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Environments for Barista Nourishment

March 22, 2013

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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