Friday, October 30, 2009

Barista Road Trip

In the van zooming down the highway at 110mph.

Way back in May, when I first started envisioning training our new baristas, I imagined a two week session of classroom and hands-on workshops where the team would gather on a daily basis and learn the barista craft. Instead, design delays, building delays, permit delays and more delays than I've ever encountered previously, kept pushing everything back until I could wait no longer before hiring the people that would comprise the first barista crew for project hampden.

The first training session started on October 3rd and it's turned out to be group sessions on Saturdays, then smaller, intensive sessions during the week. This has allowed us to discuss common issues as a group, while spending focused time individually to work on skills. Not what I had originally envisioned, but much better than the old espresso workshops I used to teach at the SCAA - those were just madhouses.

And I think the quality of the training is much improved over those days instructing at the SCAA. Back then, I was really just a neophyte, with a year or two of experience. I didn't/couldn't have much depth or understanding of our craft. Today, I feel very different. I've had six years experience as a barista and ten years experience in the field. My understanding of the nuances is much better and I'm better at communicating to our crew what I want.

As such, these training sessions have been a lot of fun and I haven't experienced the frustration I experienced in the past when training baristas. Not to say that the other baristas were worse, because they're not. I think part of the difficulty was that those were all intense, one-on-one sessions, which puts tremendous pressure on everyone. Those sessions were intense and I limited them to two hours per day because I couldn't take more of it - and I'm sure the barista couldn't take more as well.

These sessions have been much longer (up to six hours) but they feel easier, more relaxed and I think the quality of instruction on my part is better. For this group, I've gone outside the box. I've tried to push it beyond what I was comfortable with. Let's give these new barista candidates greater information and control over the tasks at hand. Rather than just tell them about the coffees, let them taste and experience it for themselves. Rather than dictate specifications, let them test and hammer it out. Four weeks of training and no one has completed the espresso requirement. That's major.

Major because espresso has traditionally been our focus. It's what their predecessors spent the most time training. It's still paramount to our program but I've been pushing them towards understanding the flavors of coffee. Week after week after week, it's been cupping, cupping, cupping. They've cupped, tasted, brewed, tasted, tested, tasted and tasted coffee some more. Time to put them to the test.

Sadly, as much as I like my city, Baltimore is very much a cocoon. Six years into coffee and there still isn't another coffeeshop that pushes the envelope of coffee. Sure, there's the fabled Woodberry Kitchen and the ever-striving Atwater's Belvedere Square, but we still don't have a core of places like many cities enjoy. And if you're a barista who wants to see and experience other similar-minded coffeeshops, you have to go elsewhere.

With that in mind, we loaded into VanSpro for a road trip to Washington D.C.

First stop: the Counter Culture Coffee training lab in Adams Morgan for their weekly 10am cupping.

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