Laying FoundationCoffee-training programs give you and your staff needed know-how
By Chris Ryan
Making coffee is no simple task. If it’s espresso you’re brewing, the steps are numerous: grinding, tamping, extracting and more. Make a mistake in just one of those areas, and your product will suffer. And if you’re introducing milk into the equation, you better hope it’s steamed to perfection if you’re going to put forward a great drink. If you’re using another brewing method—from French press to siphon to pourover—coffee-to-water ratios, extraction times and more must be just right to produce the best brew.
With so much minutia to attend to in the drink-making process, it takes a fair amount of know-how to man the bar at a café. And these specialized skills don’t magically develop in a barista overnight; it takes extensive training and consistent practice to master the craft. And with a specialty coffee industry that is forever seeking higher levels of quality, the demand for training is always increasing. From specialized barista-training schools to well-honed in-store education infrastructures, there are solid institutions in place to produce virtuosic coffee makers.
It’s not hard to see the benefit of having a well-trained staff: The better they make your drinks, the more likely your customers will be to return for them. “With most coffee bars, you’re really dependent upon your employees for your success because they’re going to be the ones that are interacting with your customers probably 98 percent of the time, and they’re going to be the ones that are preparing the food and beverage,” says Ed Arvidson of E&C Consulting. “If your people aren’t trained, then instead of helping you build business, they become a liability.”
With so much time, money and effort invested in choosing the best coffee beans, shops are wise to implement a training program to ensure that those beans are properly prepared. “You can have the greatest product in the world, and if it’s mishandled, ill-prepared or misunderstood, then the quality of the coffee bean doesn’t really matter that much,” says Marcus Young, who does sales and distribution for Batdorf & Bronson in Portland, Ore. “Poorly prepared coffee is not going to taste good, no matter what.”
Just as a sturdy foundation is a key component to a long-lasting house, so is foundation vital in a coffee education. Once a solid background is drilled into an employee’s brain, subsequent information can then fit into a context that will add up to a comprehensive education. Matt Milletto, lead trainer at Portland, Ore.-based American Barista & Coffee School, recommends hammering home the concepts before any hands-on work is performed. “I think what’s important is to give every employee a really comprehensive background on the equipment and coffee itself before they ever even get on a machine,” he says. “Some of the top shops that I’ve been to may work with employees for months before they even pull a full bar shift.”
A trained barista’s knowledge base should extend not just to the coffee, but also to customer service. The recently launched Ivy League Barista School in San Diego devotes a large part of its training session to role-playing, where baristas can practice the ordering process. “We don’t want them to just understand the preparation side of things,” says Stephanie Garden, the school’s director. “We really want them to understand what that customer interaction is going to be like.”
Because specialty coffee is such a detail-oriented subject, it takes a great deal of tweaking for new hires to master the little things. “You have to be ready to sit there and give constructive feedback and figure out how to motivate each person,” says Holly Bastin, lead trainer for PT’s Coffee in Topeka, Kan. A useful tactic to help the trainer avoid frustration is to focus on being the best-possible communicator. “Some people just do things and it makes sense to them, and they can’t even necessarily tell you why,” says Jason Silberschlag, owner of Phoenix’s Cartel Coffee Lab. “And then there’s others that analyze every little thing they do and are able to say, ‘I do this because of this, and when you do this, this happens.’ And to me, that makes you a good trainer.”
The lengthy coffee education process will reveal general truths about any coffee—for example, over-extracted espresso produces a bitter flavor, while under-extracted espresso has a sour taste. However, one of the main benefits of extensive studying before using a machine is that the employee will become so well acquainted with your particular coffee that once he or she does get on bar, that barista will know how to make the product taste its best. “Knowing the coffee is very important,” says Bastin. “Because if you don’t know your coffee, then you’re probably not going to get the best flavor characteristics out of it.”
Understanding the product backward and forward also gives the barista the ability to troubleshoot when there’s an issue with the coffee or the equipment. Hiccups inevitably happen during a shift, and being able to address them swiftly is a vital skill. “For coffee businesses that don’t do regular training, when one thing goes wrong, every single thing goes wrong. So with training, when things are off, they’ll know how to find the source of problems,” says Sarah Dooley of Visions Espresso Service, which recently opened a Seattle-based training facility called the Coffee Enhancement Lounge, where companies can rent the space and practice on the equipment.
