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09 January 2013 Joy in the task Even the finest restaurants are serving coffee made with capsules.

Have we compl etely lost faith in the human touch? Julian Baggini

You ve just had dinner at one of the best restaurants in the country, the kind of place where the chef talks about his passion for perfection, obsession with deta il and demand for the best, freshest ingredients. You know that there is probabl y one cook in the kitchen for every couple in the dining room. So you might feel surprised even cheated to discover that the coffee you are now enjoying was mad e by the waiter popping a capsule into a machine and pressing a button. This is not a fanciful scenario. In the UK, more than 15 Michelin-starred restau rants use Nespresso, the market-leading capsule system, to make their coffee inc luding Heston Blumenthal s Fat Duck in Berkshire, and The Ledbury in London. In Fr ance, Nespresso supplies more than 100 Michelin restaurants, including the legen dary L Arpge in Paris. Even in Italy, where the first espresso machine was patented in 1884, more than 20 Michelin restaurants use the new capsule system, and many others around the world use it or its rivals developed by Illy, Kimbo, Lavazza and Segafredo. Push-button espresso began as a domestic product, a way to simula te espresso at home without the mess and fuss. But in recent years it has rapidl y, if quietly, started to take over the restaurant world. You might not care much about fine dining or coffee. But you probably do value t he skills of the artisan and might well believe that food is one of the ever-dwi ndling number of domains where individual human flair and creativity cannot be b ettered by the mass-produced and mechanised. If so, you should care about the ch allenge to your assumptions that the rise of capsule coffee represents. That concern lead me to a private dining room at the two Michelin-starred Latyme r restaurant, part of the Pennyhill Park country house hotel in Surrey. With me were a coffee shop owner, two coffee obsessives, and a coffee-drinking friend. W e were going to blind-taste three coffees: Nespresso capsule coffee, which is se rved in the restaurant; the traditional espresso that the hotel provides for roo m service; and a third unmarked coffee I had brought with me to be made the same way, just to see if the whole thing was nonsense and coffee is coffee is coffee . It was the artisan versus the machine, and given how top chefs had already vot ed with their contracts, the odds were against the result I instinctively prefer red. Ever since Alan Turing first suggested that we might be able to build a computer with an intelligence that could not be distinguished from a human s, people have been trying to carve out a domain of activity that must be forever distinctly hu man. Chess grandmasters were once held up as exemplars of exactly what computers could not do. But after IBM s Deep Blue computer defeated the world chess champio n Garry Kasparov in 1997, this was quietly forgotten, and we looked instead to c reativity, believing it absurd to think that a computer program could surpass Ha mlet or Beethoven s late string quartets. With the benefit of hindsight, it now seems obvious that chess is just the kind of thing that computers could do well. The advent of capsule systems heralds pre tty much the same realisation for espresso coffee. Coffee-making lends itself to automation, since all the key variables are strictly controllable. Technically, it s relatively easy to get hold of the best coffee beans, roast them at the righ

t temperature for the right time, grind them to the right fineness, and then vac uum-seal the right quantity for one shot. From that point on, the coffee will no t degrade, effectively being as fresh once the machine pierces the capsule as it was when it went in. Then it s a matter of hiring leading coffee experts, throwin g millions of pounds of R&D at a crack team of engineers, and building a machine that will force the right amount of water through the coffee at the right tempe rature and pressure. In theory, that is bound to result in a better brew than the traditional process , which, for all its romance, is full of opportunities for degradation and misha p. A bag of beans, once opened, will start to lose its flavour very rapidly once it is ground. Calibrating temperature and pressure is also difficult and subjec t to human error. While the capsule always contains exactly the same amount of c offee, the amount the traditional barista places in the portafiltro, and the deg ree to which is it compacted with the tamper, will always differ slightly. Most cafs do not get every step right, and they only get away with it because most peo ple drown their espressos in steamed milk. You have to function like perfect machines, f at El Bulli Adri was shown telling the kitchen staf

