Friday, September 11, 2009

Taller Avanzado

Taller Avanzado de Preparacion de Espresso, Cappuccino y Arte Latte

Rodrigo kicks off the class in the grand hall of the Circulo de Ibague.

When Alirio Laguna, from the Federacion Nacionale de Cafeteros de Colombia, asked me to visit Ibague last November during the Nicaraguan Barista Championship, my only answer was: "why not sooner?" Travel to new lands under the guise of coffee? Sign me up!

Our first day and a half was spent working with baristas from the region to develop their skills. Training is such a narrow science that it really requires very specialized people to do correctly. People with lots of patience and a thorough understanding of the material and how best to present that material to a group of people with varying levels of experience and backgrounds.

Personally, I find these kinds of events an enjoyable challenge. The standards for training baristas for The Spro are very narrow and specific. At events like these, your dealing with baristas from varying standards and trying to get them all on the same page in a very limited timeframe. At The Spro, we can spend a month or so working with a candidate to make them into a barista. In a workshop environment, you've only got days to get disparate people up to speed.

Rouki lectures on the finer points of latte art.

The workshops follow the SCAA standards for espresso: 1.5 to 2.0 ounce shots of espresso with a minimum 7 grams of coffee per shot in a 20-30 second time window. Morning lectures are followed by hands-on sessions with the baristas. At first shots vary widely but since we're tasting every shot, by the time everyone has their chance, the group is coming to a consensus on what is good espresso and what is bad - and the good really stands out after tasting thirty shots of bad.

At The Spro, we usually work with candidates one-on-one, and the training sessions are intensive sessions filled with lots of technical details that I think are tough to absorb on a six hour basis, so we limit training sessions to two hours to keep the material palatable and not overwhelm the candidates. In that situation, it's unusual to have multiple baristas working but I'm finding lots of merit in doing group sessions where the baristas taste together, learn together, remind each other about details and coach each other through the process. A camaraderie is built.

Our group of thirty or so baristas was divided roughly evenly between Rouki, Rodrigo and myself. Being the only instructor who couldn't really speak Spanish, I got the more adventurous baristas of the group. Those willing to risk taking instruction from the guy who they would have the most trouble communicating. I think that's the kind of mentality that promises an outstanding barista. A mentality willing to take chances and work with the unknown.

Pilar Andrea with her cappuccino.

I didn't pay close attention to Rouki or Rodrigo's group but a number of my crew mentioned that the other two groups were very serious. While we would laugh and joke and practice methods, techniques and standards, the rest of the room would work in relative silence. I sometimes wondered if they were enjoying themselves.

That's not to say that Rouki and Rodrigo are not great instructors, they most certainly are. We're just talking about three people with three different styles of instruction - and one who has very little command of Espanol.

Which also meant that I didn't really understand the lectures given to the class by Rouki and Rodrigo. Outside of knowing that they were teaching what to us is common understanding and practices, I had no idea what details or instructions the two of them were giving to the class.

The Boys plan shots of espresso while Maria Carolina steams milk.

That meant that I kinda went off-book with the material. When it came time for milk, we just went straight into pouring and latte art - even though Rouki had told them not to go into latte art right away (my group didn't bother to tell me). We pounded through the material and got everyone a round in quickly on the machine trying out the techniques. Soon many of them were pouring the basics of hearts and rosettas for latte art.

Because you've got ten people in the group and only about two hours to work with them during the hands-on session, you only have so much time to spend with each person. This means that we're sharing espresso grinds and trying to work around the limitations so that everyone gets work time on the machine. I try to drive home the need to take these techniques home and work out the details there. But we've been tasting a lot of bad coffee and realizing what's good - and for that I feel we've won a major battle.

The ever-critical Luz looks pleased while Diana makes coffee and Pilar prepares milk.

Hopefully we were able to impart the knowledge on how to achieve great shots of espresso and the taste understanding of what a good espresso is all about. With those two sides of the same equation, I think our baristas can go forth and be capable of tasting their coffee and making great espresso.

The interesting thing for me about the group was their willingness to listen and put up with my choppy and poor Spanish.

Ask my staff and I think they'll report their training period as very focused and intensive. Ask the attendees and I think their experience was very different. Much more fun, much more relaxed. I often found myself reflecting on this as I was working with the attendees. I wondered why?

Our Group: The Two Mauricios, Pilar, Luz, Maria Carolina, myself, Diana, Cedric, Liliana, Sergio and Diana.

That's when it occurred to me that we're teaching different standards. For the workshop, we're teaching the universally accepted standards of the SCAA, which are by nature broad and open to interpretation. At The Spro, I teach very narrow and specific standards and have very high expectations of my staff to perform to my expected level. In the workshop, we work with the students to help them learn the basics from which they will derive their own standards and performance levels. For them, the world is still very much open to their interpretation.

