The photo for this article was provided by the interviewee.
I have been thinking a lot about accessibility in coffee and so I have been chatting with people about how they share their coffee knowledge. I recently spoke with Jordan Harvey, a barista support representative and trainer for Grumpy Mule. Jordan is also a volunteer for the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) and a committee member at the Kore Directive, a coffee community of feministic diversity allies.
Jordan and I discussed barista training, accessibility in coffee, and the degree to which improvisation and continuous learning play a role in working in the coffee industry. I also asked what material Jordan covers in her introductory classes. I hope you enjoy our discussion.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and what you do in your role as a barista trainer?
I work for Bewley’s, which is an Irish company. I work for the sister company which is based in Yorkshire. We are Grumpy Mule, the speciality brand that we do. I am the barista support and trainer for them. I mainly look after the Midlands territory but because of furlough and redundancies my area has become even bigger. My area goes up to Blackpool, through Wales, down to the West country, Northampton, Milton Keynes, and the greater Midlands area and beyond if needed.
I live in Warrick, in the middle of England, so I often have quite a hefty drive. I do a lot of driving. I work with large supermarket chains, contract caterers, independents and more. My work is more on the corporate side of coffee, rather than the independent shops where I am doing lots of cool brews. Even though I work with Independents, the bulk of my work is mainly with larger companies.
A lot of my job is getting people comfortable with the machinery and getting them to understand what coffee is in the most friendly, approachable way so they can start growing their skills from there. As you can appreciate in hospitality you get a lot of staff turnover so sometimes I will go to a site two times in a quarter and the whole time will be different. A lot of my training is beginner training. I teach how to calibrate a grinder, how to run a shop, and so on.
I have been with Bewley’s for two and a half years. Before that, I was a manager at my family coffee shop. I was there for four and a half years. I would do all of the floor training, the coffee training. That’s how I got into specialty coffee. My mum has worked for Nestle, La Cimbali , Mulmar, and loads of different food services. My brother is the marketing manager at La Marzocco. We are a coffee family. I got into specialty coffee through my family coffee shop, Coffee Architects. I did not like coffee at the time. If you spoke to me eight years ago, I would be the single shot, vanilla latte kind of person. Now I am like “I want a flat white or I want a really good filter.”
I started getting into SCA courses through the roastery we worked with. I had a lovely introduction into the industry and was very fortunate in the way I was brought into the industry. After my work at the coffee shop, I got fed up working longer hours and covering everyone’s shifts. After four and a half years I decided to get into training.
Day to day, I could be in so many different counties. The most sites I have ever visited in a day is nine. I go to sites and audit them, make sure the standards are correct, they are cleaning their machine properly. This is the basic care which you would be surprised sometimes is not met. I go to sites and there are seals that are badly broken on coffee machines, wands that are broken or are covered in old, burnt milk. As a barista you have an internal scream and I am the one who goes “let’s not do that and let’s do some training.” I am the one that goes to check to see what problems there are and then liases from there.
It’s not just the people who are working on coffee bars who I am liaising with. I also work with operations people. I am a bit of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to my work. I do assist a lot of national accounts people and sales people with things like tastings for when companies are looking to switch it up, helping with tenders, attending meetings with other machine providers and customers to ensure the coffee standards are high, training advice going forward, bespoke training manuals, etc.
Recently I have been doing some things that are not really my job where I was doing a full diagnostic report on a fully automatic machine. I work on traditional, semi-autos, automatic machines. I can turn up to a site and sometimes I do not know what machine I am working on and I have to wing it. A lot of the time I may think “I kind of know this machine” but when it comes to certain things I need to look at the manual. Machines are like cars. They all do the same thing but the buttons are in different places.
It’s interesting that when you go to train you are often working on different equipment. It sounds like there is a lot of improvisation in using equipment.
Basically in coffee we are all just winging it. Every single person you talk to is just winging it. Everyone is experimenting and trying new things. That’s why new ways of brewing come out every few months or someone says “did you know you can do this with this brewing kit?” There’s always new things coming up. That’s one of my key morals: you can never stop learning, especially with coffee.
There are things we used to do in coffee about ten years ago that we wince at when we think about it now. Like smacking the side of a portafilter then jabbing it on the counter then tamping the coffee. Back in the day, that’s what people used to do. My mum has some really old school barista manuals from coffee companies and some of the things in there make you think “why?”
Coffee is a constantly evolving business. We are going through all these different waves of coffee. Now we are into a sustainability wave where the industry is more focused on sourcing and where you are getting your coffee from. There is focus on “direct trade” and whether people are actually getting direct trade. There is starting to be less room for error as people are searching for more online and people are talking.
I am very skilled on multiple coffee machines but at the same time there is so much knowledge you have to keep in your head. There are even some times, now especially because I have been off so long, where I have to remind myself of knowledge. I need to remind myself “This Anfim Practica, I know this bit comes off but I need a certain tool bit.”