That s all very well, but surely coffee is the exception, not the rule, to the art isanal qualities of food and drink? That could be a complacent thought, and iron ically, the people whose work most suggests it is are currently at the vanguard of artisan cooking: the molecular gastronomers. Donning both lab coat and chef s h at, these pioneers are exploring how the science of cooking and sensory percepti on can tell us the best ways to cook and prepare foods. At the moment, this appr oach requires enormous amounts of time and kit, and you can enjoy the results on ly at restaurants such as the Fat Duck, where they come at vast expense (195 per head without service or wine). But the logical consequence of molecular gastronomy is haute-mechanisation. If t he best way to cook meat, for example, really is to vacuum-seal it with some her bs and spices and cook in water at 55 C (131 F) for 48 hours, then as soon as a su itable, cheap sous-vide cooker is available, there is no reason why a novice che f in a local pub, or anyone else for that matter, couldn t collect it from the but cher and do as good a job as anyone else. Even at El Bulli in Spain, voted the world s best restaurant for a record five yea rs before it closed in July 2011, this basic principle was evident. Head chef Fe rran Adri and his core team were not actually the ones preparing the food on the night. Their main role was to develop dishes, in a form of gastronomic R&D, duri ng the six months of each year that El Bulli was closed. The restaurant kitchen itself was really just a very fancy production line. You have to function like pe rfect machines, Adri was shown telling the kitchen staff in the documentary El Bul li: Cooking in Progress (2011). If that s true, then in the long run, why not simp ly use perfect machines in restaurant kitchens, just as computerisation and mech anisation took human beings off the production floors of car plants? Mechanised production can be wonderfully democratising, turning all sorts of thi ngs that were luxury, bespoke items into things everyone could afford, like the car, central heating, and computers. In the gastronomic utopia of the future, no one need be condemned to thin, dishwater coffee, or pies with pastry like wet c ardboard. For most epicures, it is almost an article of faith that this will never happen, because food needs to be cooked with love, flair and passion. While this might conceivably be true at the very peak of culinary art, in most cases mechanisatio n is competing not against the artisanal best but against the human mean. So, ev en if the very best coffee is still made the traditional way by a skilled, human

barista, all Nespresso need do is produce better coffee than the majority of ba ristas, whom most coffee fanatics describe as incompetent anyway. The claim that handcrafted is better does not stand up a priori. It needs to be put the test. And for coffee, that s exactly what I did. The tasting was designed to be as blind as possible, with each taster trying eac h coffee in a different order, so as to counter any advantage or disadvantage th at coming first or last might give. The coffees were brought in by a waiter, not by the experienced barista Bruno Asselin, who is also the manager of the Latyme r restaurant at the hotel. He had thoroughly cleaned the traditional espresso ma chine, opened a fresh bag of beans, and ground them just before the tasting. We tasted the three coffees in silence, scoring them on a scale from zero to sev en points, and jotting down personal tasting notes. My scores were not used in t he final reckoning because, in making sure that Bruno had understood the system, I had seen which coffee corresponded to each number. Then we totted up the scor es. In distant last place came the ground coffee I had brought, a very good quality, single-estate bean, but not roasted for espresso and ground four days earlier, a little too coarsely for Bruno s machine. The traditional house espresso scored 1 8 points, and was the favourite of one taster. But the clear winner with 22 poin ts was the Nespresso, which both scored most consistently and was the favourite of two of the four tasters. Of course, these were just four people s opinions. But their consensus fits the judgment of top chefs and Nespresso s own extensive test ing, which must have been conclusive enough for them to have the confidence to a gree to my challenge in the first place. Does this herald the death of artisan coffee, except in those exclusive enclaves where the very best, most obsessive practitioners ply their trade? And is the w riting on the wall for other areas of human excellence where we cling to the ide a that artisanal is best? A lifeline might seem to be provided by the detailed r eviews of the coffees we tasted. The key descriptors for Nespresso were smooth and easy to drink . And from the point of view of restaurateurs who use it, the key wo rd is consistency . It was far from bland, but it was not challenging or distinctiv e either. It s a coffee everyone can really like but few will love: the highest co mmon denominator, if you like. The second-place coffee had more bite, and was th e favourite of myself and the 10-cup-a-day connoisseur, but scored a pathetic tw o points from one person on the panel who took against it. That taster was actually a bit of a coffee nerd and he made the acute observatio n that what Nespresso had really done was to look at the coffee-making process a nd systematically remove all that is problematic in it. The result is something flawless, but that is a particular and limited form of excellence or perfection. Perhaps there are peaks above perfection that can be achieved only by accepting a certain amount of imperfection. A perfect bottle of cola will not be as good as an average meal at El Bulli, even if they screw up one of the 40 courses. Yet even subtle variations might themselves be perfectible. One day it might be possible to produce mechanically the coffee that is just right for you, even per haps for you just now rather than yesterday. The only way truly to defend the artisans against all that technology might put up against them is to give up the entire premise of my blind tasting, that is, t he idea that it does not matter how the coffee came to be, all that counts is it s final taste. Surely we appreciate the handmade in part because it is handmade. An object or a meal has different meaning and significance if we know it to be the product of

