I remember when I started getting really into espresso coffee and reading all the stuff about the importance of making good espresso as captured in the importance of the espresso blend, the espresso machine, the grinder and finally…. the BARISTA. Even if you got everything right and the barista failed to tamp with the right amount of pressure, prep the machine and maintain it during and after the day, the espresso would still come out bad. I still get people saying to me, “oh! don’t worry, we are using a really good coffee” and worringly they may add “I’m not really good at making coffee but the coffee is good” – like the most important thing is the coffee – it’s a lot more than that.
So, when I started visiting really good coffee shops way back when – over 10 years ago, I was not just excited to be ordering coffee, but I would always be excited to chat to the barista and ask them about their day, the coffee, what temperature they were brewing at, etc. The barista was the star of the coffee shop – the leading actor – everything started and ended with him/her serving you a great cup of coffee. Okay, I confess, these things still get me excited and may be I even go further like “if it’s fruity, can you increase the brew temperature so that it isn’t too bright” and “which coffee is best for milk, espresso or filter brew” which leads to me to the main reason why I’m writing this piece.
I found out lately that most baristi (plural for barista) I quiz tend to give me a slightly puzzled look. I’ve noticed too that even though the game has been upped in espresso, most people still go to a really good cafe and just order a latte and pour sugar into it. Great! good coffee is in vogue but I’m not so sure if the onus on taste has been successfully transferred to the masses.
Am I loosing you?
The barista is an expert – an expert at making good coffee and all experts should be familiar with their tool and provide a service in a professional manner.
I accept that not everyone that walks into a cafe will be like me or the others who have way more expertise than me, but I kind of expect that the barista should be able to answer some basic questions about the coffee and to advise me on what would be best.
Coffee is now big business, after all McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts wouldn’t have focused on coffee if it wasn’t and you wouldn’t have the likes of Starbucks offering flat whites (the drink of the espresso milk based connoisseur).
Just the other week Perfect Daily Grind conducted a poll on twitter about what we want to see in 2017 and I wrote…. “I’d like to see baristas more versed in coffee knowledge”.
I hope I don’t come across as a coffee snub as my wife jokingly describes me – well! I think she says it jokingly. It’s just that I want the service that I used to get when I started my coffee journey many moons ago, as usually things develop for the better. I recall a quote from Seth Godin;
“Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers.”
My understanding of which is that some of your customers want more and you shouldn’t shun them but attend to them to. I wouldn’t go to the extreme like some cafes who snub you if you don’t know anything about coffee, order a cappuccino in the afternoon (in some cafes in Italy, they’ll say no) and scream at you if you put sugar in your coffee. In fact one cafe, doesn’t even have sugar.
Even though I’m in my 40s (no shame), I still want to learn and thats what got me excited about coffee – there was so much to learn and I’m sure there’s still more to learn, so teach me barista…. I’m not saying each barista should be like former US barista champion, Pete Licata, who visited the coffee farms to learn which coffee to choose for the WBC, which he finally won in 2013.
The situation is further exacerbated where attention to detail in making a great espresso has been compromised in favour of a milk based drink. Again, the basis for a good cappuccino, flat white of latte is a great espresso but that has been sidelined, so much so, that I rarely order espresso out of my home, but there are exceptions
So, what next?
Back to the future or the basics – teaching the barista to focus on the essential elements coupled with great customer service based on good knowledge of the coffee they are brewing and how to adjust the brew parameters during the course of the day. When I had a coffee shop, I used too ask the barista to check the espresso machine and time the shot about 4-5 times a day. We weren’t as busy as your typical London cafe, which I presume would need checking a lot more times during the day.
I think when you look at all those lovely bags of coffee and the way they describe the coffee; caramel, blackcurrant, grapefruit acidity, lemon curd, etc the main reason we don’t taste them is the barista – harsh, but I guess it’s also down to your palate too.
I’d like to see the time when you enter a coffee shop and those taste profiles are displayed on a coffee menu, so that you are tempted to taste something different and escape with your taste buds to another world – ah! the drink of the escapist and the non-compromiser of taste.