Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Where To Learn A Focused Craft

Not too long ago, a young barista was relating to me the frustrations of working at their coffee place (no, this barista does not work for me) and how, someday, this barista wanted to go off and do her own thing in her city (she lives in a somewhat small town in the midwest with an average coffee scene and not many options). She was frustrated because she felt like she wasn't really learning anything more about coffee or the craft and it was starting to wear on her.

Because I tend to be a bit foolish in my own decisions, my universal answer for those who want to do their own thing is: "go out and do it". Stop wasting your time and just make it happen. Stop bitching, whining and moaning about things and start your own shop. Of course, without proper preparation, planning and financial resources, this often leads to ruin and greater hardship.

The next thought is to go out and find a place where you can learn the craft, expand your knowledge and really grow. In the restaurant business, you go out and find a chef who you admire and beg to work for him. It's a pretty simple process even though the mechanics of making it happen can be quite difficult. Even so, it's not impossible to get a simple stage (read: "stahj" as in French) at places like Le Bernardin or Per Se - if you really want one.

So the simple answer is to find a barista-driven coffee place where you can learn from someone with greater experience and vision. But where are these places in America (or the world, for that matter)?

As I sat down to think about it, I realized that there are many notable coffee houses in America creating excellent coffee, but how many of them are driven by a singular vision? How many of them are led by a barista craftsman? The more I thought about it, the harder it became.

I reflected about my own time learning the craft at Hines Public Market Coffee in Seattle. The old Hines is no longer there, the Two Johns have gone their separate ways and Hines now exists as strictly a roastery in Vancouver, British Columbia. No longer is there an espresso bar to learn lessons from Sanders and Hornall. The days of sending novice baristas interested in learning the craft to Hines are over.

Most coffeeshops today have great baristas but it seems to be more of a communal effort towards coffee excellence rather than a singular vision. The West Coast Intelligentsias, Blue Bottle, Ritual, Stumptown and many others produce amazing coffee and are great learning grounds, but I'm confounded about where to send someone when they want to learn a focused craft.

After awhile, some places came to mind where the coffeehouse is run by a barista focused on producing the best coffee possible. Anthony Rue of Gainesville's Volta Coffee & Tea came to mind first. Then Aaron Ultimo's eponymous coffee place in Philadelphia. John & YiChing Piquet run the fashionably small and super-hardcore Caffe d'Bolla in Salt Lake City, and Billy Wilson's Barista in Portland, OR.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be compiling a list of places that would be great training grounds for this barista. Perhaps you might have some suggestions? Post them here.


Sharpie said...

So you want your readers to do your work for you?


onocoffee said...

Sharpie - TOUCHE!!

I can't be the only one pretending to work on the Internet!

Anthony Rue said...


I'm kinda stunned to be mentioned in such esteemed company; I'd also say that it would not be possible for Volta to have carved out our niche in the world without the dedication of our staff-- almost all of whom started with no previous coffee experience and have developed into a skilled and passionate crew. Specifically, I don't think that we would be where we are without Alexandra Wright's help; she came on board before we opened with no experience or expectations and is now our manager/trainer.

Much of what you touch upon is directly related to other conversations going on elsewhere this month in the industry. The shift from specialty coffee as tweaked commodity coffee analog to this new thing (coffee as slow food/culinary/whatever) requires both a different kind of business plan and a different relation between barista and ownership. I like your idea of the stage; we've been lucky enough to have some of the most gracious baristas and coffee professionals from around the country come to the shop and help build both my knowledge and my staff's skills.


Shawn said...

I've long thought that Kopplin's Coffee in St. Paul, MN to be among the most committed stewards of coffee in the U.S. Small shop w/ a clear purpose and identity in the coffee and espresso sub-culture.