Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Gametape #1 - Sonja Bjork Grant, 2013 Tamper Tantrum Live

Cred: Food GPS
Game tape is a series in which we take a close and critical look at competitions from various industries, attempting to discover those decisions and discernments that turn competitors into champions.

So... I didn't do as well as I would have liked at the Big Western this year, but its never too early to start on next year, right? Time to do what I do best: research. A former professor of mine once said that every great innovator in a particular field has learned the history of that field such that they can see fundamental themes and address challenges that might not be apparent to a person with a more myopic view. Although I have yet to find a thorough chronicle of barista competitions in any one place, there are a number of fascinating closeups of various points and perspectives. I plan on sorting through these with a critical eye in the hope that we all can not only gain a deeper understanding of the rules and benefits of competitions but also so that we can have a living history of the progression of these events.

So, where to start? While I am relatively new to this game, Sonja Bjork Grant is not. In fact, having been one of the principal forces that began the WBC, she is basically the patron saint of barista competitions. Grant began as a barista in 1995 and today is a WBC head judge, judge trainer, World Coffee Events member, and all around amazing professional and resource. If you ever get the chance to meet her, I highly recommend asking her anything and everything you can think of (Nik and I had the fortune of having her present at our Lead Instructor Certification class last year).

At the 2013 Tamper Tantrum Live in Nice, Grant gave a talk about the history of judging the WBC. Historical insights of this nature are basically unprecedented and I implore anyone interested in competing to watch it in full. The main thrust of her presentation is that Barista Competitions have come A LONG WAY in the last 14 years. From her comments it seems like the first competition, held in Monte Carlo in 2000, would be nearly unrecognizable to today's baristas. The WBC has gone through nearly continual changes over its short lifetime. That said, I think there are three discernibly distinct periods of the WBC. We'll call them Discovery, Calibration, and Exploration.

To the time machine!

Discovery: 2000-2003

This period is all about discovering what other people around the world hold to be "extraordinary coffee" and is characterized by inconsistency and chaos. In this world, as Grant notes, the attitude of the few European, Australian and U.S. American participants is along the lines of "hey lets compete in coffee!" which is to say informal and relatively unstructured. Here is a small list of competition details that sound nuts to me today. Throughout these years . . .

  • Baristas use two group machines with one double basket and a one single basket.
  • Baristas prepare three beverages of each course, having to alternate dosing within each course.
  • The MC talks to the barista the whole time.
  • The audience cheers and yells the whole time.
  • All judges are both technical and sensory judges so they run around with the barista. 
  • Tamps are plastic or aluminum, milk pitchers are huge and thermometer equipped.
  • Signature Beverages are often half a liter in volume. 
  • It is acceptable for the machine, coffee bags, and competitor outfits to be branded. Think Nascar.
  • Competitors grind for the whole competition at once, filling the dosing chamber. 
  • Competitors change steam tips, baskets and machine temperature for their individual routine.  

In this world, standards of equipment, roasting, sourcing, blending, extracting and cleaning aren't commonly held standards and these competitions function as a chance for people of various countries to show each other the things they value about coffee.  Because there are no standards for these things, judging is somewhat strange and inconsistent. Rules are based on the Olympics, chef and sommelier competitions, and (I'm not making this up) gymnastics and horseback riding. Points are awarded for, among other things, how familiar the baristas seem with the equipment, if they can reference and name parts of these machines, if they dial in the grind (apparently it is not common to check or adjust grinders in this world), if they seem confident while steaming milk and (my personal favorite) if the barista seems like they enjoy what they were doing.

Two important factors that are absent from this infancy period are judging calibration and barista feedback. These institutions aren't necessary yet, since coffee quality isn't really what these competitions are about.  In fact, there is no expectation of drinkable espresso in the first place. Baristas are required to provide sugar with the spoons and napkins and all the judges have spit buckets. Instead of quality, Grant notes that the word most often discussed in judging these competitions is passion. Passion is something felt rather than measured and so calibration and feedback are not as useful as they might be for technical evaluation or for standardized expectations.

Judging based predominately on passion might seem insane to competitors and judges in our time but I think its actually implicitly (and probably accidentally) genius. By rewarding passion, competitions gave passionate people an opportunity to pursue coffee and a pedestal from which to suggest further developments. Someone who is technically proficient but unmotivated might wake up one day and decide to change professions, contributing nothing to the industry. Passionate people are more likely to give you a return on your investment. And wouldn't you know it, all of the former winners from this period still work in coffee either as a consultant or shop owner.

