The Professional Barista... or The Razor's Edge

I’ve been in Speciality coffee for two years and five days. Hoorah. So this is something of an anniversary post for myself and my goals in coffee. I’m also gearing up for the UK Barista Championships and this post touches on my theme:

How can I add value to coffee?

I’m no markets expert, I am a barista. I don’t buy green coffee. I don’t make deals or set prices or set up direct trading. I’m not able to go to source, so I can’t begin to aid farmer development, even if I had the skills to do so. Which I don’t. What can I do?

Probably a fair bit. Not as a single person, but as a steward of coffee, part of a larger group of Coffee Professionals. An expert in food preparation and service. I am coffee’s host, and I can pull the curtain back and reveal the wonderful and delicate world of coffee to the people that come into my shop. I am coffee’s tour guide, the front of house and a potential specialty customer’s first introduction to this fascinating field. I have the choice between tearing down the walls that separate customer and farmer, or continuing to build them. If I can convey the value of this product to it’s purchasers… maybe they would be willing to spend a bit more… and maybe some of that money could be used to continually develop this intriguing industry. Maybe pad my little pockets too… who knows…

Disclaimer: I’m not really qualified to tell every barista how they can help the industry. All I’m really doing is expressing what I think my duties as a barista are, and how I think this will affect Specialty Coffee as a whole. While the issues in coffee are much larger than myself, here I will explore what I can do within the limits… or rather the focus of my chosen field.

The Basic Plan

I want to elevate myself, my profession, and my product. Basically, I want to be continuously brewing better, conveying information to customers more efficiently, and getting people interested in coffee as a culinary pursuit. This should add value to my own job description, and add value to coffee in the eyes of consumers. I want people to happily pay more for a more indepth experience, and I want upward mobility in my profession as a barista for providing that experience. In effect, there are 3 areas of concern: brewing, service, development.

Brewing:  Blades, Heat, and Beans

Coffee is culinary. It is obviously quite a small focus which is exactly why we can’t afford to make mediocre coffee. If we can’t consistently produce an excellent end product, the rest of what we do is worthless. I feel a tremendous pressure as a barista, because in my portafilter lays nineteen grams of hand-picked exotic produce, shipped thousands of miles and specifically prepared by a chain of experts for the sole purpose of being chewed into millions of similarly sized hunks by highly specialized equipment and skewered by nine atmospheres of nearly boiling water. If my taste, my measurements, or my attention is less than ideal… I will charge an eager customer over £1 an ounce for exactly swill.

So let’s just make nice coffee, ‘kay? It’s amazing stuff, and if you had someone representing your farm, roastery, or cafe… you’d want them to be as damn good at their job as you are at yours.

My job, as a brewer, is practical. I taste, adjust, and learn. I should strive find the limits of my equipment, and keep my finger on the pulse of coffee, and always try to keep abreast of new technology and techniques. Resources should be shared and discussed in the cafe with other baristas, and there should be time for experimentation. I want to measure and weigh and taste with other baristas. If I have an interesting question (e.g. is it more important to grind fresh, or grind evenly?) then I can actually test it. I won’t take my anecdotal results as law… but I can start to form some theories and do research. It is imperative that I know the coffees I am serving  and their terroir. I should know the seasonality of coffee. Know my roasters and their equipment. I should be able to deftly and consistently deliver competition standard coffee.

It’s a lot. Let’s hope so… I want to baristas to compete with sommeliers, dammit! What we do is difficult and there is huge value to it. I want to be valued so we can create an actual career ladder for baristas and give back to the farmers that make my job possible. My knowledge will help the customer value their experience and value speciality coffee itself. This should translate to paying more for a richer coffee experience.

Service: The Razor’s Edge.

I’m spending most of my time writing about service. It’s not more important than brewing, but I honestly think it’s more poorly understood.

Conventional wisdom says I have a choice between 2 types of service:

A) The Coffee Master. Haughty, proud, rude “guardian” of coffee. You drink the coffee I drink, the way I drink it or I will treat you like dirt. Show me respect, for I have arcane knowledge and you are here at my invitation only. Talk not to me about the coffee I allow you to drink. It is beyond your comprehension.

or

B) The Coffee Servant. Friendly, subservient, customer-is-always-right. You know best, I’m just here to pour your libations. Don’t mind me I’m just trying to serve you the same coffee you always have, I’m just serving it super nicely. Haha! A joke at my expense about flavor notes, very good, Sir! I’ll take them down now. I’m just lucky you’re even here.

