Monthly Archives: March 2013

Environments for Barista Nourishment

Barista – Part 3

Environments for Barista nourishment.

It is interesting to wonder how our environments shape us, how we react to them, and how what’s available to us feeds into where we can go.

The shape of the barista role is moulded by requirements of the environment. I have mentioned in the last post that there are different forms of a barista, and that environments themselves largely define the different roles.

Now let’s say that we are interested in the role of the barista when defined as a knowledgeable coffee professional. Someone who is taste focused and applies processes and understanding of variables to empower that taste journey and presentation of the drink to drinkers. With this in mind it’s quickly very clear that most café environments are not the optimum climate for such a role. Speciality coffee is relatively young and is currently expanding, more opportunities to partake in coffee in such a way are appearing, but they are not currently plentiful.

When you begin to recognise the culinary complexity of coffee and the layers of information and interest it requires, it’s then interesting to turn back and take a fresh look at the content of the role in most commercial environments.
For example, in other fields of culinary depth and experience, how would the professional individual be affected if their environment was limited? How would a cocktail barman’s repertoire develop if they only had one spirit, or a chef’s scope given only 3 ingredients, or a sommelier’s guidance when they only had one wine?

Coffee professionals cannot be expected to arise if they do not have a rich source material from which to be inspired, to learn and then share with others. Most cafes offer an extremely limited access to speciality coffee In terms of ingredients (one house blend).

The opposition to this would be that the barista role is one of making, of producing, that it is not one of industry, knowledge and experience. This is clear to see when a barista with an interest in all of coffee, feeling restricted in their environment, pursues their interest elsewhere – when, for example, they go to work for a roaster or a distributor or decide to pursue another interest entirely.

The danger is that an interest in the exploration of coffee’s marvels doesn’t make it to a shop floor – to a customer. It becomes a hidden circle, an elite knowledge that sits behind the veil of the industry. Bits poke through, but often they are distorted, only passed along via Chinese whispers.

And of course these last 3 posts have, at their heart, intended to define a speciality coffee barista. The speciality field is often frustrated by the quality and breadth of baristas, sometimes this is because really we want coffee professionals interacting with drinkers, not the traditional barista I looked at in the last post. A different approach is required for what is in many ways a different product. There is a desire to clear up some mythology, to have servers/baristas who take part in a positive dialogue. Most baristas just don’t have the experience of coffee to do this, and in turn the domino effect is that the quality and consistency of the coffee being made suffers as well. A more informed and experienced coffee person should be in a better position to produce better coffee. As mentioned in the previous post, a full involvement in the wider field of speciality coffee can really impact the brewing of coffee in a positive way. Brewing and tasting lots of coffee can only develop an individual’s perspective and expertise of the product.

There are some weird ideas of cause and effect floating about in coffee, these can be understood and empathised with but are often simultaneously stupid. I am talking about unfounded notions to do with the presentation of coffee and the resulting dialogue. Now, often there is the suggestion that the drinkers/customers don’t want variety of flavour or a speciality taste experience in any way – they just want a coffee; as well as this, there is also the suggestion that maybe the taste variety is indeed wanted but that it shouldn’t be accompanied with an explanation that reflects it. Whatever the logic, they are all typified by not informing the customer for fear of being seen as pretentious (a fear of pretension), or for worry of putting the drinker off, or a fear of lecturing the customer and so on and so on.

Even though these are extremely earnest attempts to provide a good service and make people happy, the same intentions often result in retail environments that fail to involve both the customer and the barista in coffee.

The reason I’m getting bored of hearing this stuff is because all of my experience flies in the face of such notions. First of all, this fear of so-called education is founded upon make believe scenarios as opposed to a reaction to something that is actually a problem. Most of the time a condescending “you should know this, or drink coffee this way!” approach is wrongly being correlated with education. It’s not, it’s just being a dickhead. I am struggling, where are these examples of openly educatory coffee shops?

Yes, being greeted oddly or having awkward ordering conversations seems to be rather common, but this is not to be confused with education. Sometimes it’s put forward as subtly educating the consumer when really it’s just confusing them. Involving people in what you’re doing and why is educatory. Education in speciality coffee should not be like sitting in a classroom doing a multiple-choice questionnaire, and the assertion that this is education is seriously misrepresenting the possibility and reality of what positive education can achieve. It should not be trapping or judging the drinker, but offering experiences from which they can take something. This is my idea of education in coffee and it’s not rocket science, but it does require a keen interest for involving people; you have to be interested in people. It has to be front of house and service driven. This involvement is something I see as a necessary skill of a speciality coffee person/barista.