Calibration 2003-2010

In this world, we definitely reward passion but it is becoming apparent that there are some real career benefits to winning the WBC. This means that people might get upset if we don't tell them why they didn't win. We decide to get real about judging and decide what we want a champion to be able to do. WBC 2003 in Boston marks the first ever judges calibration workshop with 21 judges from 14 countries. The next year, 94 judges applied and from this point on judging becomes a skill and credential in its own right. 

During in this period . . .

  • Judges are required not to eat on stage.
  • Judges are required to smile and have a poker face while tasting. 
  • The 0 - 10 scale ("very bad" to "excellent") was replaced with today's 0 - 6 scale.  
  • Ingredients in the portafilter are restricted to coffee and water (no more ginger and cinnamon!). 
  • "No pucks in portafilter at start" is instituted and subsequently removed. 
  • Crema evaluation is calibrated differently for robusta and arabica. 
  • Sugar is no longer required to be served.
  • Alcohol is prohibited in competition.
  • Single Origins become socially acceptable.

We will talk more about that last point in the final section but the most important point here is that when the judging becomes serious, the standards of professionalism and technical proficiency of the competitors do too. The champions from this period, like Tim Wendelboe and James Hoffman, are today some of the most respected voices in the industry. These voices, combined with more consistent judging also make the competition more accessible. WBC went from 24 competitors in 2003 to to 53 in 2010, further disseminating these standards of preparation and service throughout the world. It is no coincidence that as this calibration progressed, the BGA also launched level one certification is 2009. During this time, the whole industry moves toward standardization.

With this standardization, the industry learns how to prepare and describe coffee effectively from the perspective of the barista. This emphasis on technique and explanation culminates in 2009 with Mike Philips' WBC third place routine wherein he extracts the same coffee five different ways and WBC winner Gwilym Davies, who discusses what makes espresso exciting or disappointing to a coffee professional (more on these in future posts). This is a hugely important era for the barista profession as it creates a solid foundation of expectations on which to build a craft and career.

Exploration 2010- ????

But then everything changes. Now that baristas are getting very technically proficient, calibration is extremely important on both sensory judging (roughly 40% of total score) and the somewhat intangible things like Total Impression and Customer Service Skills (roughly 20% of the total score). To ensure such a calibration, the SCAA and SCAE team up and create WCE; World Coffee Events. WCE now runs a two day judges workshop and calibration before each WBC and has today certified over 250 judges. This is a dramatic improvement over the two hour workshop held in 2003 and we are now sufficiently confident that our scores are fairly representative of each barista's performance.

As competitors in this world, we know how to make coffee taste good but we want to know what makes it taste that way. Grant makes the observation that, in contrast to how the WBC started, today the focus is on taste, knowledge, consistency, single origins and processing. I generalize this to say that competition routines are about the details of intentionality. Competitors want to explain everything they can about why a coffee tastes the way it does and how that makes it special. When technical skills are at such a high level, this strategy will hopefully gain "presentation: professionalism" points and edge out those last few "total impression" points which can be the difference between winning and not making finals.

Since WCE has been formed, the winning routines have been decidedly international. In 2010, Mike Philips taught us all about processing, focusing heavily on the farm level in contrast to his relatively sparse farm information the year before. His presentation was less about his techniques and more about how the coffee's flavor dictated his actions. 2011 and 2012 brought us not only our first origin host (Bogota, Colombia) but also our first two producing country champions in Alejandro Mendez (whose signature beverage used every part of the coffee plant) and Raul Rodas (who stepped up this game by adding in different roast levels and extraction levels, bringing the whole chain together). Last year, Pete Licata followed suit and paid homage to the unique processing techniques of the producer of his coffee as well as the strategies of his roaster, combining the production-chain-focused routine with the service efficiency of Gwilym Davies.

