“Don’t let perfect get in the way of good”
Or so the saying goes. And while this may be a good tenant for many things (including writing these posts), there are some finer things in this life that are worth going the extra distance and chasing after perfection. It is in the subtle nuances where perfect stands out from good, and it is in those nuances where there can be found delightful magic, excellence in expression, and blissful joy.
While the perfect end result is obviously a goal, sometimes it is just in the pursuit of perfect where all the payoff is actually realised. It is in the commitment to the cause, the dedication to the discipline, the patience of trial and error and laser focus on attention to detail and above all the will and perseverance to overcome mediocrity. Chasing perfection in the crafting itself is as much the reason for doing something as anything else.
Yes, I am talking about making a cup of coffee.
I am talking about the subtle art of chasing perfection in a cup, a cup of coffee, with all its wonderous flavours, its subtle textures and sensuous aromas. For those of us who are hopelessly addicted to all the things surrounding this little joy of taste experience, coffee is much more than a just another component of breakfast. It is one of the finer things in life where appreciation of perfection can be applied, chased and sometimes even realised.
Its been a long time coming, but I finally realised my dream when I made the decision to invest in a proper, professional grade espresso machine. This isn’t the type of appliance where you can just push a button and the coffee just comes out. It’s a home version of the type they have in the coffee shops with all the various points of adjustment that allow a barista to really dial in the finer details to deliver the best cup of coffee.
My new home set up has given me new purpose in life: to chase perfection of both a savoury reward and of a religious practice of the divine.
It’s been a few months now, and yes I can definitely make a “good” coffee. I can reliably pull a passable ristretto for fully flavourful flat white. I have probably made several hundred cups so far, and my milk frothing skills can control the stretch to get the right micro foam for either a cappuccino vs a latte.
And while I am thoroughly enjoying the these cups of coffee from my home cafe, I am still working on my consistency and still playing with the variables. Now that I have achieved “good,” I feel that I have so much to learn as I explore the seemingly infinite space between good and perfect. There is so much dimension in the nuance. The possibilities seem to keep expanding and the more I look the more I feel like there is to see and learn. Just when perfect seems so close, it turns out that it is actually kind of far away.
I love this.
Sometimes in the workflow, at one particular step, I just know right away that something is off. The pre-infusion is taking too long and the brew will be over extracted. Or the colour is way too light and the water must be channeling in the puck or maybe the boiler it too hot. Too much air injected in the milk too soon and the foam will be too big. At these points I have to make the call if I should start over of go with it. Do I want this latte to turn into a more foamy cappuccino?
Will I be ok with no nicely formed latte art heart design, and just cover the messy foam blob with chocolate sprinkles? Sure the taste will be fine and I can enjoy the cup, but I also know that I will have missed another chance to have found the flow, found the perfect practice of lining up all the right variables and executing flawlessly on all the steps.
I scrutinise all the details in my workflow to try to learn for next time, to make micro adjustments in the grind size, the dose, tamp pressure, brew time. I learn about the quirks of the machine, learn how to hack the factory settings of the machine for different and hopefully better results. Most importantly, I learn to pay attention to different microscopic cues and indicators on my path to perfection. My own focus is just another variable in the workflow that needs to be monitored and modified.
Sometimes, I know straight away when I am on the right path, the path of the chosen one, the stars are all aligned and it feels like the café gods are holding my hand and leading me straight toward enlightenment. The drip emerges after the ideal pre-infusion in a smooth, even flow, maintaining that beautiful consistent café colour. The crema swirls up on top like sparkly golden icing. The milk wand starts in the exact right spot and the vortex rolls with ease. I know I am heading towards nirvana in the cup not just of flavour, but of practice, of discipline and of the pursuit of something beautiful.
This is where I find so much joy. What seems like such a simple thing, has so much complexity, so much subtlety, so much margin for error, and at the end of the process so much reward in the appreciation of the practice, and, also a really great latte.
I know there is an analogy here. Or not. Either way, my life has truly changed, been elevated to enjoy my addiction of not just the flavour, but of the ritual, the philosophy and way of life.
I know, deep shit man.
But hey, this is coffee.