February 21, 2012

I Want to be an Average Barista

I've trained two new (potential) baristas in the past few weeks. I tried, as much as possible, to avoid dogmatic repetition of technique; my way, after all, is not the only way. Rather, I simply explained why I did things the way I did, and what I hoped to accomplish.

I don't think it's arrogant to say that these sessions went well. Both individuals left them capable of steaming up a glossy pitcher of milk and pulling lovely bronze shots. They even managed to combine them in a way that suggested the potential for latte art, given a little more dedicated practice.

Of course, these sessions are helpful for me as well. In elucidating my technique, I am forced to justify things that might otherwise be mere habit, at this point. And by focusing on that technique, I keep it sharp. But that's a bit dry. More importantly, it emphasizes the fact that my job requires a skill set that A) Few have; and B) A lot of people seem to think is pretty cool.

Sadly, the process also makes clear a fact that is much less cool: There are a lot of shitty baristas out there. I don't mean to throw my compatriots under the bus - well, yes I do. But I don't want to look like a dick for doing so. Because the fact of the matter is this: I want everyone out there to be as good as I am, and really, it's not that complicated.

Despite the lack of complication, simple is not always easy. That is, while steaming milk well is not fundamentally complex, it requires some practice, and something like the correct technique. Many I've seen simply don't have it. There are also certain rules that ought to be followed. You should not, for instance, leave espresso locked in the head, without pulling the shots. But I see this very thing happen - and taste the burnt result - far too often, when I order an espresso.

Of course, this is not the fault of the individual baristas. They were never taught, and as such, simply don't know better. Perhaps they could be motivated to seek out internet content, but really, how much of it is worthwhile? (I say, knowing full well that this is internet content, and could be easily dismissed as such.) No, the fault is with those who trained them - or perhaps, those who opted not to.

I'm not advocating for everyone to get certified. I'm not, and I think I obtained the needed skills regardless. What I am arguing for is this: We, as professionals, should take enough pride in our work, and be pragmatic enough, to ensure that our trade is well represented. That I am exceptional is unacceptable, because really, I'm not uniquely gifted. I should be average, and if I were, this would be a better business, both in terms of happiness and profit.

1 comment:

  1. Someone who has taken five lessons in conversational Spanish can sound like a pro in front of someone who doesn't know what 'hola' means.

    Coffee is the same way. It's easy to get lazy when you know that the vast majority of people you serve won't know the difference between exceptional work and a drink that was slapped together. I used to see it all the time - even baristas who knew their way around espresso machines would cut corners over time because they figure no one is watching. It's a slippery slope and one that few of us seem to avoid.

    Interesting karmatic payoff as well: a couple of years ago I pulled a single origin shot for this guy, ended up talking for a few minutes. Turned out he was one of the owners of Herkimer.