Right Now

With the USBC fast approaching and the WBC soon after, competitors are practicing and preparing the routines that will potentially propel them into the next chapter of coffee competitions. This season, I've noticed many people using uniquely processed coffees, be they high grown, naturals, or just interesting flavor profiles. I've seen interesting techniques be rewarded. I've seen people bending rules or simply ignoring certain ones strategically. It will be interesting to see who comes out on top this year in light of the above progression. But maybe we shouldn't even be looking to the competitors to see what's next. After watching Grant's talk, it seems like the judges might be the more pertinent catalyst of innovation and progression. Maybe its the them we should be watching.

Leave your comments below.

-Brandon Paul Weaver

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

'Swag Hospitality'

                                                    Swag Hospitality
                                       or This is your time, you're welcome.



"Think about everytime a guest comes through those doors." Kieth W. presents firmly as he as lays aim at the front entrance of Liberty Bar with both hands extended, ‘that person chose to come and spend their time and dime with you, they want to be at your party, out of all the great places to pick in this city - it is your goal to make them feel that it is their party. You were just waiting for them’.

Sitting on the other side of that sacred two feet of natural wood, with my fellow bartenders tired-eyed and sipping our coffee, we all slowly calm the side talk and collectively silence our phones and pick up pens and open notebooks. On account I was locking the door to close shop only 7 hrs ago, i reached for few coasters and made due. Some of the best things spoken or thought have been sketched out on such humble, and usually whisk(e)y stained, compressed paper tablets. I guess alot of poor jokes and weak pick-up lines have been scribbled, too. Thats what makes freedom rad.

This instance was apart of a very prepared and planned meeting that is the backbone of Liberty’s theory on education envisioned by Kieth Waldbauer and Andrew Friedman, the very involved proprietors of the whisk(e)y-forward joint. We ate it up, and believe we all chewed slowly.
Yet, i’ve had similar revelations at 6am as a barista and the weary begin to flood into the cafe with very real needs. As i wipe my hands on the bar towel fastened to the back of belt I look over and see Brandon Paul Weaver doing the same.
‘Let’s Party’.
 The fluidity of the teamwork is something like performance art. Creating and crafting tasty coffee and beverages like an oiled machine. A hella oiled machine. This is our natural habitat. This is the art of allowing eye contact and swift smile to calm the guests and make patience easy and worthwhile. ‘We have been waiting! You’re all late, but we’ll let it slide.’ The slightly cocky witticism commands some of the first smiles and laughs of their morning. We are lucky to be apart of it, for in turns this sets the tone to our shift, and entire day, really. The good feeling is damn infectious.

These two memories are quite different but have the same lasting aftertaste. The underriding truth that our guest service is just that, a service to the guest. The polished surface of the experience is full sensory. From the cleanliness of the windows to the music and lighting- all the way to how we dress and what type of energy we are emitting via our personalities. We are social hosts and liquid managers. We are reserved philosphers and spinners of jokes and jests all day and night. There is never comfort quite like laughter. It also happens to pair well with coffee and spirits. To bark back and forth about sports, or have a solemn hand on the back of the guest who is going through a hardship. It is intense. It is real. It is the foundation of social currency, even though it happens in the context of a transaction. But this is not negative, this is sustainability. Provisions for provisions. It is truly the good life.

Having been in these two seemingly different industries simultaneously, Brandon and I have had a special insight into the unseen fabric of what unites them.  We’ve had the fortune of working for and along side some of the best men and women who’ve made their professions behind a bar, whether it be during sunrise or sunset.
The things learned and the visions spoken back and forth between us until the late hours of our rare nights off have led us both to a new commitment. The concept of bringing these two liquid industries together is embodied in what we have named Matte&Gloss. The goal is to make this a voice for both sides of our profession. Bringing together the morning and night with the tenants of each that are simiar, and at times identical.

The working term here is Holistic Bartender. It is a permutation, and really a growth, from a  theory I had and published on WhyNotCoffee?’s blog a few years ago. It is growth because of the collabrative efforts of both editors, Brandon and I. We want to showcase the best examples in our city, and eventually country at large, of those who understand the possibilities of excellence that can be attained when we take keys from each segment of the hospitality industry. From understanding the products, producers, retailers, and those on the frontlines: Baristas and Bartenders, and lead the way to awareness of the similarites and benefits with mental cross-pollination.

The wheels are already in motion and the beginnings of this trend of multi-diciplinary cohesion can be seen at the top levels of coffee bars and traditional beer, spirits and wine bars. The Holistic Bartender is the natural evolution. We are here to do our part. We hope to inspire you to do yours as well.