Now I am not expecting or idealistically proposing that all shop environments will or should ever be a speciality coffee environment that offers barista development. I am just observing the type of environments that are abundant and those that are more rare.

There is also the obvious aspects of career development and increased pay to consider. This post is not that post. The barista wage issue is often cited as the only reason for lack of really keen quality driven professional people in coffee, and for the lack of staff retention in shops. The two (economy/coffee development) are indeed linked. We have found that a more obvious specialist experience and product results in a higher perceived value for the drinker, and therefore an ability to charge more and pay our baristas more. Due to the economics, however, I don’t expect ever to be able to pay a high wage. If the role of the speciality shop form is seen as more valuable, then more will exist, and then more opportunities for training roles and a plethora of other career development options will exist too. This is basically the difference between a developed field that has specialism at its core and one with commodity at its core. The notion of speciality coffee just being a tastier version of regular, itemised commodity coffee actually perpetuates the idea of coffee as a commodity. Speciality coffee is then presented as just a better version of it.

The wage situation is complicated, but not unresolvable. The role of a speciality barista is not truly wage-driven. As with many areas of interest and creativity, the experience of working in that industry must be considered part of the wage. People are used to the idea that in order to follow an artistic or sensory passion a wage-cut might be part of the sacrifice. This is okay, so long as an individual is not heavily sacrificing just to take part in the pursuit. The most common complaint that I hear from enthusiastic people looking to work as a barista (or already working as one) is not about wages, but about access to environments where they can really learn, focus on coffee and share this with the drinker.

This concludes my little three part barista series, I will undoubtedly come back to the topic at some point.

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The Many Guises of the Barista

 Barista – part 2

In the last post I looked at defining the brewing role in terms of creative direction and input from the maker; how the brewer affects the brew. However, I see the barista role as more than this; I see it as sharing with and involving the drinker, I see it as providing context for the drink you are brewing, it’s about multi-tasking, it’s about cleaning milk jugs and wiping surfaces, it’s about working with others in a team, it’s about service and hospitality.

Interestingly for us, we have not found it particularly useful to advertise for a barista role even though that’s what we are looking for. The definition that is most representative across the industry probably only partially aligns with my definition, and in some cases is at odds with it altogether. People are often applying for a role (that of barista) that is very different to the reality of what we are offering and looking for.

When I was first applying for roles and working as a barista I would have defined the role rather differently to what I am now outlining in these posts. In effect this discourse is a redefinition of the barista role within speciality coffee, as explored in “what barista competitions have to say about service” and my definition is much closer to competition requirements.

For these first barista roles, creative direction of flavour was not considered at all really. Yes, the people I was working for would want me to make “good” coffee, a vague definition, but really in most shops it meant steaming milk consistently and efficiently, it meant the logistical aspects of serving a hot beverage, e.g. don’t use a boiling hot cup for one drink and a cold cup for another. Keep the flow rate the same by changing grind…I was not asked about taste or quality or anything of that nature. In essence, flavour was not part of the equation.

I learnt the usual standardized industry party line, that making espresso is about sticking to a set recipe by watching variables. The problem was that I went to other shops that made consistently better coffee.  I wasn’t getting a consistency of flavour, I did know our product wasn’t as specialist, but even then I was curious as to why we weren’t achieving consistency, specialist or not. I put this down to the variability of the product, for a while I embraced the whole ‘god shot’ ideology. After some eye opening training and further inspection as to what different coffee people thought about brewing I slowly became aware of the creative direction of which I outlined in the last post, leaving the less useful coffee making notions behind.

I worked in four cafes whilst in Melbourne, but I stayed and developed the most in one shop. This shop was not a speciality coffee shop in any way. It was a lovely fast paced city café. We started with a big coffee brand and changed suppliers as we went. My boss here was pleased I was enthusiastic about the product and that more customers were commenting on the quality of the product, thing was though, it wasn’t as simple or easy as that. The approach began to require more coffee per shot, more time per drink and so forth. My interest in coffee had its benefits but from his point of view I was probably quite annoying. Wapping on about grinding fresh, changing recipes to taste, and also venturing down a path that was less repeatable across staff without more training, time, money and effort. The owner was kind enough to indulge my curiosity, letting me buy coffee elsewhere and stay after work using their equipment to brew and play around with it.

