My industry has let me down.

Philip Jolley, owner of El Capitan Espresso, San Bruno, Calif., sent me this essay, and I wanted to share it…Thanks for taking the time to put these thoughts into words, Phil.

—Sarah

MY INDUSTRY HAS LET ME DOWN

When I opened my espresso kiosk five years ago, I knew nothing of the amazing tastes, textures and variety available at the best coffee bars. I thought Starbucks was good, Peets was better and everything else fell far below them. Then I attended my first barista competition (the Western Regional of the United States Barista Championship). The experience was nothing less than paradigm shifting. I tasted how great coffee and espresso could be and began a quest to learn as much as possible so that I could provide a similar experience to my customers.  Three years later, I have a better-educated staff and more knowledgeable customers, we serve higher quality drinks, and we have all have learned so much about coffee that each day is a more fulfilling experience for me, my staff and my customers.

Recently I was traveling within a few miles of one of the most award winning shops in our industry, a shop I had heard much about but had never been to, and took the opportunity to stop in for a drink. Both the roaster and the lead barista/trainer have won numerous awards and are consistently upheld as among the best that specialty coffee has to offer. I walked in and saw the telltale signs of a good shop: a La Marzocco espresso machine, the Mazzer grinders, a Clover, etc. But I also saw pre-flavored coffee (cherry-chocolate was the most disturbing). Roasting and barista competition awards were displayed alongside flavored coffees, which left me confused about the true mission of this place, of why a roaster would try so hard to source and roast great beans and then dump flavoring on their hard work.

When I asked for a cappuccino, the cashier turned and pointed to the three paper cup sizes—12, 16, and 20 ounces—and asked which I would like. I responded, “Really? You don’t offer a traditional sized cap”? She then said, “Oh, you want a competition cappuccino. A 6-ounce for here.” I was stunned. I had to already know that a 6-ounce cappuccino exists and ask for it specifically instead of being offered one of the key things that separates corporate from true specialty coffee.

When the barista passed me my “competition” sized cappuccino, the cup was nearly too hot to touch. Admittedly, I like my drinks on the slightly cooler side (145-150 degrees) but what I was given was so hot I nearly burned my mouth. I had to wait several minutes while it cooled as the foam crusted over before I could drink it. This may have been a failure of training, although as I have said the lead barista and trainer is consistently recognized as one of the best. It could have been a lapse in management, although the owner/roaster was just a table away when I placed my order. No, I think what unfortunately is happening here is that this particular business has just found it easier to go with the status quo and compete as a substitute for corporate coffee as opposed to establishing themselves as something different and arguably better. They have found it easier to serve the corporate coffee crossover customer the same old standardized drinks they have always gotten and save the traditional or “competition” drinks for those already in the know. What an enormous disappointment.

Now, when I read online about the troubles with customers and their lack of coffee knowledge, and when I hear baristas complain about extra hot or no foam drinks, I see it is a problem we as business owners and baristas must address. We can no longer blame corporate coffee for dumbing down the expectations of customers. We can no longer claim it is the big, national companies that have created new fangled names for classic drinks (think “Misto” as opposed to cafe au lait ) or who have fed the demand for larger and larger sizes. We, the independent coffee shops, the “third wave” snobs, are to blame, as well. It is our responsibility to step up and show our customers how incredible coffee can be. Our enthusiasm is contagious (ever been to a ‘spro down or a cupping?) and we need to share it. So the next time a customer asks for a skinny, extra hot, 20 ounce, no foam Misto, take it as an opportunity to educate. We really do have better coffee, we really do use better milk and know when a shot is good or bad. We know how to create perfect, velvety micro foam and we need to share our knowledge and skills with our customers. It is the responsibility and burden of the small, truly specialty coffee businesses to do everything we can to teach the world how wonderful the best coffee can be.

About the Author

Sarah

Sarah Allen is co-founder and editor of Barista Magazine, the international trade magazine for coffee professionals. A passionate advocate for baristas, quality, and the coffee community, Sarah has traveled widely to research stories, interact with readers, and present on a variety of topics affecting specialty coffee. She also loves animals, swimming, ice cream, and living in Portland, Oregon.