A specialty barista has a lot of responsibility. They are the hands that bring out the flavors of origin in every cup of coffee they serve. They often have to be the voice of the producers, telling the story behind the beverage and why it matters.
And many times, they are the ones responsible for sparking a person’s love affair with specialty coffee.
Earlier this year, I met World Barista Champion (WBC) Agnieszka Rojewska on the 2018 Ally Coffee Champ Trip. We went on a week-long visit to Colombia with several other coffee champions, where we gained first-hand insights into Colombian coffee farming, processing, coffee culture, and more. As part of the trip, we visited some of the country’s impressive specialty coffee farms, including Hacienda El Obraje and Finca El Paraiso in Nariño, Finca Monteblanco in Huila, and La Palma y el Tucán in Cundinamarca.
While I was there, I took the opportunity to ask Agnieszka: what is the main role of the specialty barista? And how can baristas do it well?
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World Barista Champion Agnieszka Rojewska and US Barista Champion Cole McBride jump behind the bar in Café San Alberto, Bogota, Colombia with the shop’s baristas while on the Ally Coffee Champ Trip. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández
The Role of The Specialty Barista
Agnieszka has a ten-year-long career in coffee and, since 2011, has competed in no fewer than 28 coffee championships. Topping it off, she finished in the top eight of all but three of these competitions. She’s placed in Barista Championships, Latte Art Championships, Coffee in Good Spirits Championships, Coffee Masters, and more.
Yet despite all of her international acclaim, her attitude toward her job remains humble. She tells me that the main role of the specialty barista is “the communication between customers and the coffee industry: we should be that bridge that represents the values of the whole industry.”
In other words, there is no better thing for a barista to do than help consumers appreciate and learn more about their coffee.
But as a barista, how do you achieve that? Which methods should you use? What knowledge and skills do you need?
Ricardo Pereira, Ally Coffee Director of Specialty, presents Agnieszka Rojewska with the Ally Coffee Champ Trip prize at the World Barista Championship in Amsterdam. Credit: Ally Coffee
The Knowledgeable Barista Is a Coffee Ambassador
A barista can only share the information they know – and that, according to Agnieszka, is sometimes limited. “The traceability goes from producer to green coffee importer and sometimes to roasters, but roasteries, most of the time, don’t give this information further,” she tells me.
“So, even if the barista wants to share this knowledge, wants to share this experience, they just don’t know it… because we actually don’t talk about it.”
In other words, the first thing you need to do as a specialty barista is learn – and there’s a lot of material.
“I believe it should be implemented in every coffee training,” Agnieszka continues, “like basic coffee training: teach baristas how [coffee production] is actually done and what are the big differences in farming and producing coffee.”
The coffee champions visit Finca Monteblanco in Huila, Colombia as part of the Ally Coffee Champ Trip. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández
Origins, coffee production, processing, flavor notes, varieties, farming methods, farm types, elevation… A barista’s education is never finished. In fact, Agnieszka tells me that the Champ Trip made her rethink Colombia as a coffee origin. “Here, the story is that they do naturals and washed processing: that is the typical way they do it. But what I saw is that they are open to doing experiments.”
For example, she saw producers experimenting with fermentation techniques and temperatures. While her WBC-winning coffee was carbonic macerated, meaning that it used an experimental form of fermentation to enhance certain flavors, she hadn’t associated experimental fermentation with Colombia – instead, she had used a coffee from Ethiopia.
Pablo Guerrero of Hacienda El Obraje, Nariño, Colombia tells coffee champions about his experiences of producing coffee during the Ally Coffee Champ Trip. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández
Constant Learning, Constant Growth
So, how can a barista learn more about coffee?
You can copy Agnieszka’s example and participate in coffee competitions. “That is why I keep competing: this is a big learning experience,” she tells me.
Then there’s the option of farm visits. “I think that kind of trip will make a barista realize what is actually happening at the origin so she or he can explain it better to the customer. And if customers are more aware, they will seek better-quality coffee so producers will be able to get more money for their work.”
It’s not essential for a barista to visit farms, she stresses. However, it does expand their knowledge base. “I hadn’t been [to Colombia] before I won. It is a good experience for those who actually want to understand more of what they are doing, but to be a good barista it is not necessary.
“If you want to be a coffee professional, you have to go. If you want to just brew coffee… if you are not interested in agriculture or processing, it won’t give you anything. But if you want to be a professional and have a very wide knowledge… you have to go.”
Yet if you have neither the finances nor the resources available to compete and visit coffee farms? Constantly research, ask questions, search for mentors, visit roasteries, seek out further training… There are still many options. The only important thing is that a barista learns about coffee so that they can share this knowledge with consumers.
Because, as Agnieszka says, “If we don’t know it, they won’t know it.”
Agnieszka Rojewska pours latte art while on the Ally Coffee Champ Trip; she has also reached the finals of the World Latte Art Championship on multiple occasions. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández
It’s All About How You Communicate
Of course, learning about coffee is only the first step. The next challenge is to share this with the consumer in a way that inspires them – rather than patronising, boring, or overwhelming them.
Agnieszka believes that “simple conversation” is the best tool for interesting consumers in specialty coffee. However, she stresses, “This is a long process and it cannot be forced. We should slowly show customers the difference and explain where it comes from.
“The biggest challenge is that we want to do that too fast. And instead of being patient, we sometimes force the knowledge onto the customer and then they feel uncomfortable and never go back to us.
“We have to be patient and understand that it is a long process to change coffee habits or change somebody’s mind.”
Agnieszka Rojewska makes coffee at the Ally Coffee booth at International Coffee Week in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, before competing in the World Latte Art Championship. Credit: Ally Coffee
Agnieszka also warns against over-complicating things, using the example of “explaining things to a 10-year-old.” The aim is to intrigue customers, not overwhelm them.
So: the best way to interest a consumer in specialty coffee is to talk with them – not at them. Don’t judge them, don’t expect them to convert to the third wave on day one, but instead support their growing interest in quality coffee with accessible, interesting, and well-researched information.
After all, as Agnieszka emphasizes, “Customer service and hospitality: without those two, we are lost.”
Agnieszka Rojewska steams milk at Cafe San Alberto, Bogota, Colombia. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández
Helping The Customer Enjoy Coffee
Even though Agnieszka is passionate about helping consumers understand more about specialty coffee, she also reminds me that baristas need to remember their primary goal: serving the customer.
When I ask her why she believes that she won the World Barista Championship, she tells me, “I see that there is a big gap between what baristas are doing in coffee shops and what customers know, because the knowledge in the coffee industry is progressing rapidly.
“So, we know what particle grind size is, how to get new machines, get new grinders, processing, and the customer, in the end, just wants to drink a good cup of coffee.”
For her, the solution comes down to helping the customer enjoy the experience. “That’s what I wanted to bring onto the stage… I believe that my biggest trend was that I was actually enjoying the presentation and the judges felt that. The judges felt that they were not stressed… they could enjoy it with me. I believe that having fun with them onstage was the biggest success in my presentation.”
Consumers don’t come to your coffee shop to learn. They come to relax, to have good coffee, and to enjoy themselves. And so if you, as a knowledgeable and passionate barista, share information with them in a way that is interesting, fun, and easy, they will be happy to learn from you.
But if it feels stressful or like a chore, why would they be interested in your specialty coffee?
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