I am very grateful to him for letting me explore my interest and further my understanding of coffee whilst working in his shop.

It was touch and go for a while, but increased trade outweighed the bottom line negatives. But only just. Yes, there was increased interest, but increases also needed to be made to pricing in order to match what was now going into the product, prices that may not have suited the demographic that had been built.

Up the road was a place that had cutting edge speciality ingredients, I do feel we competed on service there rather than product, the cool shop knocked out divine cups of coffee but were pretty meek and didn’t remember who you were. It was quite telling that when I mentioned this to a friend in Australia at the time, they pondered “yeah, I guess I do always expect the coffee to be better when the baristas are surly and less friendly”

Melbourne itself probably made it easier to justify pursuing coffee in more depth; a stronger interest in a crafted product that was more commonly perceived as having variable quality meant investing more was harder to see as superfluous. Instead the value was easily recognised, of course this depended on the business but in general there did seem to be more interest and enthusiasm from a broader customer base.

Something I have noticed across the barista world is a common disconnect between managers/owners and the barista. More often than not this was understandable. Often, the barista role was undertaken in a way that didn’t appreciate a team effort, an “I won’t do dishes or run tables” attitude, “I just make coffee.” Another big problem was that the emphasis of a barista role allowed people to partake in the role who knew very little about it in reality, they could pour a fern and that was about it. The problem, it seemed for a lot of café owners, was that they wanted to hire someone with expertise in something they themselves were only partially familiar with, so, in essence they are hiring blind. How do you know that the applicant knows their stuff, if you aren’t aware of what there is to know? Successful hiring seemed then to take place based on character judgement along with a strong relationship between roaster and cafe which could also help empower the shop owner, effectively offering a vetting system, pushing the baristas to be better – This was often only  theoretical and didn’t transpire.

The barista role is in itself generally more prevalent in the antipodes and North America than in the UK.  In the UK it is more synonymous with the print stretching across the back of a member of staff in Costa than it is with artisan craft and taste choices.

I myself really enjoyed the logistical tasks of working in a busy traditional bar/commercial environment. My first barista jobs were closer to pulling pints (which I also enjoyed) than brewing beer. Looking after guests, managing orders, etc.

There’s a reason I didn’t hang around that area though, is because that simple goal of which nearly all café owners talk, is not that simple – knocking up a consistently great coffee….And I was particularly taken with this pursuit.

I will often hear people talk about opening a shop that isn’t specialist, that they just want to run a shop with one coffee, freshly roasted, sourced transparently with high quality raw ingredients and serve it up to their prospective customers. The thing is, this requires meticulous care and a specialist approach. You can either take part knowingly in the creative process or take part in it without knowing; take part through neglect. Not taking part in positive taste creativity results in ironically inconsistent results. I have seen this become much more pronounced as espresso becomes less heavily blended and the roasting less heavy, this opens up a lot of complex flavour, more flavour to go wrong. Those heavily blended roastier coffees’ definitely seem to have smaller variance (yes, far less flavour potential). Again, it is important to recognise the itemised commercial coffee off of which the Barista role has been founded. As with a lot of commonly used terminology in coffee, the term barista means different things to different people and rather than struggle with semantics it can be easier to not use the word at all.

Whether a shop has one or three espresso on, the methodology and approach required is the same – that is if you want a consistent speciality coffee product. The earnest notion of just making good speciality crafted coffee but not taking it seriously is in fact seriously flawed. If the goal is consistently high quality speciality coffee then the role of the barista cannot be simplified, sidestepped or less involved.

This does have interesting lead on effects for a café business, if you do encourage your staff to invest their time and interest in the product then you may very quickly find that your one coffee and lack of dialogue with the drinker means that the keen Barista with much potential quickly becomes limited, or in the nicest possible way bored and frustrated by their environment.

Throughout the industry the term barista fits in differently depending on the coffee business. Assuming the goals are indeed speciality coffee then the prism of the barista does need a commercial environment which is complimentary.


Next –  Environments for barista nourishment.

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