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Barista Camp Recap

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Four times a year, in four different parts of the country, coffee-folk step out from behind their espresso machines, travel in some cases for hundreds of miles, and gather together...behind different espresso machines. Where else? It’s called Barista Camp and it’s sponsored by the Barista Guild of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.  If it sounds sort of nerdy, well, it is. But it’s also a chance to for baristas and coffee shop managers to hone their skills, stay attuned to the latest advances in the coffee industry, and participate in a burgeoning knowledge-base and culture of like-minded professionals. 

Recently, Peace Coffee sent two of its employees to partake in the conference: Hiba Qasem, Assistant Manager of the Wonderland Park Coffee Shop, and Kyle Feldman, Customer Service All-Star at the roastery/wholesale office, traveled to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, for the festivities.  Here is their report from the front lines.

What were your favorite classes/activities?

Hiba:  It hard to say! Barista Camp was an experience that’s kinda hard to put into words. If I had to pick a favorite thing it would be the cupping class. I really enjoyed seeing what all went into cupping (formal tasting/evaluating of coffee). How much little things, like wearing perfume or eating a mint, can affect your judgment on the coffee you’re tasting. All the etiquette that goes into it.  It was nice to step away from the espresso machine and work straight with the beans for a change.

I also loved the different machines we got to use!  I’m not gonna lie — I was eternally freaking out on one Dalla Corte machine.  It was amazing! It had a glass display that allowed you to see all of its inner workings. It’s always nice to get to play with new toys! 

The best part about being a barista is the people you meet. Barista Camp emphasized that. I got to see old friends and make new ones. Networking is a big part of barista camp; it’s so awesome to see people who love coffee that much get together.

Kyle:  On the first night, we did a cupping of Rishi Tea with their incredibly knowledgeable and fun staff.  I was already familiar with some of the diversity in the world of tea in terms of flavor profiles, but having the opportunity to taste some extremely high quality (and rare) varietals side by side really drove home the  point home and, as much as I love coffee,  made me contemplate delving further into that world. 

As far as the coffee classes, I took intro-level course work and it was all very scientific; the instructors drilled down into the minutest details of the coffee world  (for example, in reviewing my notes, I came upon a 12-bullet-point list called “Critical Issues in Milk Steaming: Hygiene”).  The SCAA does a great job of establishing a common knowledge-base and language, and instituting standards that will serve a coffee professional in whatever setting in which they work.   It was interesting to be re-exposed to the base-line of coffee knowledge, which is still way more than the casual coffee consumer might ever consider while getting their morning buzz. 

We also got to geek out over equipment, honing our skills on some beautiful and cutting-edge machines.   There was certainly no shortage of time and opportunity to get highly caffeinated, which also fueled some interesting discussion about issues in the coffee industry and how to better connect with coffee drinkers. 

We also had the chance to watch U.S. Barista Champion Laila Ghambari practice her 15-minute presentation before she headed off to Rimini, Italy to compete in the World Championships.  I made sure to get in line to try her signature drink, made with an espresso, coffee cherry jam, coffee cherry blossom honey and smoke from coffee tree wood—all sourced from the same farm in El Salvador. Suffice it to say: delicious!

I’m also proud to report that my team (A Fish Called Steam Wanda) finished first in the team competition, which comprised many different challenges and activities, and that  I personally finished 4th in the Barista Camp 5k.  Also, I proved at the end-of-camp dance party that I still know a few of the lyrics to “Funky Cold Medina,” which is more than some of the younger attendees can say. 

What did you learn about coffee that you didn’t know before?

Hiba:  Settling and tamping and the effect they have on pulling a shot. Tamping doesn’t have as much to do with how your shot turns out as grind and dosage do.  If you were to settle the grounds a specific way, everyone in the shop needs to be able to settle the same exact way.  If one settles harder than the other, it can affect the portafilter and the grinder.  It may create dents in the portafilters.

Kyle:  As someone who has been on the wholesale customer support side of things, it gave me a lot more respect for the dedication to craft required to be a good barista.  There are so many things that can go wrong with coffee at every step of the chain, from the farmer to the end customer, and it’s really up to the barista to ensure that the coffee tastes as good as it possibly can.  In that sense, it carries with it a lot of responsibility.  It might look easy, but it’s not.

Based on your experience at camp, in what direction do you see coffee shop/barista culture moving? 

Hiba:   The specialty coffee industry is growing a lot. I think that soon enough specialty coffee will be the new norm. Seeing how many companies are starting to cater to our industry makes me see that.  From Companies like BUNN trying to create machines that make better espresso, to milk farms that work on bettering their quality specifically to pair well with coffee, so many hands are getting involved and this industry is growing fast!  This is very neat to see. 

Kyle:  There is increasing hyper-focus on quality, down to the smallest details of equipment, technique, and preparation.  It let me see Peace Coffee in a new light; we are so fortunate to have such broad appeal to a variety of coffee customers, from those who are mainly focused on the social justice mission inherent in Fair Trade, to those who are seeking an absolutely memorably delicious shot of espresso or cappuccino, and everyone in between.  Not very many coffee companies can cover all of those bases and, along with all of the other benefits Peace gives to their employees and the broader community, we have a lot to be proud of.

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