By Rachel Beebe
Steampunk is about to open to customers again (on April 5th) after being closed as a cafe for three months for the second time in a year. We’ve got a new bar—it’s beautiful!—and behind that bar you’re going to see the familiar smiling faces of our baristas, ready to serve you your coffee. It’s my job as a roaster at Steampunk to select and roast that coffee, but I’d like to take a moment to shine a light on the folks who actually prepare and serve you coffee.
Bear with me though, because first we have to take a little trip back to where the coffee in your cup started. It was the bean—the seed really—of a coffee cherry on a coffee plant, which was first put into the ground three to four years before it was able to bear fruit. With faith and foresight the producer of your coffee planted that seedling and tended it until the day it grew the cherry whose seed you’re about to drink. That cherry was picked by hand because—let’s zoom out just a tad—the plant is growing on the side of a hill, a mountain actually, where the grade is too steep for picking machines. So pickers, often migrant labourers who follow the coffee harvest from farm to farm, come through each row and selectively pick the ripe cherries. Not all the cherries on a tree ripen at the same time so the pickers make several passes through the rows as the harvest progresses. They carry full buckets, heavy with ripe fruit, to a collection point, and from there it goes to the wet mill.
The way a coffee is milled and processed has a huge impact on the overall quality of the coffee and what flavours are in the final cup, so the next stage is crucial. At every point of the process, which is too complicated for us to look at in detail here, there are quality checks. Beans are sorted by machines, by hand, and sometimes by computer. They’re sorted into ripe and unripe, by size and by density. Your bean made it through all this. It was dried to the correct moisture content and, along with all its other worthy bean friends, finally made it to the dry mill. Here the final husk—called parchment—was removed and the bean was loaded on a boat for the long trip across the ocean to the UK.
This has been a long journey, but it’s not over yet. The bean, nestled in its protective sack, arrived at Steampunk after a stopover in London. Here’s where I make an appearance! My co-roaster and I did several trial roasts. Usually two or three to start with, and then we taste the coffee to decide what we need to do differently to make it better. This is called profiling the coffee. We roast and taste, roast and taste, roast and taste. Our goal is to roast the coffee so that all the naturally occurring flavours are expressed in a balanced way. Each coffee is different, and it’s our job to showcase those differences and highlight the aspects that taste good. Sometimes we nail it on one of the first roasts (hurray!). But, we keep trying a few more times just to be sure. Sometimes it takes many roasts. Our machinery doesn’t always cooperate. But in the end we achieve a roast that sings, and that’s when we hand it off to the baristas.
Finally, we’re standing back at that beautiful new bar with the smiling barista asking you what you’d like to drink today. Well, we’re almost there, actually. Because before you arrived, before the cafe was even open this morning, the barista did one of the most important jobs they do all day. They decided how your coffee would taste hours before they made the cup they hand to you. However you brew coffee, but especially when you make espresso, you can change the way it tastes by manipulating the brew factors: grind size, ratio of coffee to water and brew time. Tweak these factors by just grams or seconds, and it could mean the difference between bitterness and no bitterness, sweetness or astringency, an explosion of fruit on the palate, or just a muted suggestion of what could be there.
So when you order your coffee the barista makes it according to a recipe, to the gram and second, that they’ve predetermined is the best one for your coffee on this day. Coffee is a constantly changing product. For one thing, it ages. Also, it’ll brew differently depending on how it was roasted, how it was processed, and how high it was grown, to name just a few factors. Our barista needs to understand those things. And above all, they have to have a well-developed palate. Just like a roaster, or a chef or winemaker or chocolate maker, a barista can’t make improvements on something they can’t taste with discernment. To modulate acidity for instance, they need to be able to taste acidity. They need to be able to distinguish between acidity and bitterness (which are often confused in coffee). They need to know how much acidity they might expect from a coffee. And they need to know how to balance that acidity with sweetness.
Now, thanks to our skilled barista we’ve got our perfect cup of coffee. But of course, our barista has to do that again and again, hundreds of times on a busy day. They’ve got to do it fast. Customers don’t like queues. And remember our barista has a smile on their face? Making coffee is just half the job. Serving customers well—making them feel comfortable, answering their questions, giving them a good experience—is just as important. Maybe even more. You probably would go back to a cafe with mediocre coffee. But you wouldn’t go back to a cafe where the staff were rude, even if it was at the end of a 10-hour shift on a busy Saturday. Service workers don’t usually get the benefit of the doubt, unfortunately.
In certain cities in specialty coffee shops, being a barista is a career. It’s a respected role. Every year baristas from around the world gather to compete in the World Barista Championships (well, they did pre-Covid), and the winners are lauded in the specialty coffee community. They often go on to launch world renowned cafes and brands. Most roasters start out as baristas.
I point all this out because it might look like there’s a young chap behind the bar without a care in the world. It might feel like ordering a coffee is the same as ordering a sandwich (no shade on sandwich makers). But remember, it’s not so easy. Your coffee had to come a long way to get to you. But the last 10 feet—the length of the bar—can make or break the whole thing.