction manual, so the recipe can be more readable.

    Another interesting thing about refactoring is that it also indicates a step that can often be delegated. In a computer that means to another process thread, or in real life to another person or a machine. It doesn’t matter who it’s delegated to as long as you are happy with the result.

    This doesn’t take into account that you might like working with another person, or that they might come up with a good idea when they are doing the thing that you’ve delegated to them. It’s a pretty mechanistic way of looking at the world, but I think that it frees people to have other, more interesting, thoughts. 

  3. It would need a way of grinding a quantity of coffee into the chamber, a stirrer and a cleaning cycle. None of these are all that difficult. There would need to be human involvement in QA and setup. That’s much more subjective. I’m not sure if there have been any studies of correlation between pH, TDS or other easily measurable factors, and subjective quality. Having those sensors on board might stop quality drift over time though. If it altered someone if a number went outside a tolerance then it could be dialled back in. I’m sure this stuff is being looked at! 

  4. I was going to add “Knowledge of how to tweak recipes to specific tastes” but that’s a combination of the first two, and a bit of what I’m going to talk about next. 

  5. I went on a bit of a ramble in my notebook, but here’s most of it.

    My guess is that most independent coffee shops maintain customers based on a profile of attributes and skills that’s very different to just those two. Local-ness probably plays a big part. A large proportion of the world really doesn’t care that much about taste11. The other big factor is signalling. Café allegiance is a badge; it shows off your credentials as a certain type of person. If you have a single origin Aeropress then you are signalling your implicit membership of a group. If you have a 500ml McCafe then you are signalling something else. If McDonalds made their auto machines have Clover guts that produced a brown liquid that won blind taste tests, my guess is that people still wouldn’t drink it because it’s ego-distonic. 

  6. I asked Talor to have a look at this before I posted it. She sent me to look at the work that Matt Perger has done on Barista Hustle about automation.

    Matt posted a poll:

    If there was a super-automatic espresso machine that could make coffee as well as or better than you, would you want it in your cafe?

    Yes just edged in a win, but the comments are the best bit. It’s well worth spending an hour trawling through them. (It’s a private group, but my request to join was approved immediately.) Some are afraid, others think that the human craft angle will prevail, but most seem receptive to the idea that automating part of their work will free them to focus on other parts. 

  7. machines are better at consistency once enough has been invested in making that happen. There’s a the whole 6σ thing where engineers get systems to be spectacularly robust. Partially by making them more consistent and partially by making the definition of acceptable wider. For something like a drink that we actually care about the outcome we can only really modify the consistency aspect because the definition of acceptable is pushed so hard up into the corner that there’s nowhere to go. 

  8. I was using “barista of bartender” a lot, and it started to sound like “he or she”. You can probably use barista and bartender more or less interchangeably throughout this and swap making coffee for making cocktails or any other drinks you like. 

  9. It makes a difference if a machine makes coffee if your livelihood is displaced by that machine. That is an issue facing many people at the moment, and I’m hoping that this post can be a bit allegorical and cover lots of scenarios, not just coffee making. The idea that specialising in the un-automatable parts of your profession feels like good, general advice to me. 

  10. He runs through the things that the major religions absorbed into their modus operandi because they were common sense at the time. Things like a prohibition on eating pork or shellfish were food safety rules that have been made irrelevant by refrigeration. Others, like circumcision (of any kind) or stoning adulterers may have had some kind of use at some point but are barbaric by modern standards. 

  11. Again, anecdotal, but an anecdote that I have plenty of experience with. (I’m not going to name any names here.)