Alon Halevy, Computer Scientist on Coffee

My passion for coffee was very gradual, but I can probably trace the roots to my years in Seattle. What I was attracted to the most was the special vibe in cafes. As I was visiting cafes all over the world (e.g., Prague, Auckland NZ, Tel-Aviv, Copenhagen), I became fascinated by how the local culture is reflected in cafes. I thought it was a topic worthy of investigating in more detail. I made the “mistake” of telling a few of my friends that I wanted to write a book about the topic, and they held me to it. As I read more, I realized that coffee, and the way it spread around the world, had a profound impact on history. It’s amazing how much you can learn about the world simply by studying coffee.

My name is Alon Halevy – I’m a computer scientist and I wrote a book about coffee called The Infinite Emotions of Coffee. I do research on artificial intelligence and data management systems. Before my current position, I was at Google Research for 10 years; before that, I was a professor of Computer Science at the University of Washington in Seattle. I was attracted to computers from a young age (before it was so commonplace). I like the fact that my job, and computer science in general, has theoretical (mathematical) depth, but also many practical applications and impact on people’s lives through real products.

When it came to researching for my book, in addition to learning a lot of history, I was fascinated by how quickly the field of coffee is moving even these days. You’d think that for a beverage that’s been around for a few centuries, we would have a pretty solid understanding of it. But that’s not the case. New techniques are being developed starting from the farms (growing, processing) to roasting and grinding, and finally to coffee preparation techniques.

For my research into coffee production, I was able to do a lot of the travel by adding a couple of days to a business trip (and sometimes selecting the locations of my business trips carefully). Whenever I met colleagues around the world, they would already plan coffee experiences for me in advance. Writing the book took about 3 years, so I was able to cover a lot (about 30 countries). Towards the end, I had to make some special trips to cover Central America, Brazil, and Ethiopia.

I have had many fond experiences from my travels for this book. One July evening in 2010, I found myself in the tiny town of Selfoss, Iceland at the summer cabin of the Ferrer Family, who were having an Irish coffee and a wonderful dinner. The family included Ingibjorg, the barista champion of Iceland; Tumi, the coffee cup taster’s champion of Iceland; and their father, Carlos, the Irish Coffee champion of Iceland. I had met them a couple of weeks earlier in London at the World Barista Championship and told them they’d make an excellent story for my book. They promptly suggested I come to Iceland to visit and I did just that. It was a fabulous evening and one that I could have never anticipated when I started the project.

I also was not planning to go to Bosnia when I started the book, but I got several hints that coffee was very deeply ingrained in Bosnian culture. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I was introduced to Lejla and Zeljko Djurik, Bosnian twins, who hosted me in Sarajevo for a few days and provided me with an incredible learning experience. There are cafes in Sarajevo where you feel like you’re stepping back to Istanbul in the 16th century (except that the Wi-Fi is better). The chapter on Bosnia is one of my favourite chapters in the book.

The most amazing coffees I had were extremely well-prepared espressos. There is nothing quite like an incredible espresso. One particularly memorable one was at Highwire Coffee in Oakland, California. The espresso had such an incredible note of pink grapefruit in it, that it was like I was tasting the fruit itself. Coffee people go into great lengths to describe which notes they sense in a cup, and here it was so obvious.

There is no doubt that my appreciation for coffee is on a completely different level than it used to be. After seeing how hard farmers work to pick coffee cherries off the tree, I make sure I don’t waste a single coffee bean at home. I appreciate quality coffee; I always look at the origin of the coffee I’m drinking, and try to identify different notes in the coffee. I now drink one cup of coffee in the morning with breakfast and usually 1 or 2 later on in the day. If there is amazing coffee around, I’ll go higher. At coffee events, I will easily drink 10 or more different cups in a span of a few hours.

I very much think that my experiences with the coffee industry have been a benefit to my technological career. At Google, my team was building tools for managing data that could be used by a broad range of users and in any domain that needs to store and query data (one such system is Google Fusion Tables). I always used data about coffee as a first test domain for the usefulness of the techniques were discussing. Very often, the investigation of the coffee domain yielded important early insights. For a long while, many academic papers I wrote used examples from coffee where possible. I’m certainly known in my academic community (and at Google while I was there) as the Coffee Guy.

I highly recommend the experience of writing a book about your passion. The experience will fill you with pride and most likely will lead to many new friendships in your life. At a more philosophical level, writing a book about your passion is an excellent way of achieving work-life balance. For people who are passionate about their work, the best way to create such a balance is to create a strong draw outside of work that pulls them with the same force. Obviously, family and kids fulfill that role for many of us, but having a project that involves your passion is different and very powerful.

Finally, here are some lessons I can share from writing and publishing the book:

  • Have a clear idea of who your audience is. (Easier said than done).
  • Don’t get too attached to your darlings. You might write a beautiful sentence or paragraph one day, but the next day, it just doesn’t fit anywhere. Then you’re in pain when you need to let it go.
  • Think carefully about how to publish. If you want a major publisher, you already need to be a known expert in the field you’re writing about. You probably don’t want a second-rate publisher. Self-publishing is not that hard.
  • You’ll get a lot of advice while writing a book. Learn to ignore some of it.

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