Most of the time I ask for help from one of the people on my team. I know that sounds really simple. I’ll go on FaceTime with a member of my team and ask for a quick refresher.
You have this issue where if you are working with a company who has bought their machine from a third-party where we have to say that you need to call an engineer from a particular company. I can fix a few things but I cannot go inside a machine. I can do anything on the outside of the machine. My work involves a bit of managing expectations.
Specialty coffee is nascent. Some practices can feel entrenched but if you look at what has happened in the last decade you can see the industry has evolved fast. How have you adapted your training to make sure you are always teaching the latest standards and aligning those standards with the needs of your clients?
You do get a lot of people who can be stubborn and set in your ways. I might go to a site and someone will be like “I don’t need training, I know what I’m doing,” which frustrates me because I am constantly learning. You need to be a sponge and take in everything around you.
I’ll see things on Instagram where I am like “that’s a really cool way to pour” and I will use that in my work. I can pass on these little hacks to other people which makes their lives easier. When people say “I can’t do hearts” I say that you can. It’s one nice fluid motion and then you are done. Everyone loves a heart. They go mad for it.
I’m always picking up knowledge from the people around me. I like to go out on days out with my team or they will come out with me and we will learn from each other. They may have a technique and explain why they did that technique. I need someone to explain why they are doing something. If there is a good explanation for something and why it makes sense, I find it easier to learn.
I love brewing coffee at home because you can experiment and I think that is really fun. Sometimes I get distracted making a brew and I will be like “my V60 has been sitting there only half-poured for five minutes” and I’ll pour the rest of the water and most of the time it is fine. Obviously, it’s not what I was aiming for but the coffee was acceptable. People can get too bogged down with things being so black and white. But there are these grey areas and the industry is evolving.
There is different machinery, things that tamp for you, milks that do perfect latte art for you. I’m not that scared of machinery. I want to embrace it more. Why would you not go for machinery if it is going to make your life easier?
Talk to people around you. Try to get out of your own comfort bubble, reach out to people, you’ll be so surprised how many people are out there who want to be helpful. When I see these horror stories of people trying to get in the industry and people are like “you do not know what you are doing,” I challenge them to share their knowledge with people.
A big theme behind my blog is to share my experiences in an accessible way. I feel like sharing the “whys” behind your decisions is a great way to share knowledge.
The industry should be more like that where if I have a friend who knows about roasting and you want to get into roasting, you should be able to chat with them for a bit to see if roasting is right for you. I don’t see that a lot sometimes. Through the Kore Directive, you can find someone you can talk to. Mat North is great to talk about green coffee buying and grading. He will send you every bit of information because he cares and wants to pass it on.
It’s the same if anyone asks me about what brewing equipment or coffee they should buy. I will always take the time to message someone and discuss what they want to talk about. I always find that beginners – people who are beginner home brewers or who want to get into the industry – want to know how you got into your job. I tell them about how I worked in a coffee shop and got to know people.
I always tell people they should start working in a specialty shop, have a chat with the roastery there, and start a conversation. We should all be so much more open about sharing knowledge. One of my biggest triggers is someone making me feel really stupid. Whenever I train, I try to make my training as lighthearted and fun as possible. The more fun you are having, the more you are going to remember your training.
I need to make sure key bits of training get across. I think the one phrase everyone says in a training session is “wipe and purge” every time. If I go into a coffee shop and I see a dirty wand, I will not have a coffee from there because it makes me think what else is not being cleaned.
Learning should be fun and accessible. When things start to open up, we want to start a mentorship program. The Kore as a community has all of these great coffee professionals who want to make it better. Why can’t we have a map with where everyone is and you can go and have a session with someone if you want to learn about barista training or do sensory tasks for example?
Let’s say I was interested in becoming a barista and you were my trainer? What could I expect on day one? What techniques do you use to convey the most important concepts I would need to know?
First, I always ask people about their skill level. Have they ever used a coffee machine in the past? Where have they worked before? It’s nice to get a gauge of what their skill set is. Sometimes I prefer working with people who have never touched a coffee machine in their life because they have no bad habits that have been instilled from other jobs.
My training depends on time. If I have more time, I will start talking about what coffee is, where it comes from. Some people do not realise coffee is a seed. I say that coffee comes from cherries and so on. I talk about coffee and the journey it goes on. I try to get people to have an appreciation and connection to coffee. I often take visuals with me like a bag of green coffee to show people what coffee is like before it is roasted. Some people are blown away by that.
I talk about how the coffee is processed and picked and all of the hands through which the coffee passes before it gets to the barista. Coffee goes on this incredible journey. It’s all about helping people build a respect for the coffee.
I always go into the grinder and coffee first. I do not do anything with milk too early. My work is more theory-based at the start. I do not really go into practical work. I want to get people more comfortable and set a tone. I will say we are here to have some fun and learn. I want to leave a site feeling like the person I have trained would be confident doing a shift on their own while having a good standard of coffee.