Let’s Party

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Imploding "Us vs Them" : In Defense of Sprudge

Apparently, a lot of people are upset at Sprudge for writing about the bitter barista. The idea, it seems, is that this guy is some sort of martyr who was a voice of the secret inner thoughts of barista types and he has been thrown to the dogs by big powerful attention hounds.

From where I sit, this is an unequivocally flawed perspective. Forgive me if it takes a few words to explain but I think this warrants careful consideration.

To start, let me say that I know as well as anybody that working a particular brand of service job forces one into rather unfortunate interactions with a certain brand of customer. I understand what it is to want to stab a customer with a spork but bury the dwindling semblance of pride you have left, smile and be hospitable (company policy after all). I have had customers literally shit on the floor of my bathroom. Shoot up in my bathroom. Shoo a pigeon into my cafe. I get it. Work can be hard. I got yelled at once because my cafe didn't sell meatloaf.

These are ridiculous things and they unfortunately add to the well established battleground of customer vs employee. I am not sure if this is a particularly Northwest problem or if its more widespread but at least in Seattle, there is frequent daily tension between guests and baristas. Guests enter the shop wanting the same thing they get everywhere else and maybe this particular shop does not or cannot do that. Because the generally population of Seattle is indoctrinated with the lie that "we ARE coffee!" it follows logically that whatever we think about coffee MUST be correct.

This leads to a remarkable set of interactions in shops that, over the last decade or so, have tried to deviate from certain coffee traditions (e.g. dark roasting, 20oz drinks etc). I've had guests tell me that I know nothing about coffee, that they know far better than I do what a cappuccino is, that they do not care that extra foamy drinks waste a ton of milk because it was our fault we throw milk away instead of re-steaming it. I've had guests walk behind my bar and attempt to add things to their beverage without as much as a warning. This is frighteningly common.

To these guests I usually simply explain as politely as I know how that their request could not be fulfilled. About half the time, anger ensues and maybe I get yelled at. This happens all the time, everywhere around this city. The biggest problem here is that while the guest is free to leave, the barista is trapped and submitted to constant beratement (and frankly, abuse) so that they can make rent.

Naturally this makes for some bitter baristas. Clearly things need to change.

But how? There have been previous attempts to combat this attitude throughout the specialty industry. Unfortunately, most of these involved being pretentious, aloof and snarky. This strategy was so pervasive at one time that it has actually become associated with specialty coffee in general. Of course, this strategy does nothing to alleviate the customer vs barista tension. In the worst instances, unassuming guests, who might have heard that some shop served delicious coffee, enter some establishment full of these battle scarred baristas and receive horrendous treatment. This can escalate quickly with some pretty dramatic denouements.

The resulting culture, of course, is one of antagonism. Baristas expect guests to be entitled, unsympathetic and downright rude and guests expect baristas to be snarky, sarcastic and pretentious. This has led to the demise of many coffee shops as the antagonistic culture causes them to lose money, acclaim and momentum. In this environment, many sacrifice coffee quality to stay out of the red. Some go out of business, some decide to change their focus to hospitality.

This progression from entitled guest, to embittered barista, to failing business, to hospitality has generated several interesting results. The first and most important result is that our efforts have become focused on finding good ways to put cups of incredible coffee in the hands and mouths of our guests as seamlessly as possible. Thats all we wanted to do in the first place but we are finally finding that hospitality is clearly a better way to do it. And we are finding better ways to be hospitable every day.

The second result is the production of some amusing reflections as the coffee industry has begun to grow up and poke fun at its younger self. If you don't know what I am talking about look at this or this or this or this. I find these amusing (even as I cringe) in the same way that I find memories of being 15 and drinking a six pack of surge amusing. That is where we used to be and its only funny because we have moved on.

Enter Bitter Barista.

The idea behind the blog is to flip the perspective of the humor and target the guest rather than the barista. This has been done before but never in a way that was so degrading to the Barista profession with such capitalistic motivations (the tweets are to be turned into a coffee table book). Given how far this industry has come in the last decade, the bitter barista is retrograde complaining at best and destructive cynicism at worst (see: rape jokes). Ultimately, the blog represents baristas as voiceless, shameless and victimized prisoners while simultaneously perpetuating the pretentious barista stereotype. It is the Holden Caulfield of coffee blogs.

