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Barista Bluff Doesn’t Make it to Bank

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Barista Bluff Doesn’t Make it to Bank
by Mike Hulter, EDN

Pulling your own expresso shots at home doesn’t count.  Even pulling off a decent cappuccino rosetta doesn’t quite qualify.  And if you spell expresso with an x, they’ll know for sure, your barista skills just might not be up to par. Possibly the most sought after job in the food industry, coffee making is no longer the simple drip ritual we once watched our fathers do daily, standing in the kitchen bleary eyed and sleepy, watching the cone filter drip drip drip.

I never realized how lacking my coffee capacities were until yesterday morning, while sipping on a beige lukewarm cup, picking flecks of Folgers from my teeth. In that moment I forgave all the coffee places that passed over my resume and decided to find a barista to interview and see if perhaps there were more barista bluffers than just me, hoping to show up behind the espresso machine and finally make some decent tips.

I’ve made well over a hundred cappuccinos, but I guess my standards are low.  I can taste a good one.  I can sip one of mine and spit it across the room.  (no, that’s not true.  I’ll drink anything with caffiene.  Perhaps that’s my problem) Apparently the artisan in me is not responsive to the illustrious burnt bean.  Museless espresso fumblings have I known.

Complicated high quality coffee beverages have long been around, descending from a variety of ancient traditions.  There’s an old joke, well, it’s not a joke really, but I think it’s funny.  Ask any old guy with strong cultural ties where coffee comes from, and he will claim it as an invention of his ancestors. I asked a Greek once, “Oh, you try the Greek coffee, and you taste the ancient world.  Coffe came first from the Greek tradition. A thousand… Three thousand years ago.”  Ask a Palestinian or a Jew.  “We drank coffee before the Roman Empire.  Moses in the desert drank coffee.  Noah, when he invented wine, also had coffee.”  and so on.

Taking these claims seriously only makes sense when you picture pangea as a crowded house full of bickering boys.  I grew up in a family of 9 and know the various traditions we’ve each taken from that home, and the way we each hold it as truly and deeply our own.  The preparation of coffee is one of these highly sacred rituals that some of us subconsciously hold as central to our expression of self.

I used to work at a diner in Berkeley called Caffe Med.  Right there on Telegraph across from Moe’s books.  The current owner is a newbie, having taken over only a few years ago, but he has the audacity to hang a sign that claims the Med as the origin of the Latte.  Apparantly the Westerners weren’t accustomed to the taste of straight espresso being served in the Italian tradition,(“All Coffee is from Italia.  Caffe!  Why is a coffee house called the Italian word for coffee?  Because it all comes from Italy…”) and the English speaking owner would tell the Italian speaking barista to add milk, “Mas latte, Mas Latte.  Latte, latte, latte, bene.” This is a cute story with absolutely no grounds for believability, but it continues the time honored tradition of claiming that you and your people invented coffee.

Living in Cascadia (a self imposed nickname for the Northwest) necessitates the regular consumption of hot delicious stimulant beverages, and the preparation techniques are as varied as the population.  Dutch Brothers Drive Thru is king of the quick caffiene kick, adding shots of espresso to every coffee ordered.  Manned almost exclusively by attractive young college age folk, Dutch Brothers seems almost an extension of the college realm, and perhaps the 23,000 U of O students are a large portion of their regulars, ducking in for a quick one on their way to class.

The Vegas Version of the Dutch Brothers business model can be found in the form of Java Gone Wild.  Who can say no to this strange approach to commerce?  Java Gone Wild has several drive thru coffee stands where your steamy stimulants are served by scantily clad cuties. I once tried to get hired there, (TRUE) but they seem biased towards baristas who look good in bikinis.

In my search for a barista to interview I enjoyed a tour of some of Eugene’s coffee spots, such as The Divine Cupcake on 11th and Chambers, a charming little spot where you might take your mother or wife, featuring frilly feminine art that centers around cupcakes and incorporates collage, watercolors, and cute phrases about cupcakes.  Then there’s the Wandering Goat down by the train tracks in the Whitaker, catering a bit more to the counter-culture, hosting live music and local artists. A rather inspiring scene, if you hope to write something like On the Road or Howl or some other edge oriented piece.

Wandering Goat

The barista I finally interviewed was named Brennan, but I didn’t meet him at coffee shop.  He showed up at my house to visit my roommate, and I just happened to bring up the topic.

EDN: How many barista job applicants are actually competent baristas?

BRE: A lot of applicants are hoping to get training, but we prefer to hire experienced baristas.  Maybe one in ten try to bluff their way in.

EDN How long does it generally take to get the skills down?

BRE: Different cafes have different approaches.  Where I learned, they train you for half an hour then they give you a gallon of milk to practice with.  They do that once a week for a month.  At that last place the emphasis was on the foam.  If you have a quarter inch of foam and all the bubbles are real tiny, and you do the rosetta and you fill it up to the brim without any leftover milk, you’re a competent barista. You could burn the espresso, leave it sour, whatever.  You could use leftover coffee, and as long as the foam was right the boss thought you were good.  This place is a bit more focused on the entire drink.  The espresso grind needs to be the right consistency, the pull needs to be the right length of time, you have to call the customer’s name before you pull the milk so it doesn’t sit for more than ten seconds before they get it, it takes a while to get down.

EDN: It’s like a bartender, right?  You go from busser to bar-ista back to barista?

BRE: Exactly.  I started out as a busser, and the barista showed me how to make my own cappucinno, and when my boss noticed my interest he arranged training for me.

EDN: How long did it take?

BRE: I was a busser for a year, than they trained me, and I had to wait another six months for a barista to quit before I actually got to change roles.

EDN: Why is it so hard?

BRE: I blame customer bias.  It’s like when a kid wakes up, and if it’s not his mom serving him cereal he might not eat it, like it’s different somehow.  Customers know their specific barista, and if there’s a substitute barista their whole morning ritual is thrown off. Their coffee doesn’t taste the same.  Of course, it’s their fault, and when they return it with “This doesn’t taste right.”  All you can do is exactly the same thing, smile a little wider, and…  It’s exactly the same!  But with the replacement, they assume it must be better, and at that point they’re usually satisfied.

Oddly comforting to know I’m not alone in the attempt to bluff my way in.

Michael Hulter spent his formative years in the Santa Cruz Mountains enjoying the serene redwood forest setting of the San Lorenzo Valley. He recieved his Bacheoler of Arts in English at UC Berkeley after which he quickly immersed himself in the culture and community of Berkeley's Caffe Med, the diner where Ginsberg wrote Howl. An avid writer and musician, Michael hopes to soon finish his "Premature Memoirs" and start playing music under the moniker Monkeyhands. When he's old he hopes to tour Junior Colleges teaching creative expression therapy.

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