Another bonus of a barista being well-versed in your shop’s coffee is salesmanship—the more knowledge employees have of their product, the more confident they’ll be in selling it to customers. “Training gives the barista that level of confidence to talk about the flavors that they’re tasting in coffee, and realizing there is no real right or wrong answer,” says Young of Batdorf.
Once a barista has graduated from foundation training to operating a machine, repetition is a key tactic. “I think that demonstration, and then allowing them to follow your lead of what you did to demonstrate it, is always good to start with,” says Milletto. “Then you have them repeat it until it’s perfect and you’re satisfied with all the different variables their drink can achieve.”
Milletto also stresses an important teaching principle: Don’t expect pupils to understand things that you haven’t taught them. “Basically, your employees won’t know every aspect unless you teach them every aspect,” he says. “Sometimes that seems redundant or it seems like common sense, but it’s good to really be comprehensive in every variable.” Arvidson agrees: “It’s the old saying, ‘When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.’ If you’re assuming they will know things, then you’re leaving yourself wide open for things to malfunction.”
Once a barista is fully trained on the machine, one of the chief goals is consistency from drink to drink. Silberschlag of Cartel Coffee Lab says solid training produces consistent drink makers, and that’s a top priority. “Consistency and quality are all I am concerned about,” he says. “And if we can give them a high-quality product at a consistent interval, then we’re going to be successful.” And for companies that have multiple locations, like Kansas’ PT’s, the need for consistency becomes even greater. “You want to make sure they’re getting the same thing everywhere,” Bastin says.
Though much of the focus of the coffee education process falls on the introductory level, the learning process certainly does not end once a barista graduates to pulling shots. Training is an ongoing process for many coffee professionals. “I think part of the mistake that’s made with training is it’s typically a one-time event,” says Arvidson of E&C Consulting. “You train somebody for three days on how to make beverages, and then the next five years they work in your bar and they don’t get any further training. I think there has to be a way to work into your training program to have recertification.”
If a shop owner is lucky, the employee will have a natural curiosity to learn and will be hungry for more information. Because specialty coffee is a fairly nascent industry, there are constant developments to feed the eager student, and even trainers transform into pupil mode to keep up with the latest methods. “I tell our classes, even though I have over 15 years in this industry, I’m constantly educating myself, and occasionally I’ll find something that I change in my methods,” Milletto says. “I think it’s a good sign that someone’s willing to evolve.” Garden of the Ivy League Barista School says many people have enrolled in the school because they want to keep learning. “We’ve had quite a few sign up already who have existing cafés,” she says. “They recognize they need to still improve their knowledge, but also go back to the basics and make sure that they’re really producing a good-quality cup of coffee.”
The fact that specialty coffee has seen an increased interest in quality has also fed the desire for more education. While in the past owners may have been more prone to jump into opening shop without studying up on training, discriminating tastes and a struggling economy have fed a culture of caution. “People are scared because it’s their livelihood, and it’s their money that they’re investing,” says Oksana Fisenko, co-owner of Alex & Associates. “There’s still interest in opening up shops, but they certainly want to learn from somebody that’s had experience, not only in theory but in practice.”
The desire to learn also extends to customers, many of whom are eager to absorb information on brewing methods, quality cups and more. Shops would do well to pass on what they know to the people lining up to talk to them. “It’s a great opportunity for café owners to connect with their customers,” says Young of Batdorf & Bronson. “If you sell 12-ounce bags of coffee, why would your customers need to go to the grocery store to buy coffee when they could buy it right from you? And then you can pass along that training and help them to brew a great cup at home.”
As numerous shops push toward quality, the topic of education has moved to the forefront, likely having an impact that will do nothing but help to advance the specialty coffee movement. “It’s been our goal for nearly 20 years to make education kind of the forefront of why people do a great job in a coffee bar,” says Milletto. “It’s exciting to see education is a buzzword of the industry.” As Dooley of the Coffee Enhancement Lounge puts it, “Training adds value to the customer experience, and without value we really don’t have a reason to continue to grow what we do.”
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