It’s not often that I’ve found cheeseball seasoning kits with directions on display in a coffee shop…actually, not ever, until today. But there it was…hanging on a display with a LOT of other expensive-looking packages of similar easy-fix-kits for the working stiff needing to impress the in-laws or the office staff with his or her party food skills.
I decided to visit a new shop that had opened in the business district near my parents’ place, already with the mindset that I would be disappointed. After all, the name was “Common Grounds”…could there possibly be a more over-used name? To give some credit, this particular Common Grounds is located in a stand-alone repurposed bank building, surrounded by nice shrubbery and flower beds, with adequate parking and street access. The drive-thru teller’s lane had been reworked to accommodate the on-the-go coffee drinkers.
I eased my way in through the back entrance, and found myself in a welcoming anteroom. I perused the always-expected community bulletin board, then crossed into the coffee shop proper. Some customers were placing their orders, clutching their handbags in French manicured hands, and chattering about their suburban Christmas get-togethers. The barista finished writing their drinks on their cups, and they stepped to the side.
I noticed the espresso machine as I moved to the counter. Placed on the back counter, next to the drive-thru window, the Automatic Astoria had two hoppers on top, no portafilters, but seemed to have manual steam wands. The second barista was steaming milk in what looked like a 32oz pitcher, but might have been a 20oz. The young man running the cash register asked me for my order, but when I indicated my desire to examine their menu, cheerfully invited me to take my time, and began helping the other barista fill the previous order.
The menu didn’t surprise me, nor did it fill me with joy. Every espresso drink involved a syrup or combination of syrups. A regular coffee was available from the airpot. Being familiar with a plethora of coffee shops, I knew better than to get the coffee, anticipating it to be hours old. Instead I re-examined the menu, looking for the best brewed coffee substitute, the Americano. No luck.
I almost chickened out. I’ve become so accustomed to great coffee at home, and to exceptional espresso drinks from my favorite shops in Atlanta, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, etc, that every time I’ve tried a small espresso drink from one of these independent cafes with a huge inventory of flavor syrups, I’ve been disappointed. However, I felt I should give these folks a fair shake. Rather than order a typical mocha, my go-to drink in this kind of shop, I decided to order the Almond Joy. Yeah. Dark chocolate, coconut, and almond syrups, with espresso and milk.
Before you coffee aficionados rush over to Twitter to unfollow me (or unfriend me on Facebook), remember from whence you’ve come. Once upon a time, espresso + syrup + steamed milk = specialty coffee, even to you. Even to me. Today, specialty coffee to some of us is a microlot of a seasonal coffee from a specific coffee farm in the country of our choice. Roasted by people who can explain in scientific terms what is happening inside the bean at any given moment during the roasting interval. Brewed in a device at the proper temperature for the appropriate period of time. By a barista in flannel shirt and skinny jeans with a beanie cap and ironic horn-rimmed glasses…ok, that last isn’t EXACTLY a requirement, but it seems to lend validity to the cutting-edge vibe some shops are shooting for.
So what do YOU do when a cafe doesn’t line up with YOUR idea of what Specialty Coffee should be? This cafe was a pleasant shop, with a supportive local clientele whose only exposure to high-end coffee was the Starbucks at the mall, 40 miles away. The staff was nice, the decor appropriate, the other features useful (conference room, bookshelf, comfy chairs, high tables and chairs). The whole bean coffee did NOT have a roast date, and I DO draw a line there. I think if roasters want to be taken seriously in this industry, then a clearly stamped roast date is important.
Now, put yourself in the barista’s shoes for a moment. You may have been there, once. What caused you to explore the more artisanal side of coffee for the first time? Seeing a picture of latte art? Trying a 5 oz. cappuccino with ONLY espresso and steamed milk…and liking it?
The barista that waited on me complimented me on my hoodie, which says “Enjoy Black Coffee”, a design collaboration between Brian Jones (Dear Coffee, I Love You) and Simon Alander (Coffee Made Me Do It). This opened the door for me to chat with him about my rabid appreciation for high-quality coffee, the upcoming Thursday Night Throwdown at Cafe Helios in Raleigh, NC, and barista competitions on regional and national levels.
He’d never heard of a latte art competition, but had apparently heard of latte art, perhaps from a fellow barista in L. A. who had competed in last year’s Southwest Regionals. He had become intrigued enough that he had done some research and learned that there are coffee shops that teach their baristas to grind, dose, and tamp coffee in a portafilter, and that FASCINATED him. He wants to know more. He’s seen down the rabbit hole just a little bit, enough to know that something amazing is down there. I was thrilled to get a chance to chat with him. I mentioned Dear Coffee, I Love You, and Barista Magazine, and told him about the Southeast Regionals in Atlanta in February. He was really pumped about meeting someone who knew something of coffee brewing,
After we chatted, I retreated to a table to sip my “Almond Joy” and browse my Twitter feed. I reflected on my experience, and discovered why this cafe, despite its plebeian attempts at coffee brewing, had gotten a favorable reaction from me. It was the barista. He was friendly, helpful, open, enthused, and willing to learn…on his own, if need be. I had a positive interaction with my customer service representative, and that clinched it for me. In other shops, I’ve had phenomenal coffee, brewed for me by a seemingly indifferent barista, and I left with that well-known “bad taste” in my mouth, and no intention to return.
Another point to consider: when you highly-trained, extensively experienced uber-baristas come into contact with these fellow coffee pros that have NO IDEA what a portafilter is, try to keep in mind that, despite their lack of knowledge and training, they are professionals, and should be accorded some respect. Chances are they are wanting to learn more, though they may be intimidated by your smooth pronunciation of Kenya Gichathaini, and spotless vest and ascot ensemble. And you might extend that same courtesy to the home baristas that cross your path.
All of us in coffee are constantly learning. If we do not, we stagnate. Let’s extend courtesy to each other, learn from each other, and find our own “Common Ground”.