It often seems like the barista’s job, first and foremost, is to serve coffee in a friendly and unobtrusive way. So often that is just what we do. We are there to make your cappuccino the way you like, serve it with a smile, and wish you a pleasant rest of your day. Sometimes we get to have meaningful conversations with customers, too, especially those excited about the coffee industry, or those looking to perfect their home brews. But for many baristas, those interactions are infrequent, owing to chaotic rushes and other duties. We have excitement to share with customers, but on a busy weekday morning there isn’t always time.
This is one reason baristas love to compete. It offers a chance to get out of the café and talk about this beverage that inspires so many. And it’s one of the reasons we at Chromatic Coffee decided to drive from the South Bay up to San Francisco for CoffeeCon, the one-day “consumer coffee festival.” Naturally, we were curious about what to expect. CoffeeCon isn’t a trade show, exactly; there are lectures and classes, a ton of local roasters, and an audience of regular people with a zest for what we do. We had no idea what kind of exposure we were going to receive or what sort of potential future relationships we could make. But we were excited to share a space with the individuals who enjoy our goods and tell our story to consumers who might not know us yet.
Entering the convention, we quickly set up, said hello to a few friends, and waited for the crowd. People are the reason we embarked on this wonderful journey into the coffee world, so we were excited and maybe a bit giddy as the coffee drinkers started entering the art space. As the day went on, it became clear that this convention was not just about people sampling different brews. These were consumers with above-average devotion to our craft—and many of them were equipped to learn and listen, too. While we brewed, we told our story from the beginning. How we started as just a few friends with a dream in the basement of our home with nothing more than a sample roaster, a plane ticket to El Salvador, and a passion for quality and all the people who are responsible for creating a unique beverage.
Other queries we encountered went into discussing the relationship between roast levels and water properties, variables that don’t get a ton of love in everyday interactions at our Santa Clara shop.
It was surprising and pleasing that so many people were interested to learn about our passions. We’ve attended the Big Western and similar regional events, but CoffeeCon allowed for different interactions. With this convention, the attendees were not just interested in the free coffee, but approached us with a curious mind. We had a lot of conversations on home brewing, with an emphasis on grind size. We also offered a slew of brew method cards with the preferred grind pictured, ready to jump onto any questions. Other queries we encountered went into discussing the relationship between roast levels and water properties, variables that don’t get a ton of love in everyday interactions at our Santa Clara shop.
It’s refreshing as baristas to be reminded that our other role is as educators. At Chromatic we try to lead by example by putting heart into everything we do. We screen print our signs in house. Our artist series bags are emblazoned with work by local artists, who also show their art at our café. But sometimes the baristas becomes stagnant. Most people in a coffee bar are busy and want their usual pick-me-up. The café is more of a retail experience as opposed to an educational and informative exchange of ideas and thoughts. Events like these are crucial to keeping that exchange alive. Taking our barista know-how and dedication on the road is invigorating, a reminder that we are stewards of this product, in more ways than one.
On the eve of CoffeeCon San Francisco, the event’s creator, brewing expert Kevin Sinnott, wrote a message to baristas, on his blog: “Your profession will grow as people realize the craft and skill and, yes, art that goes into your work.” He likened attendance to CoffeeCon to cheering “for the home team.” By participating in events like his, we like to think we are adding to the growth of the industry at large and of consumer understanding about just what it is a barista does. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to connect with consumers for a day, whether it’s at a Bay Area throwdown, CoffeeCon 2015, or when some of those attendees stop by the shop to finish the chat we started at a booth in July.
—Donald Miguel is the production manager and roaster at Chromatic Coffee Company in Santa Clara, California.