hipster craft

As spring slipped in to summer, I found myself working in a different kind of craft area. Everyone within the coffee industry recognizes coffee to be a craft; from roasting to brewing (and probably from picking to processing too), but I feel sometimes we focus too much on the coffee and too little on the café and what surrounds it as well.

I used to live a couple of years in a tiny town called Gränna. The people of Sweden knows it mostly for its reputation as the origin of a specific candy cane called “Polkagris”, which to this date is made in the same traditional way there. The original cane has mint flavor, and is colored white with red stripes. As I lived there, I knew a lot of people within that industry, but never recognized it to be more than just something people did there, rather than the craft it actually is. So when my brother-in-law opened up a store i Stockholm, I wanted to learn the craft just to see what it was like. And I spent part of this summer making these candies for happy tourists and Stockholmers, and learnt a few things besides the actual baking of the candy canes…

Baking these candy canes doesn’t require too much effort regarding ingredients, this is true. Water, sugar and vinegar is the basis. However, the skill is not unlike making espresso; the weather conditions are of great importance for the texture of the dough. If humid, it will go soft and sticky, and thus easier to shape but very hard to make it go hard and store for a longer time. It needs then to be consumed immidately. On the other hand, if you make the dough too hard, it needs to be baked a lot quicker and the dough, while shaping it into a stick, might easily break.

Another thing that sets the home baker apart from this kind of set up, is a proper cooling table, as seen above. Jonas, senior baker and part owner of the shop, is here airating the dough for it to reach perfect texture and cool it down slightly in order to harden in time. The price you pay for this candy, includes the fact that you see it manufactured by hand in the old traditional way, it has been made since 1859. What Jonas wears in this picture is our store uniform, which is a replica tailored by a museum in Stockholm in order to capture the right era (however an inside secret is that the actual era was too ugly, so it’s from ten years later or so…)

Another interesting aspect of the in store experience, is the tasting of warm candy stick, while it is fresh on the table. Kim, holding the warm candy ready to serve it to eager spectators with a scissor, is also dressed in a same era costume. This will give customers an overall experience that not only shows them the hard labor and skill in craft, but also to taste the fruits of the same. Kids and adults loves it, and I’m not sure how many Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Italian etc. photoalbums I’m in this year, but they are a lot..

Here is centre stage for the craft. Jonas has now shaped the dough into the sticks, and they will be cut into 50 gram sticks, and hand wrapped. What seems like a rather simple task, is actually quite demanding. It takes feeling, timing, strength and patience, pretty much like brewing coffee.

So, what is my point with this post, really? To show that I wallraffed as a baker boy? Well, I have to admit it’s been a lot of fun, and very interesting, but my main lesson from this is that the spectacle itself creates questions from the audience. But, and I am saying this pointing no fingers, in a none-scientific-geeky way. Part of the spectacle is to keep the mystery alive. We are not secretive how this is made, however we do acknowledge that there is a difference between us as “professionals” and the home makers who always fail in making them succesfully in their kitchen (and the difference, I’d say, is spelt cooling table).

We as a coffee industry, are all about transparency. We are sharing what kind of coffee we use, how it has been roasted, how it has been brewed. We are even, at least somewhat, willing to share what we’ve done wrong. But this is within the industry. This little summer job of mine has, I think, showed me that the audience wants a show, call it a drama if you like, and not all the answers served without even asking for it. One of the reasons why people are still more attracted to religion than science, is the fact that science can feel rather cold and empty, and none-relating to people, while religion offers interpretation and mystery that people can share not only as hard fact, but as an emotion.

I think it is time to reclaim the mystery. When we drank coffee in the late 80’s in Sweden, it was poor brew coffee from batch brewers, burnt, underextracted and dark roasted. And cheap. Enter the expensive espresso machine, and the person trained to use it. At first it might sound almost Monty Pytonesque, but the fact that you have to invest in a machine and train a designated person to use it, offers a way to charge a lot more for coffee. Personally, I think the geekiness surrounding brew methods, is sometimes a way for the barista to overcomplicate something very simple in order to maintain the role as a professional, rather than adding value to the brew (using recipes and accuracy is one thing, force the information overload on the customer is another). Now, if we’d use lab coats while brewing, that would add to the drama, but dressing up like the Amish while your fix bike is parked outside, and talk about grams and temperatures for optimal flavors is, and will always be, percieved as excluding and elitistic at worst, and just nonsensic at its best. Compare this to what people take home from Italy. We are quick at bashing Italian coffee (myself being guilty as charged), and to a lot of coffee people there is an awkwardness surrounding the comments picked up by non-coffee people on holiday in Italy, taking home their new cultural skills into our context (Here are a few favorites: “I know my coffee, I’ve lived in Italy you know”, “Expresso is consumed standing up with sugar in it”, “Real espresso is made from guys in ties”… ok, I made that last one up myself), but there is the drama, the theater of Italian coffee shop tradition that I find a lot of Speciality Coffee places lack! It seems that most places rely on design and knowledge for experience.

Also notice that the setting of this candy store is set in the heart of Old Town, which makes tourist pop in frequently. Knowing the city’s history and surroundings makes it a perfect ground for conversations on other than candy. What I mean with this is that very few people actually comes to a café solely for the coffee. Bad service, or overly geeky staff, can make me shun a place if I want to go for a quiet cup with a non-coffee friend. And most of your customers are non coffee friends, believe me…

NP: Beach House Some Things Last A Long Time

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