Roasters + Baristas: We Can Work it Out

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Welcome to a new educational series in which we find ways to bridge the gap between the roaster and the barista, whose common goal of serving great coffee can be achieved by finding some common ground. This will be an ongoing series with new topics posted regularly – so check back frequently for more posts.

A Little Background

Before I became a full-time coffee educator and trainer, I worked for 9 years in cafes. As a barista at my first few jobs, I was aware of the impact that our roaster had on the coffees we purchased and brewed. The roaster was one of the final links in the supply chain. They were the artisan whose job it was to coax sweetness, nuance, and body out of those insoluble little green seeds. But the understanding I had of the roasters’ influence usually started and stopped at “the blame game”. Coffee hard to dial in? Blame the roaster. Tasting flat, dull, or boring? Roaster’s fault. Notes of roast, smoke, or anything even remotely unpleasant? That’s the roaster again – messing things up.

The blame went the other way as well; when the roaster heard negative feedback about their coffees, the baristas were to blame. They don’t know what they were doing. They should adjust their parameters, clean their equipment, try to cup more and improve their palettes because they are wrong and this coffee is perfect.

The dynamic at my last cafe was a little different, in that our roaster was also a barista who worked shifts at the cafe. We had a connection to him and an opportunity to be in dialogue about the coffees we were serving. Things felt more collaborative. We shared information, tasting notes, and customers’ insights with each other. Both sides – the roaster and the barista staff – were able to make small changes to improve the end product. This kind of teamwork was special, but isn’t terribly common in many specialty coffee shops.

The Rift Between Us

Many cafes are serving coffee roasted by a wholesaler, and have very little engagement with the lead roaster or the production team. For cafes that are roasting their own, the roastery is typically offsite and the roasters don’t co-mingle with the cafe staff. This causes a natural dissonance, a rift between the folks at the tryer and the ones at the tamper.

Recently, I’ve crossed over the threshold. After 13 years of working in and around cafes, I’m learning to roast. As a member of the education team at Mill City I must learn the basics of roasting in order to assist with our monthly roasting courses. So, for the first time ever, I’m putting the pieces together and diving into the science of roasting.

I’m familiar with the concepts of roasting, of course. I’ve taught baristas about the role of the roaster and how commercial drum roasters operate. But now I’m learning the walk rather than just the talk. During this process, I’ve discovered a few things that are beneficial for baristas to understand about how a roaster works and makes decisions about coffees. I’ve also identified a few things that roasters might learn from their baristas - if they happen to be reading this as well.

Lesson: Brew Methods Matter

Roasters taste coffee at the cupping table. They might pour themselves a mug or seven off a batch brewer in the corner, but the way that they measure success for a particular coffee is through cupping it. Cupping is a highly specific way of tasting coffee, and has little to do with the way that people will experience it in a cafe setting. The end result is that the roaster and barista are, as we suspected all along, speaking different languages. They are tasting the same coffee in very different ways.

To overcome this misunderstanding, baristas should cup coffees in their cafe to see what their roasters are seeing. Likewise, Roasters should consider brewing pour overs, pots of coffee, or espressos with the coffees they roast. Of course, this requires training on both sides. An improperly executed cupping is just as bad as a poorly extracted espresso, neither will show the coffee in its best light.

Having the team work together to cross-train each other is a possible solution. At the very least, having the roaster set up and lead a regular cupping for cafe staff will provide a shared experience. This can reveal what each team likes or dislikes about a coffee. Tasting coffees together on the same cupping table also gives people the chance to share tasting notes and descriptors. Suddenly, the team is more calibrated in how they experience their coffees. For baristas, they have more common language in how they talk about those coffees with customers. Added bonus: they can work together to improve a roast profile or fix a brew variable and they might even get to know each other better in the process. Team building! 

We’ll be posting more lessons, insights, and topics for both baristas and roasters to think about as they work together towards a common goal. Keep an eye on our blog for the next topic in this series exploring how roast level and profile influence a barista’s approach to extraction.

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