Exceptional results through accurate paradigms

December 30, 2012


Some people may not be aware of this, but our coffee industry has several regulation bodies and trade organizations which operate on a national and international level to advance coffee research and regulate the general industry trade. Several of these industry bodies have put forth standards for serving coffee and engaging with people as a barista. At Corvus, we embrace these standards while acknowledging that coffee is a multi-dimensional subject of study. Bean density affects the ratio of extraction, being a mile higher than most of the country affects roasting temperatures and water activity. Fat to carbohydrate ratio (among others) within different beans affects brewing. Being subject to all these variables we understand that flexibility is paramount- but not unlimited flexibility. A flexible mindset is only a positive asset within the framework of a standard of excellence.


I spend a lot of time thinking about how to encourage industry standards as comprehensively as possible with Corvus Coffee baristas. One realization I’ve come to is an accurate view of excellence, in relation to standards, is critical. Currently, there is an assumption that an “average” barista is one who pulls shots with about a 50% successful extraction rate. Average is viewed as a barista who isn’t entirely sure how to steam milk, but can get lucky about 50% of the time. Someone unsure of drink ratios, not really sure where the coffee they are serving comes from or any of the intended flavor nuances. Similarly, I feel that a barista who can pull shots which are consistently well extracted and finish off well textured milk with a tulip while explaining the expected pull’s taste profile is viewed as an exceptional barista.


Not only do I disagree with both examples, but this paradigm relies on complacency and harms our industry. In my above example, the first person is below standard; more of a person who simply happens to spend time during their day standing behind an espresso machine. The second theoretical person is up to standard, but not exceptional, based on that description alone. Your next door neighbor may think he is an electrician because they own a pair of needle-nose pliers and a voltage meter, but he isn’t.


I’m not sure why we work in one of the few industries where we view someone who has purchased the correct tools as a craftsman regardless of his/her skill level. In order for us to advance to a powerhouse city in the US coffee scene, we need to quickly realize we have few, if any, truly exceptional baristas, let alone baristas who are at the standard. Once we start viewing standards as basic requirements, not the epitome of skill, we will begin to send more baristas to the national stage. 


The other improvement which comes as a result of this mindset is better engagement with customers. Currently, many baristas view customer service as an optional tool of the trade. I think this is manifested clearly in the past. Something is amiss when a major publication for food and drink names a barista of the year & inspires more anger than introspection in many coffee elitists because they view, perhaps accurately, their technical skill level to be beyond the winners’. Technical skill is very important, but being on par with industry technical standards does not define a good barista. A clear and separate section of SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) standards is dedicated to customer engagement. The role of a barista is customer service. You need to be able to diffuse tense situations, engage and educate, and answer sometimes ignorant questions. Angrily serving tasty drinks from a dirty, poorly kept, workspace automatically makes you a poor barista at best. Winning an award based on customer service without taking technical skill into account is no less one-sided than the reverse scenario.


I guess my entire message can be summarized as: we all have a long way to go in the Denver coffee industry. The more baristas who gain a healthy dose of introspection towards their work, the faster we will develop accurate paradigms towards excellence. Thanks to those of you who currently demonstrate this foresight & seek to grow your craft. In a lot of ways we are in the first generation of Denver craft coffee and are paving the way for people who will come after us. Our skill level will directly determine the skill level of people coming after us. Keep this in mind as you go about your day to day routine in the world of coffee.