Sky’s the Limit

Airship Coffee pilots the barista training program at Arkansas culinary school

Airship Coffee, photo by Lisa Florey

As the specialty coffee industry continues to experience exponential growth and venture beyond urban boundaries, the shortage of skilled, certified baristas is becoming more and more palpable. One cause for the labor shortage is a lack of barista training programs, especially outside large metropolitan areas. To solve this problem in Arkansas, a local specialty coffee roaster has teamed up with a new culinary school. Airship Coffee has partnered with Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food  to integrate the Specialty Coffee Association’s certification programs into Brightwater’s beverage arts curriculum.

HAVE COFFEE, WILL TRAVEL

Based in Bentonville, Arkansas, Airship Coffee has been importing, roasting, and distributing direct-trade specialty coffee since 2009. Last year, the company expanded its focus to offer education, based on the belief that increased knowledge of specialty coffee will benefit not only specialty coffee shops, but also cafés and restaurants.

Rainy Bray, Airship’s education coordinator and an accredited SCA instructor, has worked closely with Brightwater to blend the SCA’s Coffee Skills Program into the culinary school’s beverage arts curriculum. Students who complete the intensive coursework will increase their coffee knowledge and gain an understanding of how coffee can elevate the overall culinary experience.

Training is available in two formats: as an eight-week student class elective through the school, and as a traditional SCA full-day accelerated course format, tailored for trade professionals. Until now, Arkansas residents who wanted to become SCA-certified baristas had to travel out of state to Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Kansas City, Missouri, for training programs.

Airship predicts the barista program at Brightwater will add as many as 50 certified baristas into the talent pool annually. Additionally, the specialized training will filter down to other areas of the food industry. Brightwater’s beverage program director, James King, acknowledges the challenge of providing skilled workers to fill the demand.

“It is one thing to have rapid growth in a region, but if you don’t have qualified employees to meet the demand, then the customer experience falls short of expectation and real progress stalls,” King says. As a business owner in northwest Arkansas’ fast-growing economy, Airship founder Mark Bray has firsthand insight into the need for skilled workers through his relationships with his wholesale buyers.

Brightwater Chefs, photos by Dakota Graff
Brightwater Chefs, photos by Dakota Graff

“This program has the ability to accelerate the number of qualified specialty coffee professionals at a rapid rate. That’s the power of it,” Mark says. “At a class capacity of 30 students per semester, even if only half pass the certification, that’s adding 40 to 50 certified baristas per year. And for those entering the foodservice industry as chefs, owners, and/or managers, the standard for coffee service will be elevated at their restaurants.”

Coffee courses at Brightwater began with the fall 2017 semester and utilize the talents of accredited SCA trainers from around the country, under the leadership of Rainy Bray. The 19-year-old daughter of Airship’s founder, Rainy is a coffee wunderkind, the youngest person to have achieved the highest levels of certification in the SCA—both as an accredited instructor and barista.

Involved with different facets of the specialty coffee business in one way or another since she was 15, Rainy has taught at the Coffee Expo in Seattle, traveled to coffee farms in Guatemala, and judged at the U.S. Coffee Championships preliminaries.

“Coffee is a passion for me. Building a barista incubator program is a way to shape our industry and help establish northwest Arkansas as a hub for specialty coffee professionals,” Rainy says. “Partnering with Brightwater helps us reach dedicated students who are engaged in their craft.”

Brightwater’s new 27,500-square-foot space in downtown Bentonville’s market district features state-of-the-art equipment. Since opening in January 2017, the culinary school has offered training in culinary nutrition, food and beverage management, and entrepreneurship. From a comprehensive culinary arts program, to modules that focus on artisanal foods, butchery, baking and pastry, and beverage arts, the school’s programming focuses not only on food as business, but also as art and wellness.

Brightwater Sign, photo by Dakota Graff
Brightwater Sign, photo by Dakota Graff

Brightwater’s coffee lab provides an ideal setting for the comprehensive barista training courses, which cover everything from coffee’s history and cultivation, to current economics and advanced preparation methods.

BRIGHTWATER AND BEYOND

Rainy’s plans for teaching extend beyond barista training at Brightwater. She will continue teaching and developing courses at Airship’s training lab for wholesale customers and in-house employees. Hands-on sessions teach about the coffee experience from crop to cup, creating latte art, to upholding customer service values. Brightwater will also host classes and one-night events for coffee aficionados in the community. Airship’s crewmembers instruct the public in the art of coffee, teaching topics ranging from pairing coffee and food, to exploring coffee across different cultures.

As for Rainy, she’s inspired by the unlimited opportunities that abound in her community and the world at-large.

“I would like to be a part of the writing of the educational materials for the industry as a whole, not just for my own little space,” Rainy says. “The SCA doesn’t really have a ceiling. They always have a need for more people to be passionate about the industry and have knowledge to pour into it.”