Whether you like it or not, batch brew is gaining a crazy amount of traction in the world of specialty coffee, especially in Australia. It’s been hitting the menus of some rather elite roasters and coffee shops, creating quite a buzz in the café scene. It’s got to the point that it’s almost become cool to walk into your local and say “I’ll have the batch” as though it’s a dazzling new invention we should all be devoting our daily caffeine allowance to. But is batch really good news for specialty coffee, or have we just taken a massive step backwards?
Let’s start by answering the question; what exactly is batch brew? As the name would suggest, we’re talking brewed filter coffee here but that’s about as specific as you can get before the lines get blurry. Some say to call it ‘batch’ the coffee has to be brewed in large quantities, others will tell you that it’s anything that comes out of an automated machine like a Fetco, Moccamaster or Wilbur Curtis etc… The underlying idea is all about efficiency and economy of scale – coffee shops are wanting to reduce the time taken to make a filter coffee, allowing them to offer it to customers at a lower price point.
Batch brew certainly isn’t a new concept, the Americans have been doing it in their diners for decades. What is new however, is the type of coffee that’s being extracted as batch. In the last few years we’ve started seeing coffees with cupping scores well into the 90’s being put through automated machines. I see no problem with this at all, quite the opposite. These machines have the ability to offer a repeatability in process that simply can’t be matched with manual brewing. Variables such as flow rate and water distribution can be controlled far better by a machine programmed with a set recipe than they can with hand pouring. The problem is that many coffee shops are using batch methods to brew coffee in quantities that are surplus to their immediate needs – let’s call this ‘excess batch’. All of a sudden, rather than being served to customers straight away, we have top shelf specialty coffees sitting in insulated jugs or on warmers for often lengthy stints. Some cafés will tell you they change over their excess batch periodically throughout the day, others will say they sell it fast enough to never require a refresh. For me, that’s still not good enough, I want to drink the best coffee I possibly can. The quality of the cup is going to degrade with time, especially when a number of top coffee shops are only refreshing it every few hours. Have you ever heard someone say to their barista “hold on a second, can you just keep that beautifully brewed coffee for an hour before you serve it to me”?
We call this ‘specialty coffee’ for a reason. It’s an industry that prides itself on superlatives, on constantly evolving and advancing itself. Think about the painstaking effort that goes into producing and roasting a green bean, do we really want to make an active decision to serve up a second-rate coffee to our customers just because it’s faster or cheaper? Coffee prices are already too low, restricting roasters’ ability to financially reward skilled farmers to the extent many want to. We should be pushing for a move in the other direction, but this is where things get a little tricky. At the end of the day a coffee shop is still a business that needs to make money to survive and running batch brew offers owners a financial incentive. Due to the time saving associated with an automated machine, labour costs are significantly reduced. Likewise, the other benefit I can see to batch is its ability to get more people drinking filter coffee. Customers who would otherwise baulk at an $8 coffee might just be tempted to the
dark light side by a cheaper price point. So where does this leave us?
If you’re going to batch it up, do it properly. Don’t make excess. Dial your brew to perfection each morning, use an automated brewer if you want to speed things up in the café, but wherever possible brew individually. Set the recipe and give your customers a coffee you are truly proud of. Take the time to explain why that El Salvador scored a 95 and why it costs as much as it does. If for some reason you’ve got your heart set on offering excess batch in your coffee shop, be sure to refresh. Often. Finally, always (and I mean always) give drinkers the option to pay a little more for an individual brew, automated or otherwise. Let’s keep things moving in the right direction.
Are you running batch in your cafe? What are you making it on? Individual or excess batch, and why? This place is always open for discussion so please have your say in the comments below.