Friday Feature: Broken Windows Theory and Coffee

In 1982, James Q. Wilson, a political scientist at Harvard, and George L. Kelling, a criminologist, first addressed their findings of the broken windows theory in an Atlantic article. To put it simply, the theory states that maintaining and monitoring urban environments in a well-ordered condition may stop further vandalism and escalation into more serious crime.

For example, run-down neighborhoods and disorderly community environments send a strong message that no one cares and there isn’t anyone in charge. This in turn creates fear, weakening of community control, and can breed all types of criminal behavior.

In his book, The Tipping Point (which, by the way, I strongly, strongly recommend), author Malcolm Gladwell points to New York City in the 1980’s. Crime was out of control and NYC quickly became one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The NYC Transit Authority brought in Kelling as a consultant in 1985, and measures to test his “broken windows theory” were implemented by David Gunn. The presence of graffiti was intensively targeted, and the subway system was cleaned a nightly basis from 1984 until 1990. According to the 2001 study of crime trends in New York by George Kelling and William Sousa, rates of both petty and serious crime fell suddenly and significantly during this time, and continued to drop for the following ten years.

While this theory was adopted for a criminological focus, its sociological implications have an extended reach. Nowadays, all sorts of organizations implement its thesis to target shortcomings within the organization.

While many aspects of the theory are debatable, I, for one, have a firm belief in the general idea. Taking care of “the little things” makes taking care of “the big things” that much easier and, in some cases, eradicates “the big things” all together. For the purpose of this site, I’d like to take a really brief look at Broken Windows Theory and explain how it relates to coffee purity.

Last week, a lot of discussion was taking place on Twitter regarding water purity for brewing coffee. Much of it stemmed from an awesome article that James Hoffmann wrote for his blog entitled “We Underestimated Water“. After it posted, specialty coffee demigod, Tim Wendelboe, replied, “How much longer are we going to state that water quality is underestimated [in] coffee brewing?”

He later stated that he was just being “an ass” (I know—it’s hard to believe that Tim Wendelboe would be an ass, right?), but it did irk me a little.

He’s half-right in saying that the specialty coffee industry is kicking a dead horse when it comes to the issue of water purity—we’ve been preaching it for years. However, in my opinion, water purity is the single most important issue there is when it comes to best coffee practices!

If the water you use to brew is not 100% clean and purified, your coffee isn’t going to be 100% clean and purified. This is absolutely critical, fundamental, and necessary!

So to answer Wendelboe’s question, “How much longer are we going to state that water quality is underestimated [in] coffee brewing?”, the answer is and will forever be: “Until people outside of the specialty coffee industry have it firmly planted in their brains!”

Before a person can tackle the more complicated issues—like brewing ratios, grind settings, extraction percentages, etc., etc., etc.—, the fundamentals have to be covered first. Otherwise they’re just building a house on shifting sand.

The fundamentals, of course, are not limited to water.

One major fundamental basic is, simply, knowing what good coffee is—what makes coffee “good”, where to find “good” coffee, understanding what “good” even means. If you’re not buying “good” coffee, the coffee you brew at home won’t be any “good”.

Then, of course, we get into issues of grinding, storage, filters, brewing equipment…

Again, if one isn’t employing best coffee practices in these areas, it doesn’t matter if they have more advanced topics figured out.

Again, as I said before, Wendelboe’s attitude is certainly understandable—the perception that “some information is so elementary we shouldn’t even waste our time discussing it”. I mean, if James Hoffmann or Olive Strand or Peter Giuliano or David Walsh or any other coffee professional for that matter were having a difficult time getting a certain coffee to taste “right”, I certainly wouldn’t want to be the guy that suggests, “Um, maybe it’s the water?”.

On the other hand, what would be so wrong about that? It’s good and necessary to always bear in mind the little things—to never “underestimate the water”, as Hoffmann put it.

These are the tags on viaducts, the litter in the street, the “broken windows” that eventually lead to urban decay. These are the little things that lead to losing a great cup of coffee.

Fix these problems first, and you may find that order might just fall into place on its own in due time.