company - education - coffee

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The skilled hand of the Barista...

Something Silas(newer member and tea fanatic of our cupping group) said to me stuck with me for a while. He came in because of the article where I said I was trying to change what it means to be a Barista in Boston. An offhand comment that got quoted by the Globe. Silas didn't believe it and had to see for himself. Silas told me the first time he visited, he walks in to see Simon(the owner) training and hears Brett say "I just want to make sure I do it right" and Silas knew he was in the right place.

I work six days a week and every day I come home and scrub away a layer of coffee oils from my hands. Working a shift behind the machine is hands on and it becomes such a feel oriented thing. Working the grounds with my fingers in a sweeping motion to level the dose in the basket. Two fingers slightly spaced using either a swirling motion or NSEW depending on the dose to distribute the grinds. A gentle pretamp with only the weight of the 2lb tamper. Sweeping grounds from the lip and ear of the nasket with one swift hand motion. A gentle tap with the top of the tamper(not the base) to settle and loosen grounds from the sides. A full on tamp and then a spinning polish.

At a certain point you can feel the pockets in the puck that will not extract well and if the dose is over or under even before you eyeball it just by how far the tamper is in relation to the basket rim. Trying to get from 1 in 3 inconsistent shots to 1 in 5 to 1 in 10 and keep pushing for more consistency.

I have a lot more perspective these days as we were pulling shots of varying espresso and trying to keep everything consistent. Pulling Ecco Reserve at 18g 3/4oz per shot, Terroir Southern at 16g 1oz per shot, and Terroir Nicaragua SOS at 14g 1oz per shot( and decaf too). I have confidence in our ability to change things and switch directions every day. This morning I started pulling shots of Yirgacheffe roasted for drip. Lowered the temp and immediately started serving shots to those curious.

What's the point? I love it, that's the point. The feel of the coffee, the comradarie behind the counter, and the connection with customers. The Barista as a coffee professional is the future of high end shops(I won't say third wave ;p). Interaction with the customer, isn't that what the boys at Clover pitch for their product? How can you really have that much interaction with a customer over a cup of drip coffee when the whole action consists of pouring the coffee and handing it to them? In essence it always boils down to personalities. Compare that to making an espresso right in front of a customer and having a quick conversation as the shot pulls and as the customer drinks the espresso by the machine. Barista are sales people for these coffees and these noble concepts. Anyone behind the counter can get passionate about coffee when they feel valued and respected as a coffee professional. When you are respected by your customer, you feel you can go that extra mile for them. An old chinese saying: "For those who care, I would die for them."

A barista is hands on in the truest sense. When working a shift, a Barista may have personally touched every bit of espresso that went out that morning in his/her routine. Wading through shots all morning and then there is the conversation. That glorious connection from one espresso drinker to another. Explaining the tastes, the beans, and trying to help the customer find the espresso that fits them. This is the job of the Barista, to relate the coffee to the consumer. The cutting edge of single origins may play out this way on the cafe stage.

The role of the Barista is hands on. It's not about flair. It's not about being a rockstar barista(I hate that term as it implies too much ego not enough coffee). The role of the Barista is to translate a coffee into something more than a product to be consumed, to create afficiandos, and to impart bits of knowledge over the counter. A coffee so carefully picked and processed by the farmer, roasted with attention to detail, and then the final stage is the barista serving that cup. Translating the flavors and reproducing them effectively in a way that the customer can connect to that coffee is the only way I can justify the future of high end coffees. The Barista must step up and present the coffees with knowledge, passion, and conviction.