So… it’s obvious that neither of these is right. Almost no one is really so drastically awful as in either of these examples… yet I see more advocates for B in an effort to avoid coming off as A. I think B is a bad choice. I feel like this review from a specialty shop (a very well regarded one with award winning staff) illustrates the shortcomings of just shutting up and serving “tasty” coffee in a friendly way:

The place is beautiful, very streamline & clean & the service is definitely 2nd to none… So I’m thinking, “Man i bet the coffee is killer!!”. I always try a simple cup of drip when experiencing a new coffee shop to gauge the potency. Got a great looking cup, added some liquid sugar, (which was the only option offered to me?) & some cream.

At first taste, i wasn’t sure what to think… 5 sips later i was still extremely confused?

So much that i could barely form words about the experience my taste buds were having. After sitting with the coffee hoping that it was just me, I went to inquire about the brewing method or type of beans they used. You see the taste being experienced, gave me very little relation to that of many coffee’s partaken of before. The Brewing process was the same except they said it was a very clean process…. ok, that sounds like a good thing. Brewed from Costa Rican beans, (i brew these myself at home) seems normal. So i was told the coffee is brewed in a lighter way so that it is drinkable  straight or BLACK… Which was definitely the most confusing part, being that when i was served a straight tasters experience to test the coffee without cream or sugar… i could now see that it was an extremely light brew, so much that it looked like tea. Which brought me to my realization of what i was experiencing… It tasted more like TEA then COFFEE??  ok, well i really wanted coffee. & if your a straight BLACK COFFEE drinker I’m not sure if this would suffice as well. For a normal coffee experience..ala.. Starbucks, Pete’s, Coffee Bean, The Bourgeois Pig & other corporate & mom n pop shops. I have had great & ok tasting coffee many times over.

This coffee fell into neither of those categories… I’m no Connoisseur, (YET) but i do know what a good strong cup of coffee tastes like in many varieties.

Okay, the formatting isn’t great, but hey, it’s not my review. Here’s what I gather:

  • This dude rocks into the bar, ready for a coffee experience. To really test the place, he orders a filter coffee. Seems like a pretty good call.
  • He gets his Specialty coffee and immediately does what he does in every other coffee shop he frequents, he adds cream and sugar. Pretty standard for most people in the US, and usually produces a sweet, rich cup.
  • He has a sort of shitty coffee experience. Not surprising because cream and sugar taste pretty goddamn awful in specialty coffee.
  • He takes the initiative and talks to a member of staff about it (no one came to him). Only then does he find out it was meant to be had black (nevermind the cream and sugar out for everyone). He surmises that a wishy washy cream and sugar coffee could only come from a wishy washy black coffee and thinks that the coffee’s just a bit lame. He brews Costa Rican coffee at home and it doesn’t end up like this. He takes his business elsewhere from now on, and avoids speciality establishments. Nothing is conveyed about farms and how his Costa Rican at home might differ from what the cafe is serving. Nothing about the goals of a black coffee in specialty and how it differs from commercial coffee. Nothing.

What are we to do? Tell each customer how to drink our coffee? I can imagine the other side of the coin where the guy gets scoffed at and feels uncomfortable. What what would a  true Coffee Service Professional do? Probably something knowledgeable, friendly, and informative. Duh.

Walking the Razor’s Edge

Let’s go back to our review above. Guy walks in and orders a filter coffee. I don’t recognize him as a regular and I have a few options:

A) I could coldly eye him suspiciously as I silently begin the 8 minute brewing process. If I’m doing all this work for him to put milk in it, it’s a free ticket for me to roll my eyes. I am superior afterall.

B) I could enthusiastically take is order and not offer any advice. He knows best. I suspect he doesn’t know what my coffee is like, but I’m sure it’ll shine through whatever he adds to it and make his day even better than ever! (Note how that didn’t happen above)

C) Or I could walk the Razor’s Edge. That space between the false dichotomy above. Be professional, yet courteous. Understand where the customer is coming from, and use that to let him know where you are coming from. “The Razor’s Edge” is a hyperbolic name for simple concept. Honesty about the product. Let the customer know what they are buying while keeping the entire situation comfortable, like in any service job.

I might say,

“Cool, is that alright for you just black?”

“Uh…” The customer hesitates… but I am ready for this… he is nervous now, he feels uncomfortable… yet I am a service professional ready to make his day easier…

“It might sound weird, but we recommend all of the filter coffees we use as black coffees. We’re looking at lighter roasts and individual farms, and that coffee will be juicy and have a lighter body than a traditional coffee. With milk, you lose the fruity interesting notes and the coffees go sour and strange.”

