February 7, 2012

James Hoffmann Interview

There is no attempt at a witty headline here, nor even the usual sub-head. What we have instead is mere substance, the sort of quality content you might even learn something from. Of course, I've attempted such pieces before, often giving advice on how one might improve their drinks and/or customer service. But it needs to be said, a fair bit of my thoughts on those subjects are influenced by James Hoffmann, former World Barista Champion, and fellow internet coffee writer. As such, it occurred to me that there might be a great deal to be gained by simply asking the man some questions. I did so, and he was kind enough to answer them. To be clear, my questions are in italics.

Albert Einstein said “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction.” In coffee, ought we move "in the opposite direction", and if so, how?

I don't think we need to move in the opposite direction, but we certainly need to be a little less fearful of exploring other directions.  As an industry we suffer a bit from group thought and a coherence of ideas that probably squashes innovative thinking.  Cafes today don't look much different to cafes 10 years ago, but the product they serve has changed massively.  Moving in other directions is usually the result of questioning certain ideas and standards and more of that could only be a good thing.

People enjoy drinking coffee, and baristas enjoy making it. This is pretty fundamental. And yet, the relationship between the two parties, too often, seems fraught with misunderstanding, condescension, and a general adversarial tone. How do we bridge that gap?

I think it comes down to more empathy and training of service approach from owners and operators. We know what we need to do, though perhaps we haven't yet worked out how to train the level of service we want to see.

I've been to quite a few shops, and always watched how the resident baristas pull shots; I've yet to see anyone have exactly the same technique. As someone who trains coffee pros, how do you approach teaching something with that much innate variety? Is there a "right way" to make coffee, or just a right result?

Coffee making is a recipe, and the better written the recipe the more consistent the technique and preparation that goes along with it.  We often train a parroting of technique, not necessarily the deeper understand of why we do what we do.  If you understand why an 18g dose works in a particular basket, and why 30g of espresso liquid works well then people will aim to hit those numbers because of understanding of why the resulting espresso tastes good. Training people to taste to understand how to adjust a recipe is the final key - and probably the most difficult part.

As myself, several years ago: I'm a new barista, with little to no formal training. But I'm smitten with this whole thing, and would like to get good. Aside from practicing, what can I do to achieve that? What are some good resources to seek out?

In the US then I'd look to the SCAA/BGA.  Outside of the US it gets a lot trickier.  The internet is useful because it frees information, but for the new learner it is difficult to gauge the value and accuracy of information out there.  There isn't really much in the way of structure for planning and executing a career in coffee - which is both a terrible shame and a massive problem for the sustainability of coffee quality on the preparation side of things.

What did competing do for your skills as a barista, and what sort (if any) of barista could benefit similarly?

Competition gave me honest, brutal feedback on where I was good and where I (badly) needed improvement.  It gave me goals and focus, and any barista interested in improving can benefit.  If you just play to win then it can be a frustrating and unrewarding experience, but approaching it with a more open mind generally yields great results and an increased fervour for coffee.

What does coffee mean to you? (I'll grant that this could seem rather vague. Hopefully, it's just open ended.)

I don't know.  I've thought about it, but coffee is too big to mean any one thing to me.  It isn't that it is big in that it necessarily overwhelms my life (which it definitely does from time to time) - more that there is so much to it.  I'm indescribably lucky, and grateful, for the opportunities it offers me - to travel, to learn, to share, to meet people.  There is more to it than I can ever know in my lifetime and I'm ok with that.  Coffee is just the big umbrella idea over all the pieces underneath that intersect - coffee production or cafe culture, the world of tasting to the world of business.  I'm not sure I am even able to be coherent in my explanation at this point!

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