Barista training workshops don’t work, so what will?

All the baristas working at my cafes sit an exam (here’s a link to it). Most fail the first time round and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. The modern barista has to mentally wrestle with concepts that include knowledge of physics, chemistry and fluid dynamics, they need to have the palette and confidence of a good chef and be charming when relating complex concepts to the customers. We all forget how much we’ve learned and getting people to learn all these things is difficult. I have a genuine passion for coffee and I want people working with me who are genuinely interested in coffee and can enthusiastically impart that passion to our customers. Training is very important to me.

When most baristas fail the first time, have I set the standard too high for the exam? No. The exam tests the minimum standard that I expect of our staff members and that customers expect from our kind of operation. Sixth stage coffee is not something that people should do to see themselves through college, it is more like a school itself. It’s hard work for both the baristas and for the trainers.

Peter N Dupont, of Coffee Collective, during a training session I once attended, suggested that quality comes about from three things: equipment, training and raw materials; and that’s the order that most businesses prioritise them. If you want quality in your product the order should be raw materials, training and then equipment. Coffee Collective is an excellent business and I’ve always aimed to follow their example.

I’ve spent more of my time on training staff than any other aspect of the business. I have attempted to teach coffee to hundreds of people and I’ve always prided myself on my ability to enthuse. But enthusiastic teaching doesn’t necessarily mean that the students are learning. To test this I needed a test and that test suggested that I was failing in my role as a trainer.

The exam tests the baristas’ ability to do their job. I didn’t want an exam for exam’s sake – this is common when there’s a certificate at the end of it and your instructor makes his living handing out certificates. There’s a whole industry of instructors whose interest is for you to pass and buy more training – it’s not just coffee; they’ve even monetised the school of life with life coaches. In real life, certificates mean very little. What’s important is how good you are at your job. There are many high calibre courses out there for baristas run by very enthusiastic people from the SCAA and SCAE, the various barista guilds and many excellent coffee roasteries. But what I needed was something more practical and ongoing. It’s really not possible to attend a course for a couple of days and come away as a good barista.

How most cafe owners see certificates.

Originally, the exam consisted of two parts: a practical exam (based on the WBC scoresheet, apologies to the SCAA) and a written test. It was a big thing. The guys trained hard for it and those that passed, deserved their passes. However, I wasn’t happy with all the passes. Some of the guys passing really didn’t really know everything that their pass mark said they knew. These guys had rote learned the answers to the questions and, through great feats of memory, sailed through their written exam.

Because I was unconvinced that the guys could relate any of the concepts to our customers,  I introduced a third section to the exam: the dreaded verbal. And everybody sank under the murky depths of emulsified oils and total dissolved solids. They would regurgitate anything that they thought I wanted to hear, which was usually very technical and quite often very wrong. None of it would make any sense to 99.67% of our customers. And it was all my fault.

Before the introduction of the verbal exam, I’d trained mostly one-on-one with the guys and they’d learn their practical skills by osmosis. This gets their skills up fast, inculcates them into the culture that I want for the cafe and means that they can learn at their own pace. After the first few cafes, we had a stalwart phalanx of excellent baristas who would take the new guys under their shields and, because the guys were genuinely interested, they were getting a lot of information from the ever improving source of decent coffee knowledge; the internet. However, I was starting to hear weird and less than wonderful conversations between our baristas, the new guys and, worse yet, the customers. I’d hear such cringeworthy things as:

Don’t leave the portafilter in the grouphead because you’ll burn the coffee.

We pre-infuse to let the coffee breathe.

Aeropress is kind of like a cheap espresso machine.

Or pretentious things like:

If you want a hot coffee, go to Starbucks.

When people come to our cafes, they expect the staff to know coffee and some customers were eager to learn from them. But what the customers were often getting was bluff. My business; my fault. I needed to do something about it. I needed to standardise the instruction and, after the first round of dismal failures with the exam, I set up six workshops on different aspect of the job:

  1. Induction to the company/customer service.
  2. Retail.
  3. Flavour Perception.
  4. Grinding.
  5. Coffee brewing and flavour manipulation – Drip, Immersion, Immersion/drip.
  6. Espresso brewing and flavour manipulation.

I consider our end of the coffee industry to be primarily a customer service industry, so the first workshop was about our customers and how to treat them. The next workshop was still about serving customers, but in the context of relieving them of their money. This sounds facetious, but it is more important to look after people when we’re taking their money. Getting money is also a very important, and often overlooked, aspect of the successful operation of cafes. The other workshops are self-explanatory.

This new regime worked pretty well. The guys were (mostly) enthusiastic about the obvious investment in their training and, like the North Korean elections, turn out for the compulsory workshops were good. The guys started passing their exams and, importantly, participating in entrancing tete-a-tete with interested customers on all manner of things coffee and if they didn’t know, they’d say “I don’t know. Can I get back to you on that?” Great stuff!

