Envisioning a coffee school conjures images of eager eyed baristas clutching clip boards and cupping spoons. However there is another coffee school much nearer at hand. Being a great barista means opening the doors of coffee school every day. There is only one instructor: the barista. The student might also be the barista, or it might be the guest on the other side of the counter. Either way, let the learning commence!
The self-taught barista syllabus is driven by curiosity and creativity. For many consumers and baristas alike, it’s not “just coffee,” it’s the most affordable, and approachable luxury in the entire world. It’s something to look forward to every day. It is the catalyst to starting one’s day feeling great. Coffee is a vast and always evolving subject. So start small. Try picking up French press or a Clever Coffee Dripper. Research latte art tips and tricks. (There’s a great article right here in this blog.) Research the people and culture behind your favorite coffees. Visit a coffee roaster. The scientific community researches coffee a lot and has come up with everything from the genetics of caffeine tolerance to why coffee’s molecular structure leaves a ring in the cup. From science to engineering to social studies, coffee school never closes. This is good, because the enthusiastic students never want to leave.
If enthusiastic students never want to leave, they also never want to study alone. Another crucial skill for any barista is holding coffee school on the campus of their own coffee shop in a way that is not off-putting or intimidating. Like any good teacher, good baristas are always looking for ways to spark the curiosity of their guests without being overbearing with the subject matter. “How to make a better cup of coffee at home,” and “what is that weird word on the menu” are the two fantastic opportunities for approachable enlightenment.
Rebuking a guest for using a cheap home brewer or requesting ground beans is not going to offer any real teachable moment even if the barista expounds fifteen minutes worth of passionate coffee education. The guest has already checked out, and may feel a bit betrayed from being called out. The coffee shop is their personal place, and that should not be ruined by an over enthusiastic barista. Great baristas are sensitive to their customers and open their coffee school doors only when timing is right and the person in front of them has an interest at that particular moment.
If a barista sees a guest staring at the menu looking puzzled, they should immediately slip into the role of being a knowledgeable friend, offering personalized guidance through asking simple questions and making a few suggestions perhaps even paired with a coffee tip. The guest will no longer feel foolish for being unfamiliar with cortados, but relieved, welcome, and maybe even ready to try something new. This is coffee school.
A very important phrase a barista should stay tuned in to is “it never tastes right when I make it myself” and similar. Making it convenient is step one. Don’t let the guest worry they’ll be trapped with a zealot for the next fifteen minutes. Ask mild questions about what the guest is currently doing with their coffee, then offer a tip or two that might improve their home brewing. This can even be turned into a sales opportunity by offering a solution in the form of a simple home coffee brewing kit including a quality home coffee grinder, a bag of whole bean coffee, a scale, a French press, and some simple printed out brewing instructions. A good phrase to remember is “let me know how this works out for ya, and if you have any trouble, please don’t hesitate to ask questions the next time you come in. We’re always happy to help!” It’s the coffee school equivalent of an open door policy. Eventually, they will begin brewing better coffee and they will never forget the teaching barista who spent time with them. This is great for the coffee shop, and the greater good of specialty coffee as a whole.
Another teaching opportunity is the guest standing bemused in front of the whole bean retail area. Sometimes this means they think the coffee notes are the description of a weird flavored coffee with chili pepper and pear instead of hazelnut and cinnamon. Sometimes they don’t know what will go well with their piece of home equipment, or with a social event. Sometimes they just don’t see their favorite coffee and are trying to decide what to buy instead. These are all easy ways for teaching baristas to open up the coffee school doors, once again. Every question about whole bean coffee is an opportunity to fan the ember of coffee passion. Nothing makes a guest feel better than to have a knowledgable friend guide them so they too can become a knowledgeable friend, with their friends.
Identifying appropriate and approachable teaching moments in others is an important part of being a barista. Fanning the ember of coffee passion in others is the pillar of coffee school.