Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Coffee Education

The SCAE Coffee Diploma is a qualification, with a syllabus of modules, each module earning credits, and when the student achieves 100 credits they are awarded the Diploma.  It sounds fantastic to me.

Here's my problem. It's a bit of a rant really, and it is something I've been ranting about for several months now. Here in the UK it is almost impossible to actually take a course to achieve this qualification. They do exist, in Chelmsford (Essex) and there is a programme run by Marco in Ireland, but they are few and far between.  What bloody good is Chelmsford or Ireland to someone 600miles away from them? I've contacted the SCAE. I've even contacted approved coffee trainers to ask if I can do the course with them on a 1-2-1 basis. The costs are prohibitive, unfortunately. To me this training programme and qualification are a complete and utter notional concept existing almost solely on the SCAE's website.

Compare that with the huge array of training events, webinars, books, seminars etc that the SCAA has available.  It's shocking in comparison, and makes me quite furious that if you want to learn, you have to fight tooth and nail to do so... and pay a lot of money.

I did a three years Masters Degree at Liverpool University and the first time I went there was for my graduation! It is not difficult and not expensive to conduct lectures using the internet these days.

Recently I kind of hijacked a short twitter conversation, which John Gordon, Gwylim Davies and Paul Stack were taking part in. I'm not criticising anyone here, but I was frustrated to be told by John and Gwylim that it is acceptable that any barista wishing to learn should have to claw their way to an education in coffee, because that's how they did it.  They supported the approach that self-education and learning directly from industry leaders such as James Hoffman should be the primary means of barista education. Now it's fair to say that every barista out there has learned something from James, but is that a sustainable way to train batistas? We can't all work for Square Mile.  Reading blogs, scouring www.home-barista.com to read a discussion that took place in 2007, and hoping you get some quick tips whilst chatting to the barista next to you at a competition?  I'm doing all that anyway, but it is harder work than it needs to be.

So, I'd like to get a programme set up, here in Scotland. With the SCAE's help or without it. It could be the Diploma programme (preferably, and hopefully identical to the one run by the SCAE.IE), or it could be another. I don't know. I just think that if there's a demand to learn more about coffee, we should do more than pay lip service to it. We should offer the damn thing to students, and at the moment the SCAE aren't doing that well enough.

I'm probably only getting about 20 readers here anyway, so it's not a very good poll, but I'd be interested in any thoughts. Is there demand for better coffee training?

Apologies if this post offends anyone. That's not my aim. And I'm sure some will disagree with some of my points.  That's fine. I just want to find a way forward.
**Edit** Please see my next post

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

My UKBC prep and practise area

I haven't really blogged much about my UKBC prep. There was (and is) definitely a little trepidation about doing so, but ultimately I've decided to stick with what seems to work for me... being completely open about what I'm doing, the mistakes, the successes, and recording anything that might help me or others become a better barista.  Hopefully my blogging about it won't influence the views of any judges! I'm confident that they are professional enough not to take prep into account, and will just judge me on my performance on the day.

I have around 3 weeks before I compete at the Glasgow heats of the UK Barista Championships. In an ideal world my routine would have been slick by now. I have certainly done my best to be as prepared as possible... under the circumstances (more on those circumstances later!).  I have sought advice from previous competitors, had a fantastic workshop with Jon Skinner, read the rules many times, discussed some of the finer points with forum members, travelled from Scotland to London to attended an SCAE-UK event focusing on the San Remo and Mahlkoenig equipment, and have been working with a roaster since 15 Oct 2011 on the espresso we will be presenting in the competition. Paul and Eloise Travis from Hands On Coffee have been amazing. Their depth of knowledge is quite astounding for a micro-roastery. It has been a wonderful experience to bounce ideas off each other, and talk to someone who clearly has the same passion and desire to do things well as I do. I'm so honoured that they agreed to let me represent their products, and I'm determined to do my best to do justice to their efforts.
Back In The Day! Late 2010.

I consider myself a working professional barista. I have worked at a handful of places in and around Scotland, and now own my own cafe business, which is currently in its mid-startup stages. If you have ever taken the huge risk of making a complete change of career, selling your home, and moving to a remote part of a different country to set up a new life for yourself and your family, you'll know exactly how important it is that you get it right, and do it professionally.

However, there are logistical issues that go along with the mammoth life change we've undertaken. One of the main challenges, as someone trying to balance setting up a business with building up hands-on machine-time, has been a lack of regular access to a commercial espresso machine... a fairly basic need in this competition!  To overcome this I've supplemented my time on commercial machines with time on a single group domestic Gaggia Classic (1).  It has worked to a degree, but there are severe limitations as a competitor.

Finally though, today I have been able to install my own commercial machine (which has been in storage for months) in my new home. It's a 2 group Faema with an 11 litre boiler and a Thermal Balancing System that allows each group head temperature to be controllable. It will stay here until the cafe opens, which should be just after the UKBC finals. I have paired its arrival with a new set of authentic burrs for my Mazzers - gotta cherish the small things ;)

So having spent 4-5 months refining my knowledge of my competition espresso, and finally having the opportunity to make shots using the commercial equipment, I now find myself having to make some changes to my UKBC script. The espresso is almost the same as it was on the small domestic machine, but even after only a handful of properly dialed in shots it is clear that there are glaring differences too.  Awesome differences!! I loved the espresso on the Gaggia Classic. I am now almost head over heals with the effect of the commercial machine's temperature stability. The complexity has been raised... the taste is more clean, clear... the colour is richer, redder and more consistent throughout the pull, and the crema is thicker, despite already being reassuringly persistent.

I'm happy. But it also makes me wonder what will happen on competition day when the beans are transferred to the San Remo machine. I like the Verona a lot. I would certainly have one in my own business.  Perhaps the espresso will not change when run through the Verona, but there are sure to be difference I think. Different basket shape, for a start, which is something that was highlighted by John Gordon in his workshop.  (It would be great if competitors could use their own baskets. VST has to be the way forward in my view.)  I guess the key thing I need to do is spend a good portion of my practise time on competition day pulling shots with various parameters, to dial in the espresso to how I know it should taste. If that means a different dose weight, brew ratio, extraction time etc, then I just hope I have time to find the sweet spot alongside all the other setup there is to do.

(1) This is where I expect professional baristas who have never been a home barista to snort derisively.  But the fact is, many of the best baristas I have ever come across hail from the home barista arena. There is a level of passion and obsession that goes with being a home barista which is actually quite rare to find in those who have only ever made coffee as a job.  If you don't believe me, pay a visit to www.coffeegeek.com, www.coffeeforums.co.uk or www.home-barista.com. You'll find contributions from people like David Schomer and James Hoffman, as well as names that might be less well known to some but have made enormous contributions to the world of coffee, like Andy Schecter and Jim Schulman.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Some UKBC Photos (Newcastle)

I had hoped to take more photos of the competitors and perhaps stream some live video, but ended up holding the video camera owned by San Remo, up at the front, so these pics are all I got.