“Okay, I’ll try it as you recommend it”

Remember our guy in the review above was looking to judge the place. He may still find that specialty black coffees don’t suit him, but at least he’s had a drink that I would happily serve to a competition judge. Now if he brings it to the bar with questions I know exactly what the man has tasted and I can have a conversation about the coffee itself, rather than telling him (after the fact) that it was meant to be served black. If he finds it light-bodied, you could have a conversation about flavor in traditional (roasty, heavy) versus what is sought in specialty coffees (clean, complex).

You could obviously imagine endless questions and customer responses.

Maybe he doesn’t want a black coffee.

“Cool, I recommend a cappuccino made with coffee from a farm in Brazil, it’s chocolately and nutty.”

Boom.

Espresso with sugar?

“Again, that lighter roast means the coffee acts differently than a typical coffee. The sugar makes our espressos quite sour and harsh, so we recommend them just black as well.”

People generally make reasonable requests. I generally make reasonable recommendations. I don’t tell people how to drink coffee, I give a recommendation for a weird product. Yeah, it’s weird. I can share that fact with them. It’s another point of difference that speciality coffee has.

As a coffee professional, I should be prepared for nearly any eventuality or question.

The real point is this: If your shop sells Specialty coffee, then sell people Specialty coffee, not something else.

This is obvious, yet I think the review above shows how difficult it can be. People will walk into a specialty shop and try to buy a commodity coffee. It’s not a stupid thing, it’s not morally wrong, but they are trying to buy something you don’t sell… I think that you are morally obligated to let them know what you are selling to them. Not just for the customer, but it’s good for your shop and the industry as a whole. If they hate it, you can discuss how different it is, how different the goals of this type of coffee are. If someone LOVES it, they don’t just love your shop, they love speciality coffee. The more they get involved, the more they can help further the industry. I have to say, with practice and honing my service skills, I get thanked for recommendations more often than not. And let me tell you… I am not a natural at it, either, just ask my boss. But I am a professional, and I’ll be damned if I don’t learn everything I can about making and serving this great beverage.

I should hope that it goes without saying that I should smile and not be a dick. That’s kid’s stuff. A professional barista should be far beyond that. The nuances of service are too often overlooked or oversimplified to “just be nice”. Nice isn’t enough. Knowledgeable isn’t even enough. We are specialty coffee’s voice, if we say nothing, the industry won’t grow… It’s an amazing product, people should know what they are getting, because only then can they actually value it.

Development: ???

By development here I mean a few things. Development of service skills and brewing skills is covered already. Here I mean extra-professional development. It’s getting a little faux-spiritual, but I mean personal development and developing as an industry. I compete in barista competitions because I want to help myself be known in the industry, to make connections, and to further my access to information and people. For me, competitions are also a personal challenge, and a place where my ideas can be heard. I blog intermittently as well. Other baristas may take interests in blending their skills from this industry with another industry like fashion or food. They may volunteer or engineer a new bit of kit. Anything that helps the profile of the industry is great.

Coffee isn’t really going anywhere, and specialty’s little slice of the market isn’t a fad. We should make that fact obvious to ourselves and the world.

Conclusion

Well… that went longer than I expected, especially considering that there’s really so much more to cover. I have been exceedingly lucky as a barista to have joined a shop team that has instilled an enormous value and respect for coffee and coffee professionals. My training has always been an apprenticeship rather than a placeholder for a “real job”. I don’t think that every shop can, or even should operate the same way, but I feel damn proud that we do and that I’m part of it. However, any barista will only be taken as seriously as they take themselves; and the industry needs professional coffee representatives to demonstrate specialty coffee to it’s full potential. We need to show the value of coffee to the public, and they will invest in it.

One of my personal interests, craft beer, seems to be an excellent example of recent public interest, celebration, and investment. I love beer, because like coffee, it’s monetarily accessible. I like whiskey and wine, but I’ll never know them as well as I know beer because of the expense. Yet that doesn’t mean I’m completely unwilling to spend more to get higher quality beer. Craft beer can be well over twice the price of commercial beer with sliding price scale based on availability and reputation. People pay these prices because they value the product. Rarely is a beer prohibitively expensive for me, but paying more than commercial beer is just an accepted price of a higher quality product. Some people don’t like the idea of spending more than $3 for a beer… and they don’t have to… there is plenty of market for both. Like beer, coffee is an everyman beverage with the huge potential for parts of the industry being uplifted into culinary excellence. The public will pay more for something that they can see the value of.

If we, as baristas, are unable to convey that value for coffee… who will?

Jason Gonzalez

bath, uk