My problem here is not that the jokes are sensationalist or satirical but exactly the opposite; they portray as jokes things that really happen everyday. To voice support for the Bitter Barista is to make real baristas' jobs harder as it fans the flames of vitriol from already jaded customers who, no doubt, will not take to kindly to their actual experience being presented, with a wink and a nod, as an inside joke. Sprudge, who recently published the identity of the barista behind the blog, is currently receiving literal hate mail for doing so. While they are big boys and certainly don't need me to come to their rescue, I can't help but point out how shortsighted this backlash is.

The guest vs barista trope is something that has held back the specialty coffee industry from sharing the stories and coffees that actually provide a living for millions of people across the globe. To put this in perspective, go watch two time Northwest Barista champ Devin Chapman's routine from last month. He quotes the producer of his coffee, David Mancia of Finca La Familia, saying that the most valuable person in the entire coffee chain is the "consumer, the one you sell my coffee to... because they put food on my table. They provide for my family, the namesake of my farm" (see here at 3:06:45). Imagine, for a second, David Mancia reading Bitter Barista.

There is much more to be said on the issue (e.g. lets compare his termination to the recent Applebee's affair) but I think I'm done here. Think on it. Thoughts welcome.

-Brandon Paul Weaver



Friday, November 30, 2012

The Long Walk: Why Fine Dining Just Makes Sense


photo via Sprudge.com
Lately I’ve been thinking about how we in specialty coffee like to make things harder on ourselves. As those who care deeply about coffee, the producers who make it, and the potential of each lot, we’ve nobly chosen to take part in a battle against the all-great and powerful commercial coffee companies.  

We do this by creating alternate coffeehouses to the Starbucks down the street, and attempt to make changes to the décor, menu placement, or ways in which we relate to our customer in order to convince them that our product is different. We do all this before giving them a cup of coffee, hoping that when they finally do touch their lips to that sacred cup, their expectations have been exceeded and they are sold on specialty coffee.   

The only problem is, we have a lot of convincing to do between the time our customer walks in that door and drinks our cup of coffee. During that time, the average first time customer is barraged with sensory bombardments, knocked around by the many paradigm-shifting projectiles we throw at them, lost in a sea of strange bar arrangements, missing menus, and confusing descriptions.  That’s quite a difficult experience to go through, even if your final experience is fantastic. Yes, we do our best to gently guide the first-timer through this traumatic episode, wooing them with our charisma and understanding, but let’s face it – this battle we’re in is definitely an uphill battle.

Now let’s shift gears. Let’s say the same first-time customer enters into a fine-dining establishment. They come in, are seated, and are presented with all of the same information we gave them in the café, in the same format, with the same finished product. Astonishingly, they don’t experience that dizzying panic attack they had in our café. Their hands don’t start sweating and they aren’t looking around nervously. Maybe they even ask the server what s/he thinks they should get, and then they order it happily and smile. What just happened? Why should they accept that whole experience without blinking when I just exerted all my energy spoon-feeding it to them in my café and I still induced an anxiety attack in them?  The answer lies in what happens before they even reach the front door.

For the average person, there are two very different expectations when walking into a fine-dining establishment versus a café.  When walking into a fine-dining establishment, one already expects to experience something new. That’s the whole reason they’re coming! They know that whoever is preparing their dish is very knowledgeable and is going to give them something that will exceed their expectations. They also know that they are going to receive superior hospitality and encounter an elevated attention to detail. Because of this, they come prepared to pay more, since they know that this kind of service and quality just costs more to be sustainable.  And this is happening all before they even walk in the front door!  The restaurant staff needs only to provide what their guest already expects, and they will have succeeded. 

Compare this to the average expectation of a guest approaching the front door of a café: they expect to wait in a line, order from a large menu without looking at the barista, and wait off to the side until their drink is called out. Compare these two expectations and we suddenly realize the challenge we face.  We are seeking to redefine coffee by providing a fine-dining experience in a fast-food setting. How does this make sense?  James Hoffman did a wonderful job addressing this issue during his talk at the Nordic Barista Cup this year, but even his solution is still to try and imitate fine-dining in a café setting. If we know that fine-dining is the proper context for specialty coffee, why do we keep starting new cafes and depending upon that short walk between the door and counter to shake up our customers to the point of changing their expectations?