Which I think is what all of this is really about. Learning a set of standards to base and build upon for yourself, your staff and your business.

And they say this is work?

Still, all of this really is about the people and the people in our workshop are fantastic. It's such a fascinating process to watch a group of relative strangers learn together. The personalities start to stand out and define themselves. You start to see for whom this is a passion for and those for whom this is part of business. All want to make good coffee but you really the nuances.

The challenge for me is finding a way to make a connection with a group of people who don't really speak English. Luckily, I've been assigned a sidekick named Diana who's from the local culinary school to help out with the station and translate for me when I get stuck.

Carolina, Sergio, Pilar and Diana.

Each person gets a chance to work the machine, then all of us taste the product. At first, the product is pretty poor and that's a good thing. Everyone tastes and it's okay. Kind of what you'd expect from an "espresso" in most places around the world. In truth, it's quite bad, but most people don't know the difference so we keep pulling shots, making adjustments according to time, volume and color and tasting the results.

After awhile, they're noticing if it's too acido (acidic), or muy amargo (very bitter), or without cuerpo (body) and we're on to something. An adjustment here, a correction there and not too long later, the shots are starting to resemble something of quality. Balance and sweetness are starting to emerge and their taste buds don't lie. When someone pulls a shot that's actually pretty darn good, everyone notices and the impact is significant. This is no longer some sort of abstract possibility that's had to conceptualize much less achieve.

For me, this is exciting work. Helping people discover possibilities is something I find quite rewarding, it's just exhausting. When doing trainings for The Spro, I try to limit sessions to two hours because I find it so demanding. Going from 8am to 6pm in a workshop setting is just brutal and while I don't notice it during the day, by the end of the day, I'm just exhausted and we still have to go out after for official parties and stuff. Good thing there's that mujer muy atttractiva that I'd like to get to know more organizing the events. Just need a little time together.

Liliana, Maria Carolina and Ana Linda preserve the moment in images.

I think my achilles heel when it comes to training coffee is milk and latte art. It took me years to make a rosetta. I can train you to spin the milk and make it silky but teach you how to pour it to create the art? Huh? Latte art has never been a focus at The Spro so it's something I don't formally teach and I'm at a bit of a loss.

There are some great latte artists out there who have broken the process down to a science. I am not one of them. There's something about the swirl and going around the ring, then to the center and some wiggling and pulling out before pushing all the way forward. Whatever the case, it all reads like porn directions to me.

Diana finishes her pour under the scrutiny of her classmates.

But I'm here to teach and teach I must. I struggle the night before trying to break down the steps into coherent passages. Do this, then do that, wiggle while pulling out and push forward all the way through and it's okay if you spill a little milk over the edge - no matter how elegant, it still sounds like porn.

Elegant. That's another peeve of mine that I tried to interject with my group. Really the term I like is "finesse" but for lack of a better term in Spanish, it became Eleganza: elegant. I pushed my group to move away from the machine gun clacking of the grinder dosing lever and move with smooth fluidity, Eleganza. Let the grinder grind before pulling the dosing lever: Eleganza. Pull the lever with smooth, quiet motions: Eleganza. Reduce the amount of waste: Eleganza. Control your costs: Eleganza.

It's all a part of what we do and I don't understand why more of us don't pursue it.

Almost everyone in the entire class.

Surprisingly, the milk and latte art section of the workshop went well. I ended up helping them grasp a basic understanding of the necessary techniques and got them to pour some decent hearts and halfway decent rosettas. I even poured one of, if not the best rosetta of my career. Of course, when the cameras from Noticias Caracol were rolling, I embarrassed myself with very mediocre pours. Doom on You, Dickhead.

By the end of our workshop, I think we had bonded as a group. They hopefully had learned something worthwhile to help their craft and I had worked out some outlandish stuff in Spanish, telling the the wickedly personable visiting Miss Tolima: Mi Espanol es muy mal, pero soy maestro del Lengua del Amor. Which was supposed to mean: My Spanish is bad but I am a master in the language of love. It didn't occur to me much later that lengua also means "tongue." Oops!

Well, if she was pissed off by that she didn't slap me and she ended up hanging out with us later that night so it couldn't have gone over that badly.

Our great volunteer crew: Angel, Camilo, Diana and Juan Sebastian.

Endings are always bittersweet affairs. Time to finish up and move on. Some of our students will be attending the next class on competitions but others will be going back to their shops and I hope they're able to bring something worthwhile from our instruction. i remember back to when I was getting started flying out to Seattle and hanging out at Hines Public Market Coffee learning whatever they would share then taking those lessons back home and grinding them out and trying to figure out just what standards were going to be my own. Fun times of new discoveries and I look back upon them fondly. I hope our lessons will be reflected on as fondly as my own in their futures.

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