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Manual brewing vs. machines? Should we/they be allowed to compete?

May 20, 2012

The other day one of barkingburro’s posts sparked an interesting (to me, at least) mini-discussion in the comments section. Riffing on a point he made (below)…

barkingburro: “I've tried. Used the wrong water, the wrong settings, had an aborted brew when the air leaked out through the top gasket. I even had some help from my grinder giving me a random grind. Each time, the result [from the Trifecta MB] was better than I've made using manual brewing techniques.”

…I commented as follows:

jbviau: “… you’ve got me curious about what would happen if a panel of judges were to cup coffee from the Trifecta MB against that brewed using other methods (holding the beans constant). The World Brewers Cup is being held mid-June in Vienna. I checked their rules, and they do, indeed, specify that brewing devices used in competition have to be manual (see p. 7). Boo."

And here was the burro’s response:

“Well, I've already seen the narrow-minded side of coffee elitists who discount the Trifecta and any brewing method that doesn't clarify the brew using a paper filter. My guess is you would get a healthy controversy among judges on that point alone, current world cup rules notwithstanding. I would compare the Trifecta to manual brewing techniques in a similar light as quartz watches to mechanical ones. The automated results are closer to perfection, but the art and skills of the manual ways cannot be discounted. At least espresso still remains a tough nut to crack, from an automation standpoint. Just wait until the Trifecta technology gets copied and made affordable. Then you'll really see the quartz digital watch effect in full swing--and the loss of the manual art to the most rare uber elitists.”

Back to those Brewers Cup rules, allow me to paste in the relevant tidbit (here's the full document in .pdf form):

“9.7 BREWING DEVICE

B. Brewing devices must be “manual” in nature, and may not include or involve mechanical action powered by supplemental forces (i.e., electricity) other than those exceptions below:

i. Mechanical action powered by the competitor’s manual action (i.e. hand and/or arm action), by gravity, or created by the act of coffee brewing itself (i.e. pressure in vacuum brewers, movement in balance brewers) is permitted.

ii. Heat sources are allowed (electrical, magnetic, or liquid fuel), provided they are used to heat water or the coffee beverage and not to power any additional mechanism.

iii. A machine or mechanism that supplies the competitor with brew water is allowed, though if it involves any automated and/or portioning mechanism (i.e., a machine programmed to dispense a specific quantity of water), it may not be used directly on the coffee. For example, an automatic water delivery machine could dispense into a pouring vessel, but not directly to the coffee.”

What’s your take? Is it right and good that machines like the Bunn Trifecta MB be forbidden in competition? If a machine makes better coffee than you’re capable of making using manual methods, is the value of manual brewing overall diminished? I haven’t fully made up my mind yet, but I find the issue thought-provoking. Certainly there are those online who are tired of single-cup brewing and would rather see batch-brewed coffee getting the respect they think it deserves, so I know I’m not alone in wondering aloud about what place automation should have in specialty coffee circles.






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