However, not all was well. We were opening a few cafes at this time and I was having to conduct too many workshops and not all of the guys were passing the exams, even after multiple workshops and intensive mentoring. Teaching is not the same as learning. I want to teach partly because I love this topic﹣I find the cafe industry endlessly fascinating and I find it pretty easy to get passionate about the subject. Enthusiasm helps teaching, but it’s still not the same as enthusiastic learning. For each of the workshops I used to put in many hours of work researching, crosschecking, writing and coming up with simple models that would get the idea across in an engaging and memorable fashion. But time again I’d find myself excitedly describing the journey of a coffee bean through a conical burr grinder, to eyes that had long glazed over. I’d fire a question out about increased fines from conical burrs to the group then ping an individual because this keeps everyone on their guard. Some guys enthusiastically returned the jab, but on others my question landed on an already punch drunk student.

One of the problems with workshops is that people can’t learn for two hours straight, let alone eight hours a day on a training course. I’m guilty of falling asleep during lectures at varsity and I’m aware that most people can concentrate for maximum 20 mins at a time, but  I’m not going to drag people across KL for a couple of 20 min sessions – even with copious quantities of coffee during the break – they’d spend longer in traffic. So I started looking for a different way to teach it.

I initially looked for online courses that I could send my guys to. After all, I’m supposed to be running a business and spending time with my kids. There are some decent courses online. The SCAA course and the Chefsteps espresso and coffee courses stand out as two of the best that I’ve seen and I recommend them to my staff. But I needed something more practical and comprehensive than what the online SCAA course offers.

The Chefsteps course on coffee is excellent. Go there, pay the money and take the course! It’s great for home brewers and a great primer for baristas. The format is clear and the advice in impeccable and I would love for the Chefsteps team to carry on to create a full barista course online. Our guys need a quite a bit more despite how expertly James Hoffmann and Ben Kaminsky explain what they do in this course. So, I’m back to recommending out staff read Scott Rao’s two excellent books: The Professional Barista’s Handbook [PBH] and Everything but the Espresso.

Scott Rao doesn’t cater for home brewers. PBH is a book for professionals, which is clear from the title. Both books helped me greatly and I’ve used them extensively as required reading for staff and for my own learning. This works very well for people who learn well from books. I’m one of them. University was fairly easy for me because I can learn from textbooks and continue reading them (mostly on coffee and cacao) today. But not everyone learns well from books, including some members of staff who are excellent baristas with a passion for learning, but a mental block when it comes to books. So I was still left failing my students.

I was taking several Coursera courses at the time, partly to help improve my own teaching style and I loved the fact that I could pause in a lecture, rewind and catch the pertinent points that I’d missed. I was the student in organic chemistry who would be passing out and suddenly realise that something the balding woman at the front had just said was important and I should have taken note, like everyone around me seemed to be doing with immaculate handwriting while my notes had wandered of the page, flat-lined and died. Everyone learns in different ways and at different rates and, with ‘edtech’ like Coursera, there’s finally going to be a revolution in education.

So I initially started looking at moodle, which despite its claims to the contrary was too complicated and clunky. I looked at various forms of LMS including Kineo and a promising WordPress-based system called LearnDash and although this is very good for online courses, I didn’t want to create coursera for coffee.

I looked at Storyline from Articulate and Adobe’s competitor Captivate. I actually started with Articulate because I was very impressed with the student-led learning principles behind it, but I couldn’t find a good way to deliver it to the guys except through a website that would take me too long to learn how to do.

Finally, I found some software that did exactly what I wanted. It was easy to use, created learning experiences that accelerated learning for my baristas and allowed each to work through at their own pace. It could handle interactive elements and worked on the iPad. Since the guys have started using it, they have passed the exam 86% faster with an average of 14% higher grades than when I taught workshops only and 146% faster and 34% higher grades than when they learned by osmosis and Microsoft Word printouts. I’ll tell you all about it in a future post.

Please feel free to download the practical exam (link again). I’m curious how others might make it differently or better. If you’ve got an idea on it, please let me know.

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3 thoughts on “Barista training workshops don’t work, so what will?

  1. Hi Michael, I am at home coffee enthusiast and want to learn everything about coffee. I was even considering SCAA training to improve my knowledge of coffee. I just sampled your new book “Coffee for the Mildly Obsessed”, I think it is brilliant with rich content and quiz. Was this blog post motivation to write your own book for training your baristas? I am really curious how this book is being received by home baristas everywhere.

    • Hello Kalyana, it’s great that you’re getting well into your coffee. I’m delighted that you found the book worthwhile. My motivation came from the baristas who were always keen to learn, but were getting confused with conflicting information. There was also a book called the ‘E Myth Revisited’ that I’d bought, whose advice I was attempting to follow.
      I’m not sure how the book is being received by home baristas. I’d have thought it’d only be of interest to professionals and obsessives like me.

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