PDG previously published an article about why baristas should shadow roasters. My first reaction? That’s great, but roasters also need to shadow baristas.
Over the last 15 years of my professional life, I’ve spent thousands of hours each as a barista, roaster, and cupper. And I can tell you that making coffee is a team project – and that we have a lot to learn from each other.
Here are the five things that roasters can learn from shadowing (or, even better, training as) a barista.
Skills learned behind the espresso bar can be applied to the roastery. Credit: Jkafader via Wikimedia Commons
1. You’ll Want to Roast Coffee Better
Get a barista to make you a coffee. One, it’ll be amazing: baristas are professionals who do this all day long every day. Two, the barista will show you – and tell you, since they tend to be talkative – exactly how the coffee you roasted is prepared and consumed. And that’s invaluable.
You know that batch that got away from you when you needed to check your email for a second? You’ll experience how it doesn’t taste as good as it could. Ever used cheeky flavor descriptions that don’t quite match the coffee in the cup? You’ll see firsthand how customers react.
What’s more, a barista’s attention to detail (even, dare I say it, obsession) will make you realize that you must bring your A-game to every batch of every coffee, every single day. Even for the coffees you don’t like as much.
Seeing how hard baristas work to make every drink freaking awesome, while they also provide customer service and education, will make you a better professional. It’s a team effort to make the best coffee possible – and you won’t want to let the team down.
You’ll want to make coffee that makes people smile. Credit: Andy Newbom
2. You’ll Talk about Coffee Better
Who cares how you talk about coffee? The proof is in the cup. You buy the best green coffee, roast it perfectly, the barista shuts up and does their job, and the customer sees angels and unicorns at the first sip.
Well, no. Specialty coffee demands we provide a little bit of story, guidance, education and yes, love, with every cup. Roasters need to explain the flavors, the processing, the roast profile, Maillard reactions and complex carbohydrate chain breakdowns. But we need to do it in simple terms and to a non-roasting audience. Because if a perfect cup of coffee is served in a forest and no one knows it’s there, did it really get served?
Now I’m sure that YOU are a gregarious extrovert! But some roasters can be a tad bit introverted (well, except for the deafening metal music). Conversely, many a barista has been accused of being an overly excited talkaholic extrovert.
By shadowing a barista, or better yet working shifts as a barista, you’ll learn that great coffee is appreciated partly because of great language. Learn to wax poetic while you dive in deep with the science of the coffee you roast and serve. They say talk is cheap but I’ve found that the right talk is priceless.
3. You’ll Understand the Art
Oh roasters, how we love our Maillard reactions, amino acids, precursor aromas and long-chain carbohydrates. We adore geeking out about heat absorption rates and arguing about the relative merits of various rates of rise percentages and the effect on sugar browning. We love our coffee science.
But we also love that what we do is a craft. And a craft is part science and part art. Sometimes we can feel uncomfortable with too much of a focus on the art side of coffee. And every once in awhile we can dismiss the baristas as those “flighty artist hipsters”. Because roasting is science! SCIENCE! The art is more community college level. Right?
Wrong. As a roaster, the more time you spend with a barista the more you’ll appreciate the true craft of coffee. Baristas leverage science as much as roasters do. However, they perform these alchemical levels of science while also being creative. And they have to perform visual drink evaluation, customer education, customer service, and more.
The more time you spend shadowing a barista, the better your entire coffee craft will be. Don’t let yourself be blinded by science.
Coffee is equal parts art and science. Coffee & Tea Collective, San Diego, CA. Credit: Andy Newbom
4. You’ll Meet More Coffee Drinkers
Being a coffee roaster or maker is radically different from being a coffee drinker. And as a roaster, we can easily go days or even weeks without interacting with a single one.
The thing is, we should be spending a lot of time with consumers. No, they normally don’t know the proper terminology for a demucilager. And no, they can’t add to a conversation about the ideal charge temp for a mechanically demucilaged coffee grown at over 1,550 m.a.s.l.
They do, however know how to describe what they like and don’t like in coffee. And when they’re consuming the product of your blood, sweat, and tears, that’s feedback you want to know.
Baristas are often remarkably good at talking to actual coffee drinkers. They have well-developed communication and people skills, and they’re not shy about starting a conversation. Even if you’re a sociable extrovert, chances are that you don’t talk to as many strangers as they do. So watch them chat to a few customers and you’ll soon pick up a few valuable tricks.
And if you are one of those more introverted roasters? Simply ask questions and then be quiet and listen. Let the coffee drinkers do all the talking.
Meeting customers is invaluable. Kickapoo Coffee Roasters, Milwaukee, WI, USA. Credit: Andy Newbom
5. You’ll Become Like the Pros
The true sign of professionalism is the understanding that, no matter how much you know, you have more to learn. Watch what baristas actually do with your coffee. Listen to how they describe the beans. Observe how they skillfully guide and direct.
At our roasting company, we had a hard and fast rule. If you wanted to become a roaster, you first had to become a barista. This meant convincing the cafe manager to hire you as a trainee, and then starting at the very bottom. You had to master every single part of the process, and it would take two to three months before you were allowed to make coffee for our valued customers. Then, and only then, could you come back to the roastery.
It was a harsh program, and it’s not one for everyone – but it ensured that we understood the importance of our work and everyone else’s. It brought us together and resulted in better-quality coffee.
Understand the whole supply chain. Coffee Pickers at Finca El Socorro, Guatemala. Credit: Nanelle Newbom
When you spend time with baristas and coffee drinkers, you learn remarkable things. Take, for example, the fact that hardly anyone consumes coffee by cupping it. In fact, people seem to simply drink it like… a beverage. And really hot as well! WTF?!
By shadowing baristas you might discover how to make the coffee taste better as it is actually consumed. Not from a cupping bowl in a lab, but as a double espresso, pour over, or latte. And that is awesome. That is professional-grade knowledge. That is progress and teamwork.
Together we realize that we are greater than the sum of the parts. Without roasters, baristas would have no coffee to make. Without baristas, roasters would never have their coffee served. Without customers, none of us would have jobs. And without the producers, we would have a sadder, greyer and decidedly un-coffee world. That is not a world I want to be in.
So roasters, get out there and shadow a few baristas. Better yet, go learn how to be the best damn barista you can. It will change your life for the better. Trust me.
Written by Andy Newbom of Coffee Spanish. Feature photo credit: Andy Newbom
Perfect Daily Grind
Want to read more articles like this? Sign up to our newsletter!