Facing Challenges and Finding Opportunities: The Professional Barista

throwdown By Ben Wineke, The Sow's Ear, Verona, Wisconsin

The path of the professional barista can seem like an awfully lonely one. Declaring that you want to be a master barista simply doesn't hold the same prestige as, say, a master chef or a master composer, and if you don't live in a city with an established coffee scene, there's not a very large pool of peers or mentors. It's certainly how I felt; when it occurred to me that I wanted to spend my life in the coffee industry, "career" and "barista" seemed like mutually exclusive terms.

Arriving at Barista Camp in Delavan, Wisconsin was therefore something of a transcendent experience. Sitting at the table with the other assigned members of the team that I would be in for the next several days was amazing. Any fears about not talking shop during off hours were immediately dashed as the table engaged in the conversations that I always try to have with my friends, but are always met with blank stares at best, and with eye rolls and exasperated sighs when I try too many times.

The days that followed were filled with the challenges, hands-on workshops, and roundtable discussions that camp is known for. An open forum on brewing equipment has changed the way that I regard my tools and my role in using them as a barista. A dialogue about micro-lots and where those premiums actually go has changed the way I consider the importance of the farmer, my place in the supply chain, and the way I present coffee in my shop. And the practices and procedures that I learned in class were things that I found myself able to implement with the staff at my cafe right away. Even the things I already knew were re-affirmed and supported with data and sound reasoning from some of the most respected and knowledgeable people in coffee today; faces that I already recognized from trade magazines and the internet.

The workshops allow you to experiment with equipment in a very hands-on manner, with experienced people guiding you through the process. If barista certification is something that you're interested in, this is a great venue to complete your coursework and take your exams in a short amount of time and for comparatively little money. From taking apart and reassembling a steam valve to learning the finer points of cupping coffee with a group of peers and learning how to hone your palette, the kind of experiences you have here are the kind you don't experience anywhere else. And did I mention that I got to eat a coffee cherry? Because I did. And it was awesome.

But perhaps most importantly, my experience at camp left me feeling empowered about the skills I have and the weight that my opinions hold. It really feels less like a series of lectures and more like an open dialogue, recognizing the subtle differences in everyone's businesses and regions, all the while talking about how to grow together as an industry. I feel like the vested interest I took alone has made the coffee in my cafe and the enthusiasm among the staff a lot stronger, and it hasn't slowed in the months that have passed.

I didn't meet a single person who made me think, "I hope I never see them again." It sounds like a cliche, but seriously: everyone that I met at camp was awesome, and a lot of the people I met at camp are people I still keep up with, and compare notes on the coffee scene in our respective towns with. And the sense of camaraderie always carried on after sessions were formally over for the day, creating a sense of an after party everywhere you went to share experiences and simply be excited about coffee.

The simple idea that specialty coffee is a grass roots movement that's begging you to take an active role in and help shape it is a theme that rings loud and clear at camp, and one that I'm looking forward to spreading in my community. I couldn't possibly overstate the value I feel that Barista Camp has to offer, and I'm seriously stoked for the next session. I hope I get to see you there.