June 27, 2011

Minimalist Ideas, Maximalist Results

As much time as I spend doing anything else, at least as much is spent reading. Currently, a great deal of that time is devoted to running and fitness literature, or more broadly, sports science. If you've even a passing interest in that area, you've surely been exposed to the running shoe/form debate. Truthfully, I find the whole thing just a little odd, and probably a case of misapplied focus. Most people would run better and be hurt less with proper training/nutrition, while simply running in something that they find comfortable.

This line of thinking, how equipment effects technique which effects product, has correlates in innumerable other activities -- yes, one of which is making coffee. How much does technology help? Does it, perhaps, actively detract from quality? Might a more human touch be better?

As with the shod/unshod debate, I think this is a false dichotomy. There is a point at which too much human control is ceded, and the product suffers. But I'm not sure where that line is in every case, or even most cases. I'm sure it varies a great deal.

A high volume cafe (like a high volume runner) probably has greater need for technology. Barefoot running will not produce optimal results at 70 MPW, especially if most of that is on pavement. In this case, shoes almost certainly help.

People argue that the Nike's of the world are more marketing machines than anything else, more focused on creating a product than a tool. It's a cynical view, but not one without validity. However, the Nike's of the world still outfit the best runners in the world, from the local 5K winners to Bernard Lagat. There is pride at stake for the former outfit, and quite a bit of money for the latter. If training in trainers was suboptimal, they'd probably not be doing it.

And as a certain amount of mileage at a certain pace is probably easier to achieve with some cushion and support, serving a certain volume of coffee is easier when using electric brewers, and not simply pour over methods. Try to tell the 15 people in line that, sorry, it'll be a few minutes before I brew this one cup, the cherry notes simply won't sparkle right if mass brewed. Then duck, and acquire a sense of context.

Of course, there is the other end of the spectrum, the Brooks Beast of running shoes and McDonald's model of espresso. Here, the human element is as far removed as possible, with the assumption being that the human element will only make things messy. The machine is more efficient, quality be dammed, and thus it's better. The problems here are fairly obvious. Primarily, the product suffers, and is in fact often produced in a less efficient manner.

There is no best fit between those two extremes. At least, there is no one best fit. Volume matters, as does the type of cafe you purport to be and the customer base that draws. In finding fit, it's best to leave dogma at the door. Pay attention to what works, and most importantly, what works well.

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