Either we need to make that walk between the door and the counter longer, or we need to move specialty coffee into a context where it fits and makes sense: fine-dining.

Obviously, this is its own battle, existing in still uncharted waters with skeptical restaurant owners and chefs wondering why they should invest more money in you and their coffee program when they already make a good amount selling coffee.  However, it is a direction that makes infinitely better sense for specialty coffee than continuing to butt our heads against the alternate coffeehouse, a realm which, let’s face it, is going to continue to be ruled by commercial coffee, at least for the foreseeable future.

-Gabriel Molinaro


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Letting Go of the Condiment Bar

Over at Extractions and Distractions there is a nice analogy between cocktails in a craft bar and milk drinks in a craft coffee bar. The problem raised is one of specialty cafes / baristas wanting to only serve black coffee and espresso without additives. He writes
The problem is that some people try black coffee and they just don't enjoy it as much a they do with a little milk and sugar. They've tried it many times and its just not they're thing.
Let’s take a look at the cocktail world— the best whiskey bars can’t survive solely on serving whiskey neat or on the rocks. They have to sell well-made cocktails to kind of invite people into their world. Start them off with an Old Fashioned or a Whiskey Sour and maybe they’ll eventually grow to love whiskey served neat, but if not they’ll still enjoy well-made cocktails and patronize those bars.
Love it. Accessibility of product without compromising craft or quality. Here's the thing though. The cocktail bar doesn't typically leave it to the patron to create the recipes and mix the drink themselves. But this is exactly what we do when we have a condiment bar. Over at the little counter is milk and sugar and it is free and we allow our guests to run wild with it. Imagine if a bartender threw some spirit in a glass with some liqueur and lemon and handed it to you, then you walked over to a little table where you liberally added coke and simple syrup. We would consider that place not only unprofessional but a little gross. For coffee, having a condiment bar sends the message that, yeah, we have milk and sugar back here behind the bar but don't trust us with those things, you do it yourself.  It puts us in line with other places that have condiment bars: fast food. The same impulse that makes us want to only serve black coffee and espresso, namely coffee's culinary potential, is completely contradicted when we set ourselves in line with fact food.

For patrons that find coffee too strong or who simply like milk and sugar (and who doesn't?), we have a well crafted menu that includes delicious items for you. That being the case, isn't offering more milk and sugar only moving us further away from sharing the black coffee and espresso we love?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Needed: Coffee Resource Review

While writing training documents for this start up coffee roaster, I consulted whatever resources I could find including all the usual suspects, e.g. Rao, Schomer, Illy and a number of websites. This process has led me to two realizations (the original post got really long so I split it into two, second one pending).

All of us in Specialty Coffee would benefit from direction and guidance concerning coffee education resources. Let me explain:

While there are a million websites that claim to promote coffee education, these vary dramatically in quality and veracity. Depending on your terms, a google search will provide results falling into four main categories.  The first includes all the ones linked above which generally provide "all you need to know about coffee." Typically their Web 1.0 design aesthetic is as outdated as the ideas they perpetuate ("espresso is a brew method, a blend and a roast!"). These we tend to disregard.

A second category is roasters' websites which can be pretty solid if you get the right ones and pretty terrible if not. Blogs form a third category and are generally a much more helpful option since they are frequently updated and can stay on top of things.

Finally, the most helpful websites are those that are education focused and consistently updated (my favorites are Sweet Maria's and Columbian Coffee Hub)

Beyond this there are a ton of fascinating infographics and databases but these are typically found in obscure corners of the deep web and thereby difficult to locate. For a time, I tried to compile as many of these as I could find here, so that they would be easily accessible for reference.

To anyone that is fairly involved in a professional coffee position, it is pretty easy to discern which of these websites are accurate. The problem is, for those who are just starting out on their coffee adventure, it is between difficult and impossible to tell which resource is useful and which is not.