a human being working skilfully with tools rather than a machine stamping out an other clone. Even if in some ways a mass-produced object is superior in its phys ical properties, we have good reasons for preferring a less perfect, handcrafted one. We are not simply hedonic machines who thrive if supplied with things that tick certain boxes for sensory pleasure and aesthetic merit Corporations know this, which is why they will often use bogus personalisation t o make their products seem more appealing, like putting a picture of a farmer on the label, or giving the product the name of a person or place. But do we have good reasons for this preference, or is it just romantic nonsense? I think we do . We live in a world of humans, other animals and things, and the quality of lif e depends on the qualities of the relationships between them. Mass production, l ike factory farming, weakens, if not destroys, these relationships. This creates a kind of alienation, where we feel no genuine, human contact with those who su pply us with what we need. We are not simply hedonic machines who thrive if supplied with things that tick certain boxes for sensory pleasure, aesthetic merit, and so on. We are knowing a s well as sensing creatures, and knowing where things come from, and how their m akers are treated, does and should affect how we feel about them. Chocolate made from cocoa beans grown by people in near slave conditions should taste more bit ter than a fairly traded bar, even if it does not in a blind tasting. Blindness, far from making tests fair, actually robs us of knowledge of what is most impor tant, while perpetuating the illusion that all that really matters is how it fee ls or seems at the moment of consumption. This might seem a simple, even platitudinous point. But it has profound politica l implications. For if it is true, then the whole way in which efficiency is usu ally measured is fundamentally flawed. Take agriculture. Proponents of organics and other non-intensive, less petrochemically dependent forms of farming are oft en drawn into the game of defending their approach only by measurable, objective results. So the battle becomes a statistical debate over yield, water usage, ca rbon footprint, soil erosion, and so forth. The trouble is that the kind of huma n-scale farming that people like does not always win when judged by these metric s. Of course, we need to think about yield, efficiency and environmental impact. Bu t we also need to think about what kind of world we want to live in. And if we d o, most of us would say that we would prefer food chains that preserve human lin ks between consumer, farmer, land, and animals, in a landscape that combines fun ctionality and beauty as much as is possible. We prefer to buy coffee traded bet ween small groups of individuals rather than beans of the same quality, grown to the same environmental standards, but channelled through large multinationals w ith an exclusive right to supply the machine you buy from them. That is not to s ay we must shun technology, never use polytunnels, or insist that all chickens c ome from a nearby country lane. But it does mean it is legitimate to prefer form s of trade and artisan production that maintain links between individuals, commu nities, land, and animals. It is not that handmade is always best, of course. Much technology is itself a t estimony to human creativity and ingenuity. Apple has got very rich through supp lying technology that is beautifully designed by humans who are as gifted as the best artisans. There is plenty that we should happily allow to be mechanised, f or the obvious benefits that brings. But there is plenty else we will continue t o prefer to be handmade, because what matters is not just the result, but the pr ocess by which you get there. Humans are imperfect, and so a world of perfection that denies the human element can never be truly perfect after all.

Julian Baggini is a writer and founding editor of The Philosopher s Magazine. His latest book is The Shrink and the Sage, co-authored with Antonia Macaro.

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