3/01/2013 02:46:00 PM

Get Schooled: On Becoming a Boutique Coffee Shop Barista

Latte art at Birch = not as easy as it looks 
School's in! In our "Get Schooled" series, we're learning the ins and outs of various food industry jobs by rolling up our sleeves, and, well, doing the job. This week, our humble blogger tackles  java-ology 101 by working as a barista. How'd she fare? Read on to find out...

When I walk into a coffee shop, I rattle off my order and expect to be on my way. So when the person behind the counter starts making conversation, I’m caught off guard and immediately on the New York defensive: What’s he trying to sell?!

At Birch Coffee, it turns out it’s just community. The co-founders, Jeremy Lyman and Paul Schlader, have built a coffee culture that goes beyond just a good cup of joe. With zero experience making coffee, beyond hitting the button for a single-cup brew, I spent the morning rush behind the counter with Jeremy Lyman and Paul Schlader, co-founders of Birch Coffee, at their new location in Greenwich Village to learn what it takes to be a barista.

I arrived at the cringingly early hour of 7 AM and got right to work on my coffee education. I learned things that blew my mind, like that a coffee bean is actually the pit of a fruit. And that espresso is not a type of coffee; it’s a way of brewing. So all the suckers out there buying “espresso beans” are really just paying extra for the label. And that coffee beans are originally green, until you roast them, which Jeremy and Paul do for their house blend, a mix of three types of beans, each roasted at different times and temperatures and then combined.

The information they were throwing at me was overwhelming, especially consider that when the duo started out, they knew next to nothing about how to make the ultimate cup of coffee. “Pardon the pun, but we were green,” Paul says. “It was all through trial. I know food and I understand flavor. I know what’s good and what’s not good. But it took months and months.”

As I watched them interact with customers and pull shots, it was obvious that they do now. Experiencing a coffee shop’s morning rush is an entirely different experience on the other side of the counter, and I was surprised by how stressed out I became as soon as a line formed. I melted into the back corner as orders piled up and just watched the magic happen. Jeremy manned the register, taking orders, and always, always, always asking people for their names - if he didn’t already know them.

“I need to adapt to every single person that comes in. If somebody has a certain look on their face, I know not to try to talk to them. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and go from there,” says Jeremy. “Like, when someone’s on their phone, which is my biggest pet peeve, and they literally mouth their order to me, that's how I respond. I mouth back to them. It’s about reading your customers and adapting to where they're at.”

The customers who do want to chat, though, are happily received at Birch, which shatters the notion that baristas have no interest in befriending you. “I have customers that have confided in me that they’re dealing with certain illnesses. I mean it’s unbelievable the rapport you’re able to create with some people. Others have been coming in for years and have never been able to look you in the eye,” Jeremy says. “When I was bartending years ago, people would come in and talk to me for hours and I loved that. Here it’s minute therapy…The people we meet everyday are incredible. One of our regulars was just nominated for an Oscar, and we would never have known that if we hadn’t chatted with him.”

Though it’s not all harmony all the time. The guys are used to weird requests (like the time a “100-year-old woman” asked for a whiskey sour at 11 AM), the occasional unhappy customer and people taking advantage of their free Wi-Fi, outlets and table space.  It’s worth it, though, when a customer really gets what the guys are trying to provide: a community space with great coffee. “We built a library upstairs at our location on 27th Street with tables and outlets,” Jeremy explains. “Someone who’s been coming for a while said that there is just this creative magic that happens in our library. That’s the kind of space we want to make for people, where they can feel comfortable enough to just let go and do what they do.”

The author tries to make latte art. It does not end well.
While Jeremy chatted people up as they paid, taking care of regular coffee and tea orders, Paul stood guard at the espresso machine, falling into an organized rhythm of espresso shots, cortados, cappuccinos, lattes and more. He walked me through the process of pulling a shot, which was way more complicated than I ever realized: you have to tamp down the grinds with exactly 40 pounds of pressure with your elbow at 90°, or else it will brew unevenly. He’s constantly tasting the coffee and making adjustments, like changing the temperature of the water or size of the grind. “We’re always chasing the unicorn of the god shot. It’s the perfect shot,” Paul explains.

If there’s anything I gained from shadowing as a barista, it’s that I’ll never impatiently wait for my coffee order again. More factors than I ever realized go into making the perfect cup of coffee, from making sure the milk is never, ever foamy to timing the running of the water through the grinds, which can be different in the morning than it should be at night. I’ve decided it’s best left to the pros, like Jeremy and Paul at Birch. Those guys really know coffee.

1 comment :

  1. Aw, this was a really quality post. In theory I'd like to write like this too - taking time and real effort to make a good article... but what can I say... I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done.