A couple of years back I found myself in this position. I was working at a small indie coffee shop with minimal to no training and couldn't help but notice the variation in quality from barista to barista. Armed with the conviction that things could be better, I went to the internet in search of how-to. I eventually found coffee geek, which was minimally helpful due to the chaotic proliferation of information and lengthy and jargony arguments in the forums. The same goes for home barista and barista exchange. These websites try to cater to professionals, amateurs and enthusiasts all at once making it difficult to know where to start.  Searching Youtube presents and even bigger problem. Imagine a newcomer to coffee education coming across videos like this and this (highly recommend watching these). Of course I eventually found the Schomer, Rao, Illy and SCAA materials but only a year and a job later. Even if I had found these right off the bat, these resources tend toward the technical and scientific in such a way that even some of the most respected coffee professionals today have difficulty engaging with them.

It would appear that a lot of the criticisms that Oliver Strand offered to the specialty coffee community in his NBC talk apply not only to coffee's relationship to the media but to all outsiders in general. He argued, basically, that coffee professionals tend to be withholding, circuitous and vague with information that really should be readily available. In his experience, information given is either too specific or not specific enough and neither make for a good article. He suggests that the media's difficulty in accessing this information damages not only the coffee shop/ media relationship but ultimately the coffee shop itself, since it is often misrepresented or not represented at all.

In a similar way, the lack of a coffee education primer harms not only the coffee profession/ newcomer relationship but the coffee profession itself, since newcomers represent the potential of a sustaining workforce for the specialty coffee industry. While there are certainly an abundance of lower case "b" baristas out there, there are very few individuals who are able to combine passion, craft and hospitality in becoming a capital "B" Barista (a.k.a. Nik Virrey's notion of the "Wholistic Barista"). Our industry depends on our ability to facilitate, form and foster these sort of individuals.

To date, we mostly do this through an apprenticeship system of education. A shop with a good trainer or training program can motivate otherwise apathetic coworkers, perhaps inspiring some to become Baristas. This education is largely done in-person via word of mouth with an emphasis on hands on learning. While generally effective as a training procedure, what this apprenticeship system amounts to is a proprietary secretiveness when it comes to education. Without this apprenticeship, it is hard to know where to turn in the anarchy of information that is the internet.

What I propose and hereby pledge to create is a sort of coffee resource review. Periodically on this blog I will post reviews of books, articles, blogs, websites and any other educational resources I can find, along with suggested/ intended audience and the level of importance (i.e. is it a "must read"). For example, the SCAA brewing handbook is a fascinating read for an experienced barista who is looking for a technical understanding of brewing. Counter Culture's Brewing Guide, on the other hand, is great for the uninitiated but interested. The experienced barista might be bored by CCC's brewing guide and the uninitiated might be baffled by the SCAA handbook. Coffee people already know this but I think its about time someone simply said it and shared it.

I don't expect that reviews posted here will represent the unanimous truth of the industry as they will certainly contain the opinions of the reviewers here. The idea is merely to provide what I was looking for two years ago: a suggestion of where to start and where to go next.

Stay tuned for more.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

An Essay on the Perception of a Career in Liquid Management or The Importance of Craft


You all know it. 
That question. 
"What do you really want to do?" 

Maybe its a regular customer or a family member, maybe a friend or a first date, but sooner or later, it is sure to come up. 

This happens a lot in coffee. For most, the very phrase "coffee professional" is an oxymoron since coffee is a job you get while you are in school on your way to becoming a professional. Or so they say. The idea that you really want to do something else than tend a bar (I'm using this phrase for both coffee and liquor, by the way) is meant to suggest a compliment, that you are a logical person who could not possibly imagine that a sustainable career could come out of coffee or mixology.  

This Girl Walks into a Bar recently reflected on this question, how to handle it, what it means. She writes
The 2nd most popular question I'd get while behind the bar . . . was, "So what do you really want to do?" I hated that question. It implied that I was somehow unhappy, unfulfilled, or wasting my life away by working as a bartender. I loved the job.
. . . [People would say:] 
"You can't make a living at it."
"If you were really serious about writing you'd find a way not to work this job."
"What'll it be- the next great American novel? Good luck!"
It took me a while to realize that these people weren't actually speaking to me at all. They were speaking to themselves. Pulling out and dusting off the excuse they'd become so accustomed to hearing in their own head and perhaps wishing I'd free them from it by taking it on as my own toxic self-doubt loaded baggage.   
You can (and should) read the rest of the post here

The first criticism against This Girl is still true: most can't make a living at it if it means working behind a bar and nothing else. This creates an awkwardly split workforce that serves to explain the recent growth of specialty coffee and cocktails. One the one hand you have people who are more committed to the craft than to the money. This can be a good thing since specialty coffee and cocktails wouldn't exist with these folk (but it gets bad pretty fast when these folk move up in the ranks, become managers and business owners, a complacency about money means placing other people's livelihoods at risk). On the other hand, you have people making drinks because they failed at doing something else. These people range from highly intelligent people down on their luck to the unmotivated and uninspired who don't care enough to improve their situation.

