The photo for this article was provided by the interviewee.
I write this blog to help me learn about specialty coffee. In many of my posts, I share advice, recipes, and techniques from my own learning. This got me thinking about how professionals teach people coffee skills. I decided to reach out to Millie (@thatgirlfromthecafe on Instagram) to ask a few questions about what it is like to train people in basic coffee skills.
Millie shared some insightful thoughts on creating a supportive learning environment, teaching the fundamentals of making coffee, and more. You can read our full discussion below.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and what you do in your barista training role?
In my time off from my full-time job at Woods Cafe, I do barista training for a roastery called Cornico. My barista trainer role lasts two days a week. Either people from different cafes come to the roastery or I go to their cafe, depending on the COVID situation. People come into the roastery where we have a training room. The training room has a full set up of espresso machines, grinders, and lots of dairy/oat milk to get practicing with.
We haven’t had that many home baristas come in yet. But I don’t know whether with Covid (where people have really gotten into home brewing) there might be a little bit of an upsurge of people who want to come in the roastery and learn more.
I mainly teach how to use espresso machines. So I am not training people to use the Chemex and things like that. I teach how to correctly foam milk, how to clean your espresso machine, how to build a workflow, and so on. Cleaning is a big one: it is 50% of what I do. I also teach a little bit about dialing in and where coffee is from.
Let’s say I was interested in becoming a barista and I had no experience on bar. I knew a bit about coffee and I was just getting started. Where would I begin if I came to you for training?
I always suggest people who are interested in coffee go to a coffee roastery. That’s really the closest you can get to the beginning of the path unless you go to origin and see coffee plants. Roasteries often offer training (for home baristas or for cafes).
I generally start with a little bit about what coffee is and what you are doing when you are making espresso. This covers how to get a balanced espresso and the effect of grind size, dosing, water, etc. on a shot of espresso. I talk a little bit about the flavours you want to get out of your coffee. There are some flavours you do want and some flavours you do not want. You want your fruit acids and your caramels blended nicely together but you do not want more bitter flavours sneaking in.
I like to get people on the coffee machine as soon as possible. I find that it is good sitting there talking to people but for most of the work you need to be hands-on and working toward building your muscle memory.
At first, you have to take in lots of information like “tilt the jug this way to get a whirlpool,” and “stand nice and straight or your pattern will go off to one side.” Sometimes it can seem like you almost go backwards in a coffee training session. But I always try to reassure people over-analysing when you are in a training setting is common. You start judging everything you do through a microscope. When they are back in their cafe or home and can relax a little more, all these little tips and tricks will help out their workflow (hopefully!) improve their skills overall.
The key is to give people confidence that the training room is a safe space where you can mess up. You can make cheese milk and we can rectify that and learn how not to do that. At the beginning, do not panic if you drop things or spill things on the floor. That was my biggest fear when I did my in-house training and my exams.
I have used my fears and my worries to be like “what is the person I am training thinking and probably scared or worried about?” They are probably worried about completely messing up and making awful milk, or saying something “wrong.” I always say that if they come in and do everything perfectly then I will (a) have a super quick dull day with nothing to say and; (b) probably be out of a job as no one will need training. When you ask questions, don’t know something, drop milk everywhere or whatever, I am happy because I can help.
Another thing I want to hammer in to people I am training is workflow and little things that you should be doing so that when it gets to the cleaning part of the day your job is not that difficult. I talk about what you need to do every time you use the coffee machine, for instance (i.e. flush through your group heads every time, purge your steam wands, and make sure the steam wands have been wiped).
I can definitely see the importance of cultivating a mindset that your training room is a safe space.
That’s the time you want to make mistakes. You might not want to make mistakes when there is a queue out of the door and you have six coffees to make. That’s the time you want to feel confident in your abilities. During training, however, you can experiment and you can go “what happens if I do this?”
I also find that when you are in your safe space, whether that is at home or in a cafe where you are used to everything, it is much easier to make coffee. I find people often do much better when they are in their own cafe and I am going into their space, where they naturally feel a little more comfortable. When people come into the roastery they may be learning on a different machine in a new space. That is why I want to make them feel super welcome and comfortable as then they will learn better.
In training, it is easy for you to start analysing everything that you are doing and second-guess yourself. It’s like going on University Challenge or Mastermind where you know the answers and at home you would be screaming the answers at the television. But in the moment, under pressure, your mind goes blank and something you know becomes utterly foreign.
We have spoken about creating a safe space and cultivating an environment supportive of making mistakes. What other techniques would you employ to introduce a barista to the fundamentals of making coffee without them feeling intimidated?
I try to keep everything else as simple as possible so that we can get through everything that you need to know for using your coffee machine day-to-day in a busy cafe. If you have an interest in coffee, you can ask me more questions/come back and we will do a more in depth session.
In terms of theory, I have a big board with labels that say “under-extracted,” “balanced espresso,” “over-extracted.” When we are not in COVID times, I get someone training to taste a shot of coffee. I get them to taste the first few seconds of an espresso shot so you can taste the fruit acids, then the middle where the caramels start coming through, then thirdly let the shot run on so they can taste bitter notes. Then we mix the first two so that they see what a balanced espresso is and why that is so important as a basis of your drinks.
You do not need to understand everything at the start. You just need to understand what the results are and that your results are what you are meant to be getting. If your shot is watery or is coming out in 10 seconds, you can tell the person who has been trained to dial in that something is wrong. If you start going into ratios or doses or water or extraction with a few people who have just started their journey in coffee, they will probably run a mile as it is a huge topic and you can easily get overwhelmed by it. I like to try to keep my classes simple whilst still telling them how important extraction is. I have found the best way I learnt about extraction was by tasting the difference in the espresso! That is the way you learn how bad your coffee can taste if something is wrong.
