blog from the ceo & superbarista of phoenix coffee, home of the best baristas in cleveland, ohio

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Have you seen "What the @!*? (bleep) do we know?"

If you haven't, you need to see it. It's a great movie. The premise is that the universe is a hologram. The universe is mental. The universe is first created inside our heads and then manifests in three dimensions. Although it is more simultaneous than that last sentence describes. So it is with that idea in mind that I am going to attempt to describe Phoenix Coffee's ideal wholesale coffee customer. We have more than one customer that resembles this customer quite closely if not exactly. But I thought it would be fun to put it in words, in a verbal picture, just for reference, and so the universe really knows what I am looking for. And by the way, Universe, please know that I am very thankful for the great and wonderful customers that I already have.

Phoenix Coffee's Ideal Wholesale Customer, let's call him Larry, is someone who loves coffee and espresso drinks. Larry has an appreciation for good food as well, and appreciates intelligence, attention to detail, creativity and integrity. Larry is willing to pay a fair price for great product, but also expects great service and wants to get a deal or a freebie once in a while, simply because he is a kind and respectable person who treats us well. Larry is an outstanding business owner, and takes pride in his establishment(s). Larry treats his employees well and makes sure he educates and develops his employees so that each employee leaves (although most stay for a long time) having learned more about their job and the world than they knew when they started. Larry appreciates professionalism, which I define as knowing more than one actually needs to know to do his or her job directly. Larry listens to his or her customers, and responds to their requests. Larry lets us know what he thinks we ought to be doing to keep him happy. Larry understands that espresso making is not a simple or easy thing and it is something that has to be approached with a certain serious commitment and consistent attention to detail. Larry appreciates it when things are done correctly.

God of the coffee universe, hear my prayer.
Love, Superbarista.

Friday, April 22, 2005

What makes for a Great Barista?

To use Kiley's lingo, I think you have to be a Renaissance Man (or Woman) to be a Great Barista. You have to have so many qualities, be so versatile, it takes an extraordinary person to be a great barista. People think that being a Barista is easy. It's not. It takes skill. It takes more than skill. Here's what I think it takes:

Sense of Humor
You gotta be funny. Even if, like me, you have to rely on bad jokes that you learn from your 8 year old. Humor is what pulls all of the other qualities listed below into a complete Barista package.

Speed and Physical Agility
When there is a line out the door you need to be able to move fast. People are cranky if their caffeine fix is delayed too long. So every motion counts. Filling the portafilter, tamping, fixing the portafilter in the brew basket, bending down to get the milk out of the cooler, each motion has be precise and rhythmic and correct, so you won't bump into your co-worker and so you won't spill the drink you just poured and so that you don't waste any time.

The Barista has to be able to sense the mood that the customer is in. What kind of small talk or joke would work? When Tina took the liberty of scratching the Starbucks logo off a customer's travel mug, it's a good thing her Barista sensitivity was working, because the customer thought it was hilarious. He could have just as easily been offended.

Also known as Common Sense. Often manifests as wit when combined with savvy and speed. A good barista just has to be smart. Otherwise the coffee just doesn't taste good. Also, you need to know math, and history, and chemistry and sociology and economics and physics and the reigning laws of the universe in order to be a Great Barista.

Shit happens. The power goes out. The water goes off or starts coming out of the tap looking brown. The cash register stops working. We run out of milk. Someone calls in sick. These things happen and a great barista has to think on his or her feet and solve problems quickly.

This quality overlaps with the above-listed Resourcefulness. But creativity is what is in action when a Barista creates a new drink. There are many ways to combine espresso, coffee, milk, spices, chai, flavor syrups, and the other myriad of flavors that are already in the cafe. Sometimes a Barista will come up with a drink that incorporates a new ingredient, maybe something unexpected. And then comes up with a good name for the new drink. Or comes up with a great idea for a new promotion or event for the cafe.

The ultimate test of the quality of the espresso shot you just pulled is how it tastes. So a Barista needs to be able to distinguish the qualities of body, astringency, bitterness, acidity, chew, fruitiness, overextracted or underextracted, the quality of the crema, the texture of the milk... tasting espresso and texturing milk requires keen sensory awareness.