So we have three groups of people: 1) the committed 2) the unfortunate but intelligent 3) the uninspired. When 1 meets 3 arguments ensue. When 2 meets 3, 2 gets bitter and 3 brings them down. However, when 1 meets 2, 2 becomes inspired and ye olde average service job gets boring pretty fast. Boredom leads to experimenting, experimenting to craft, craft to community. Voila, here we are: a community of people committed to craft, doing what we really want to be doing. 

So, in the eyes of our naysayers, why don't the individuals of this craft-oriented community warrant careers?

Well, the easy answer is the lack of money. From this standpoint, lack of income becomes a sort of penance for the gratification of bartending. The idea is that even if you can make a living wage, you can make no more than that, you hit a ceiling. If you want to bartend indefinitely, you are limiting yourself monetarily. So the question "what do you really want to do?" is more or less about money. These concerned inquisitors ask with good reason too. James Hoffman noted in his NBC talk this year that many of the people who have a career in coffee feel that a degree of luck was involved in their opportunity, making a career in liquid management akin to writing or acting. Because luckiness is something outside of skill (e.g. winning the lottery), it is pretty natural for people to associate perceived luckiness with lack of skill (if you ever watch the World Series of Poker on TV you know exactly what I am talking about). So here we are, all of us waiting for our chance, our lucky break. Just as the greater public rolls their eyes at an aspiring actor or poet, so too they roll their eyes at us. 

But what if you could make money? To this question, I find This Girl's suggestion, that people throw their own excuses at us, extraordinarily telling. It implies that working as a bartender or barista is, a priori, a desirable job but one that is not often selected for a career, a posterori, due to the lack of money involved. Most baristas I know really do enjoy their job. They treat it with a level of seriousness appropriate to the craft they practice and a level of lightheartedness appropriate for hospitality. They get to make people feel good all day at work. Who wouldn't want such immediate gratification? 

The logical conclusion from this line of thinking, then, is that if you are currently attempting a career in bartending, you are then both lucky and stupid. Lucky because you are (at least currently) making enough money to support yourself with a job that is desirable and stupid because you are trying to make enough money to support yourself with a job that is desirable.

It is easy to resent someone who is lucky and stupid. 

This is why aspiring writers, actors, baristas/bartenders are often seen as juvenile, looking for the easy road. On the other hand, few people consider individuals pursuing a career as doctors, accountants, chefs or even artisan woodworkers stupid and certainly not lucky. So why this difference? I was going to suggest, as Hoffman did, that part of this is due to a lack of education and certification but this doesn't quite seem to fit. This argument might apply to baristas and bartenders for now, but it doesn't work for similarly perceived career pursuits like writing and acting. There are thousands of writing and acting workshops around the country and yet individuals in these workshops are often met with more criticism, not less e.g. "you are actually spending money on this?" 

I am here to suggest that this relationship between perceived stupidity and skill correlates to ability to do something poorly and still make money. If you are a terrible doctor, you will be fired and/or sued. If you are a terrible actor you could still make millions. There are too many Dan Browns, Keanu Reeves' and 20oz lattes in the world, putting money in pockets, to negate the perception of luck. This in turn leads to the perception of lack of skill, rendering all your studying, experimenting and tasting meaningless in the eyes of the masses. 

The truth of the matter is, on a global scale, most coffee is brewed poorly and most cocktails are made to be flavored sugar water.  If people are ever going to see our jobs as viable, they have to be able to taste the difference. Almost everyone I know with a career in coffee had a single taste experience that changed everything. This was true for me: three years ago a melitta pour over of an Ethiopia Yirge Cheffe completely blew my mind. I was hooked. And I was merely a customer at that point. If people are going to learn to perceive skill in what we do, they will have to taste the difference. 

That is why, if you ask me "what do you really want to do," I respond simply:

I want to make coffee, better.