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What Coffee Can Teach You About Yourself and Other People

March 18, 2016

By Savannah Phillips |

As a barista, the world of coffee is your oyster. There are a million places to work, a gazillion different brewing methods, pressure “profiles” and ratios to use. Sometimes, we can really get in the weeds of it all. There are so many hot topics to discuss; all of which seemingly have the same goal of trying to save the world one cup of coffee (or espresso) at a time.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore the fact that I work in an industry that puts a high priority on transparency, social justice issues and, above all, quality. There are so many issues we get involved in just by virtue of working in the coffee industry. To be clear, I should say the “specialty” coffee industry. And earlier this month was no different for me. You see, I went to Los Angeles to mingle and network with baristas, roasters, quality assurance managers, owners, and enthusiasts — you name it, they were there. It was a special event hosted by the Barista Guild of America called Bloom. And boy do I eat this type of stuff up. I mean, you’re telling me I get to go for a day of “work” to get super caffeinated and allow the universal synergy of like-minded individuals in the building to motivate me and get my wheels spinning? And not just spinning, but hopefully enlighten me with something new and amazing as well!

Perhaps I should expand: I love coffee, I love my job, I adore the causes that we pick up and carry, and the fact that many people in our industry are so concerned with the welfare of other people that they will probably never get a chance to meet on some farm at 1500 meters in Guatemala. Seriously, can you name another industry that brings such awareness to such a thing? Or can you name an industry that the people serving you on average make just above minimum wage, but will save for a year so they can travel across the country to volunteer at an event that they dream to compete in, but may never have the opportunity?

I once saw a guy sitting in a hotel lobby at a regional competition that had passed out in a (rather fancy) chair with a tray of beans on his lap. He looked like he needed a shower and very likely caught a ride to the event with some friends because he felt it was more of an opportunity to go and try to showcase an amazing coffee and get the name of the farmer out into the world rather than to stay home and watch via satellite feed. I mean, we are a dedicated few — so in lies the rub.

This brings up one of the many topics that we discussed at Bloom. At one point in the morning, the panelists were talking about what the specialty coffee industry can learn from the craft beer industry. Our plight is a delicate one, and there are a few things we coffee lovers (and fellow baristas) should certainly consider. A big one is we have to be careful not to scare people away. At 6am, nine out of 10 people don’t care about flavor notes, brewing methods, or saving a village in Uganda via a Fair Trade purchase, or the fact that we cringe when someone takes their espresso to go. We are in the service industry. This isn’t about making the world’s best cup of coffee. besides, that wouldn’t be sustainable. We should stay away from preaching or judging because that’s not attractive to anyone either. We should seek to attract people rather than toot our own horns about whatever it is we feel is important.

Another thing to consider is what it looks like to someone walking in off the street to get a cup of “coffee” and telling them, “no, we don’t have that.” People don’t like to hear the word no. They like to feel welcome and to be validated. They want their white mocha and, though I am a purist, you know what I tell them? “Ours are the best!” They want it in a 20oz size, sure… but you better believe I will up-sell them a few extra shots! Seriously, we have to be open-minded and accepting about people’s personal coffee “journey.” We have to be approachable and always be pushing the envelope while also remaining open to learning. It’s like golf —there’s no finish line. You just have a better game some days more than others! Come to think of it, I can say that about a lot of things after working in the coffee industry.

Lastly, quality comes at a price. To get farmers to live better lives, you have to be an ethical person buying your green coffee from other ethical people. Micro-lots, direct trade, fair trade, these are all wonderful concepts, but they often have an upside in addition to their downfalls. The terms “organic” and “sustainable” are terribly misused and misunderstood terms, though my belief is that they are always preferable. Let us not forget though that we need to take care of our people. Being a manager, it’s hard to find people who are a good fit for any company. From those I have talked to, the hardest thing about running a coffee shop (or really any business) is finding and retaining the right people. We have to remember that it really doesn’t matter if we sell the most expensive, or highest quality certified coffees in the world if we can’t pay our employees enough to pay their rent. I have found that training employees over and over due to low retention within the company is far more expensive than paying someone a little more in every paycheck.

I hope this is a little helpful in providing an insider’s view into the specialty coffee world. On a personal note, after this event — and after four years in the industry and two barista certifications — I realized that I owe it to my industry to be a more professional coffee representative; to dress a little nicer and to share my wisdom a little more. It seems to serve as a nice reminder after attending an event such as this one, that it’s very safe to say there are at least a few others out there who share my same passion for coffee and devotion to constantly advancing the industry.

Photo by Julie Rings

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Savannah Phillips

Quality Control
A Level-Two Certified Barista, native Northwesterner turned So-Cal girl, Savannah is also addicted to yoga, hiking, meditation and long drives up Coast Highway 101. She doesn’t remember ever not loving coffee. Even as a child, when most other kids typically hate the taste, it was something she craved, which looking back, was unquestionably an early prediction of a career devoted to specialty coffee.

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