Attention to Detail
The microlattice that forms the velvety foam that is necessary for making latte art requires extreme attention to detail. Was the pitcher cold to begin with? What was the temperature of milk? What is the position of the steam wand relative to the milk? What direction is the milk moving in the frothing pitcher? How rapidly is it moving? How big are the bubbles? Are they getting bigger or smaller? After frothing, did I wipe the steam wand? Did I empty the espresso puck out of the portafilter? Did I eject steam from the wand before and after using it? Was there a breeze near the machine when the espresso was extracting? Did I tamp harder this time than I did for the last shot? Which shot looked better? Which shot tasted better?

Ability to Work Under Pressure
Are you just as cheerful when there is a line out the door as when there is one customer in the store? Can you fill a large order quickly without making mistakes? Is your hand steady when you are pouring the milk? Do you get clumsy and messy when you get stressed or can you deal with the pressure? A Great Barista thrives under pressure and finds a way to engage the customers while they are standing in line. That way everyone has fun. A Great Barista doesn't snap at co-workers when under pressure, since that only makes things more difficult anyway.

Do you have what it takes?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Coffee Universe just Shifted... did you feel it?

Yesterday, Dennis Skitzki, Phoenix's espresso technician extraordinaire, told me that the New York Times published the winner of the US Barista Competition on THE FRONT PAGE. I didn't see it on the front page with my own eyes, but I did read the article and look at the pictures online. Do you coffee nuts out there realize what this means???? This is a big deal!!! The US Barista Championship was on the front page of the NEW YORK TIMES! Should I write that again? Did you catch that? The front page! The Coffee Universe has shifted.

Her name is Phuong Tran, she's 35 years old, and her signature drink is called the Crimson Sage. It contains espresso (did I need to tell you that?) sweet sugar cane juice, white pepper powder and sage leaves and she serves it in a crimson shot glass. Doesn't that sound mysterious? In order to access the above article, you'll have to give the New York Times some of your vital statistics and your first born, but don't worry, it's worth it.

The WORLD Barista competition, which doesn't look like it got much coverage from the Times, was won by a Dutch barista, Troels Overal Poulsen, with another interesting sounding drink that contained melted pepper. Is this pepper thing a new trend in espresso? Time for Phoenix baristas to start inventing our own signature pepper drink. Another interesting thing to note is that Poulsen used a straight Brazil as his espresso, roasted Northern Italian style, which means that it was roasted probably about to the depth of our Blonde Espresso. It's unusual for espresso to be brewed with a single origin. Although we recently added Brazil back into both our Espresso blends, since it is great for crema volume and also the mellow-ness of the blend. And just this past Monday Carl (our master blender) and I developed a new custom blend for a customer and it was the Brazil in it that saved the day. We were trying to combine two disparate taste characteristics into one blend, and we had failed with seven previous combinations, but on the eighth try, using the Brazil, we came up with a winner.

And Sergio Abramof, talented Cleveland chef and owner of Sergio's University Circle and soon to be Sergio's Shaker Square, has sworn by the Brazilian coffee that he has served in French Presses for years. So, yes, Brazil is an unadorned and unsung hero of the coffee world. It is the country that produces the most coffee, so I guess we oughta pay attention to their beans and use them to their fullest!

Here's the article about the World Barista Competition.

You didn't know the coffee world could be so glamorous did you?

Friday, April 01, 2005

Quiz:how do you know you are a Professional Barista?

  1. Can you pour a heart shaped latte?
  2. Can you tell the difference between Kenyan and Sumatran in a blind taste test?
  3. Can you prepare three espressos, three lattes and three specialty custom drinks in under 15 minutes and present them beautifully?
  4. Can you discuss politics, weather and religion while pouring the drinks mentioned in #3?
  5. Why is espresso a multi-phasic beverage?
  6. Can you tell when a customer walks in the door if they need their drink prepared quickly or if they are interested in lingering?
  7. Do you automatically adjust the grind on the espresso grinder when you notice that your extraction time is not correct?
  8. Do you read coffee trade journals?
  9. When you are traveling, is finding a source for good coffee one of your top priorities when arriving in a new city?
  10. Do you know way more about coffee and its preparation than you actually need to know to do your job?