I go into grinder calibration, how to make sure we are getting the best out of the coffee, how to look after the hoppers, how to look after the grinder, and the maintenance you need to do. I do not like anything that is a mess, especially when equipment is expensive. I always make sure people know not to put hoppers in dishwashers and how to store coffee. There are still people who put coffee in the fridge. I say you should store coffee like potatoes: in a cool, dry place, make sure the coffee is airtight in a sealed bag.
I need to keep in mind what the work area at each site is. I sometimes go into sites where the sink is at the furthest end of the kitchen or if there is no jug rinser to quickly do something. I try to make the whole process as easy for the barista who is learning as possible so they can stay consistent in their work. I go into the full ten steps of espresso: weighing, dosing, distribution, tamping, taking the coffee off the top, purging, all of that.
I make sure people understand why we tamp the way we do. I say “we do this because if we do not tamp flat you will get an uneven extraction and you will see when the coffee extracts it will not come out of the spouts at the same time.” I will not be too mean and say you have to get rid of a shot. If a shot is not terrible, you can use it. But if the coffee is, for example, shooting out at 10 seconds, or 50 seconds, then it needs to be calibrated and that shot should not be served.
It sounds like there is a lot of work but once you get into it making coffee becomes second nature. I always say if people ever want to ask me questions during the training they can cut in. I do not say there is a Q&A at the end. I will say if you have a question, please just ask. There are no stupid questions. If you have a random question about coffee, I will try my best to give you a good answer. But I do not know absolutely everything. I think that’s a good thing for people to know: trainers do not know absolutely everything. What I train in the first session is just scratching the surface of being a barista. There is so much more that goes into the role.
Then we start doing milk. I always start with a cappuccino. I think it is the easiest drink to make. I like the “golden ring of joy” on the top and a smooth, marshmallow fluff-looking cappuccino. I talk about pouring technique and how angles are so important. I will show people why we do certain angles and help them learn the skills which will come in handy when I teach latte art, which is basically drawing with foam. That is what free-pour latte art is.
Everyone seems to get cappuccinos pretty quickly. I always use the spout as an anchor, point the spout at the bullseye in the cup, then tilt either left or right, bring the jug down until it is just skimming. People sometimes ask “can I not do a double or a triple in one jug?” and I say it will take the same amount of time to do two jugs and you can use one after the other. The analogy I use is a microwave meal. If you put one microwave meal in for five minutes but two meals would take ten minutes if they were in at the same time.
I also explain milk temperatures. There are some customers who want the coffee hotter than the sun and you have to serve the milk in the way the customer wants. But I will explain what happens after that. Proteins are breaking down, the lactose is burning, you might get an eggy smell. I do like to throw a bit of science into my training when it comes to extracting but not to the point where it is confusing. I talk about what the maximum temperature for milk is and what happens if you go higher than that.
I always talk about what happens if you do bad things as well. Sometimes I mess up during training. I might do a bad latte art or my shot might come out badly. I will always pull myself up and say “I did not do something this time and this is what I am going to do to fix my error.”
With milk, I show some hacks. So if someone has foamed their latte milk a bit too much, you can get another jug and pour from a height to hold back some foam. I like doing little things that will make someone’s life a bit easier throughout the day. Say if someone under-fills a cup and they have done this lovely rosetta. I will say you can pour from a height to the side and only milk will go in which means you will keep your lovely latte art in the middle. Sites do not want loads of waste and I try to make sure that does not happen. I show people exactly where to fill up the milk so they have minimal waste.
With latte art, I like to do a simple circular pour. I usually act as a bit of a puppet master if I can see someone is a bit timid. I will help them so they can feel the motion of how they have to pour latte art. I am a very visual, physical learner. I encourage people to come close, even during COVID because you cannot help it. Yesterday I did training and every person at the end of the training could do hearts even though they said they could not do latte art at the beginning. The milk was stunning.
After doing lots of milk practice we will go through menus. We will talk about how to do hot chocolates, mochas, and make sure the barista is not putting chocolate powder in the jug. That really presses me.
I also discuss speed of service and how you can get things set up in a way that you can make two lattes at the same time. Or if you have two single shots you need to make you can use a double spout. I’d also include at the end of a training session how the work space should flow for maximum efficiency. For example, we will discuss your how grinder is placed so you have a better flow of service.
At the end of training, I go through the end-of-day cleanups such as how to backflush a machine and how to wipe everything down. After I leave, I share a manual that I share as a PDF which reiterates what I have done in a training session. If the person looks through the PDF and is stuck, they can give me a ring during work hours and I will be more than happy to answer any questions.
I try to make my training as fun, lighthearted, and as easy as possible to follow. If you build a good rapport with people, they are more likely to listen to you. If you are a bit more approachable, people will be more willing to learn. Building that trust as a teacher is important.
You can find out more about Jordan on her Instagram page @dans.sister.