My next big thing is making sure the person I am training understands the difference between a latte and a cappuccino. We work on making sure that there is a big difference between these two drinks. One is frothy and one is silky smooth. I teach people that just by adding a little bit more air there can be a huge difference. That’s what the difference between many of the drinks are: the texture and consistency of your milk.
I was writing a blog post about an experiment similar to the one you were talking about regarding tasting different points of extraction. Through that experiment you can gain a sensory reference point for correctly-extracted and improperly extracted coffee. That’s a really intuitive way to get people started with tasting coffee before introducing them to flavour notes and sensory evaluation.
If you go into things like coffee cupping, which I find quite intimidating, and you are asking people to slurp coffee and taste flavour notes, that’s maybe not where you want to start. I find quite a lot of cupping events quite intimidating even now, so I think for someone to start there would be a super brave thing. Cupping is full of coffee language and knowledge which is amazing but can be very intimidating even to someone who works in the industry. Having said that, I am still developing my palette and my opinion on cupping might be a lot to do with that feeling.
If you split an espresso shot and say “this one is sour” and “this one is bitter” then you can immediately taste some difference. This gives you a lot more confidence that you can very much taste differences in coffee.
You need to build knowledge up from the basics. In fact, coffee has lots of different fields in one. Baristas are professionals. The Q grading certification exists to create standards around tasting. Nobody should feel on day one that they have to learn everything.
I have been slowly dragged into coffee. When I started working in the cafe I had never touched a coffee machine in my life and I regularly used to go along to Starbucks and order a caramel macchiato and thought that a macchiato came in a big size. And then I realised how much there is to learn.
When we had in-house coffee training, I got so nervous and that was in the cafe (which as I mentioned before is more of a “safe space”) and I worried that people thought I would not know anything. I still get imposter syndrome where I think that people are going to feel that I know nothing. But so what if you know nothing? You go to training to learn and that is good. I am conscious of the fact that people get nervous about things and it is nice to be able to say that we are going to share knowledge.
I love going somewhere and somebody being like “have you heard about this?” and me being “no, let’s find out about this topic.”
When I got into home espresso, I quickly realised the minefield I got myself into. A lot of my learning was incremental rather than making big breakthroughs. Taking baby steps into learning the fundamentals feels important.
Coffee is such a huge topic and so I need to think about what the base layer is. When I started doing my barista training, I was like “what do I have to include?”
There is so much that you could say in training. Quite often, you get people coming in who say that they want to draw a particular latte art pattern. My Instagram is very latte art based. Latte art is the cherry on top of the cake but I really enjoy doing it. I find drawing on coffee relaxing. And then I think that I will need to run a latte art day.
When you are doing basic coffee training, if you can draw a heart at the end of the day, that is brilliant. I aim to get people to learn how to wiggle instead of saying “nobody leaves here until you do a heart.” Some people are disappointed who wanted to leave being able to do a swan or a tulip. But you do not need to worry about doing that. That’s not necessarily the sign of a very good coffee.
Luckily, the people that I work with at the roastery already had in mind what they wanted to give out in their training and I put my spin on it. I don’t always use very technical terms. I find that can be intimidating. If somebody came up to me and said “I want you to add air for X amount of seconds” I would think “am I counting one elephant, two elephants…” I always say that you add “chhhhs” of air. You know that noise that happens when you add air. I find that is immediately relatable to people.
I try to find what generally works with people and what makes training accessible to them.
I found reading simple recipes useful when I was getting started. There is a whole world of more complex knowledge. Having a single point of reference for brewing was much easier than having a lot of jargon to process.
Having a starting point is good. Before all of the lockdowns, I did not really brew coffee at home. I would be drinking coffee all day that I had made with the espresso machine at work. I would get home and be like I do not need any more coffee. So I never really brewed that much at home. And on my days off I would be cafe-hopping.
With lockdown, I have started collecting a lot more home brewing kit. I have a Chemex and a kettle and an Aeropress. I am interested to see, as a result of COVID, more people who do not work in cafes getting excited about coffees who are just like “I brew at home but I want to try an espresso machine. I don’t have room for an espresso machine in my kitchen but I want to try.”
It’s fun when people get really excited about coffee and ask weird and wonderful questions. The best training is when people are really interested and do not think about coffee just as a job. Then I feel like I can add in a bit more information because you actually want to learn more rather than only what you need to work in a cafe.
Some people work in cafes as a job that they will have for a while and so coffee is not of huge interest to them. Whereas then you get lots of other people who say this is something they want to do as a career. It might not be working in a cafe because there are so many careers in coffee. Or you get people who do not work in a cafe but are really interested in learning. Those are the really fun people to train.
I have seen a lot of people who see jobs in coffee as a stepping stone and then the people who see the beauty and art and science in coffee. That’s probably been my top discovery: coffee is more than just a drink.
I found that is when my interest started, when we had our in-house training and I realised I am not just pressing this button and a latte magically appears. You can put work in and improve and learn and gain skills. You can get qualifications in coffee. There is a whole world of different coffee subjects. If I am that starting point for one person, that would be awesome.
Coffee is a friendly place. Through lockdown, I have made so many friends making coffee, mainly through instagram to be honest. Even though there have been no events where you meet people, that same friendliness has continued in online events and general chatter online. People always want to chat about coffee and want to share what they have been up to. Coffee is a hugely welcoming community of people.
In coffee, there is an immediate community of people which is really nice. You get to hang out at other cafes, you get to hang out at coffee roasters, there are events (i.e. cupping, throwdowns, tastings). You can get a whole group of friends as well as a nice job by pursuing a role in coffee.