Words by Pablo Lara, SDCN Blog Editor & Chief. Photos by Julie Rings, SDCN Social Media Manager.
Promoting a worthwhile discussion requires an acknowledgement of current challenges, topics that spark interest and agents with different perspectives and divergent backgrounds. Bloom, the latest educational event organized by the Barista Guild of America (BGA), had all those components necessary for discussion to flourish. This included a total of six speakers, a short film, plenty of time for questions and an excellent rotating coffee service.
Coffee Not Difficult: How I Make Coffee Good
Our current U.S. Barista Champion, Charles Babinski, is known for his utilitarian coffee preparation and heightened focus on customer service. Naturally, his talk focused on the happiness of the barista, correlating it with the well being of a business. Great baristas, as Babinski explains, are those who come in every morning and “talk lovingly to workers and customers.”
His trajectory in barista competitions has led him to assert, “There is no competition for the best barista.” The current evaluation systems are missing a way to account for successful café operational skills. He urges the barista championship board to reassess qualifications in order to open it back to the everyday barista, the pillar of the retail side of specialty coffee.
Following up on the dialogue about employee moral, Babinski suggests that business owners need to provide the tools to solve customer problems. He has observed how the majority of customer service issues arise from employees lacking easy solutions. A bad customer service experience rarely stems from a rude employee; rather it’s the barista’s inability to easily provide a solution. Babinski finished his presentation by touching on a sensitive topic, that of employees leaving to other cafes. He urges café owners to have an attitude of acceptance that baristas are on a coffee journey. Baristas that are burned out, Babinski advices, should move on because they are toxic to a café’s much necessary harmony.
The Necessary Beerification of Coffee
With a lovely personality, beer journalist Sarah Bennett delivered a fresh and stimulating presentation about beer and coffee. Currently, the world of craft beer and that of specialty coffee seems to be coming together through product collaborations and events. Brewing, sourcing, filtering and the flavor lexicon are all junctures in both industries.
Craft beer has a considerably larger market and its trajectory is one specialty coffee looks up to. Bennett cordially began her talk by mentioning the impact coffee has had on beer. Sourcing for hops and malts has changed gears, from commercial farming to sustainable farming and now takes in consideration different terroir characteristics meaning natural environmental attributes, such as soil, topography, and climate. This is something she believes has been inspired by specialty coffee’s focus on sourcing and single origin attributes.
What can coffee learn from beer? The presentation primarily focused on the retail experience, making connections between boutique beer shops and specialty coffee shops. Bennett’s suggestions derive from her research, which consists of visits to the many coffee shops in the LA area. One of the many noteworthy recommendation posed by Bennett is to ask new or indecisive customers “what do you usually drink?” in order to make drink suggestions. During her cafe visits she observed that the flavor lexicon in pour-over menus and coffee bags is too dry and complicated for the average consumer. These profiles should be shorter and contain more familiar flavor notes, “who has really ever tried a starfruit?” she questioned. Origin profiles could be simpler as well. Elevation and processing terms need to be omitted or need to be directly explained how they affect taste.
Bennett ended her talk proposing that we should strive to offer variety, whether it’s a variety of origins, different extractions or a selection of cold brews. Specialty coffee can gain a lot from other craft industries. Bennett’s beer centric feedback is the kind we need in future educational events.
Quality is a Moving Target
“Quality might be overrated” was the opening line delivered by Katie Carguilo, former U.S barista champion and Quality Analyst at Counter Culture. A shocking statement, especially coming from such a distinguished authority in coffee. But because of Carguilo’s extensive travels to origin and prominent role in one of the most forward thinking coffee companies in the U.S, she has realized that quality is expensive to produce. The painstaking quality requirements green coffee buyers put on farmers around the world make it hard for them to properly profit from their crops. Also, our theory has been that quality in the retail side will allow for higher prices per cup, translating into better profits for the farmer, but this is not the case.
As an industry, according to Carguilo, we need to think about the actual cost of producing coffee at origin, and how this might change from year to year. This information allows a grasp on the tight margins back at origin. This is something we can’t do alone, which is why Carguilo suggests partnering up with non-profits who already work back at origin. Counter Culture has been working with the Borderlands Project, a branch of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Coffeelands. Research is conducted in the coffee growing borderlands of Colombia and Ecuador. Carguilo had a firsthand experience in a recent advisory panel in Nariño, Colombia. Here she found out that farmers are still interested in certifications, anything to increase the price of their green coffee.
Carguilo thinks its time for our industry, through the BGA for example, to influence policy and legislation. Researching our supply chain will help us understand its problems, and foster solutions to secure the supply for the growing specialty coffee sector.
This closing section of Bloom was launched by “A Film About Design: World Coffee Event”. The short film summarized that “coffee demands beauty around it.” We have seen the dramatic change in aesthetics of the coffee house. From the dark colors and busy interior to the light, clean and minimal present. The panelist gave valuable suggestions for designing a new café. The lively Glanville started off by noting that labor cost must be realistically understood before crafting a design budget. To his LA comrades his advice is to pay attention to opening up in the city fringe, “without a clear vision, it can hurt you.” Paylo shared that Blue Bottle makes a plywood model of the café interior before construction begins in order to assess bar flow and effectiveness. He has also learned to hold back space for future success. For Paylo originality adds to brand value, therefore, “no visual space should be ignored,” he suggests, “keep it interesting.” Kahn recommends crafting a total cost by square feet. If budget is low, then “increase your storage space.” Cheap materials, functionality, originality and a realistic budget were the staples of this panel.
As the specialty coffee industry matures, forums such as Bloom are essential. Part Ted talk and part coffee date with friends, the further exploration of industry relevant topics help attendees create opinions, ideas and reflections. Results that will touch their workplace and customer base, creating a chain of improvement for our industry.