a.k.a Why can’t I get a decent coffee in Vancouver with few exceptions?
Back in 2000, I took an extended hiatus from JJ Bean (good local Vancouver Roaster) for about a year. I gave a little more of myself than I actually had to give as the manager of our Granville Is. retail location and was reduced to a skid mark. When I returned it was to the completely different world of wholesale coffee. Wow, what a different world.
One of the first items on my to-do list was to get some form of espresso training in action for JJ Bean's clientele. Ok, here we go. Cold calling a list of 300+ different people whom I have never met, with shops I've never seen, and I had no idea what they knew about espresso. But hey: "Free espresso training, onsite, at your convenience!"
You might be thinking that only now have I managed to get through what was an overwhelming and unmanageable onslaught of eager participants and café owners.
Um, it's not quite like that.
In fact, I'm not even sure I got one solid commitment on my first time through the list. The responses ranged from flat out rejection to the tease…and nobody likes a tease! Join me for a moment in one of my typical phone conversations from that time:
Client: "Ya know what (smug chuckle), we already know what we're doing. For you to come would be a waste of your time and our time since I doubt you'd show us something we don't already know."
Now this would be understandable if they really did a nice job with the coffee but a lot of these places are a total Gong show that wouldn't know a great shot of espresso from…
Well you get the idea, no need to be crass. Ok, cross them off the rapidly dwindling list of potential candidates.
Alternatively are the folks that were the complete tease. They show some interest but never follow through.
Client: "Yeah, I'll call you in a couple weeks. I've just hired some new staff, when I've the schedule sorted out I'll let you know." Or "The summer is just too crazy for us Aaron. Maybe in the fall when it quiets down a bit we can get you up here for some training."
To this day there are still people who continue to give me the same line again and again. Years later (literally) they and their staff have received no training. Amazing.
The Italians are in their own category. Whatever there is to know about coffee, they already know it. This knowledge is canonical. Nothing can ever be added to it or taken from it. You cannot improve on what they do because how can you improve on perfection? Even the mere suggestion of such a possibility verges on heresy. Next.
Finally there are the folks that are at least a little bit interested before they go dial tone on me when I tell them the training takes about 2 hours.
They're prepared to give me 20minutes and not a second more. Of course, keener that I was, I used to do whatever training they would give me time for. Fortunately the days where I would prostitute myself (“Whatever you want me to be, baby.”) for their convenience are long gone.
Why does this situation exist? I’m going to tell you.
Is it unique to Vancouver? No. According to other roasters across North America I've talked to they and their in-house trainers all bear a similar cross.
Why is this important?
The author (forground, back to camera) playing secret shopper in a Vancouver cafe. They knew what a ristretto was here, but the machine quality, coffee quality, and barista skills were low.
We're only just glimpsing the tip of a very large iceberg when I give reference about how difficult it is to find great coffee other than a few places in Vancouver. The situation is bad enough on the West Coast; if you go east, it just gets worse.
Is it just a matter of ignorance on the part of the majority of people who serve coffee, either exclusively or as a compliment to whatever else they sell? It would be very easy to blame them. They should learn more, they should care more etc. Yes they should and could. However, they are lulled into a sense of complacency by both coffee experts (I use the term loosely) supplying them with coffee and equipment they use, which is often sub part or not well maintained. Add to this iceberg the average consumer who gladly pays money day after day for the mediocre coffee these shops sell.
Why should these shops think anything other than what they do is great and what they serve is tasty? There’s nothing to suggest otherwise.
As a consumer it’s often difficult to gain perspective. All you know is that good coffee is hard to find. Some places know what they’re doing, so why doesn’t every shop? Speaking for myself, I had experience with the retail/front end of the coffee business but had lots to learn about the behind the scenes wholesale end of things. This is a commentary on what I have learned and seen along the way as I undertook as a personal responsibility, the spreading of the coffee gospel to the masses for JJ Bean. Nothing more - nothing less. It was a formative time for what I have become.
Where were we?
Right, why does this situation of “coffee everywhere, great coffee nowhere” exist?
Well for starters, in the minds of most cafe owners and managers there is no need to improve what they do. Why should they change what they do? They're making money. Heck, they're making lots of money despite doing lots of things wrong.
Now guess what? It's partially your fault. Yes, you there, you little CoffeeGeek, all hunkered down and cocooning in your nest. We’ll come back to you.
Where does the attitude of “ignorance breeding arrogance” begin? It has many seeds, but for starters I'd like to drag the espresso machine distributors and the service techs out on the mat here for a moment.
There is a machine distributor in Vancouver that has been selling espresso machines for a LONG time (ed note: they shall remain unnamed, but they own the Vancouver market - take a guess who they are). If every machine that they sold came packaged with extensive training, teaching solid raw technical skills leading to an appreciation and sensitivity for espresso, Vancouver would be a better place for the coffee aficionado. The idea of drinkable espresso in more than a couple of cafes wouldn't make me snicker.
I wondered for the longest time why these clowns don't train people how to simply clean their machines or how to make good coffee. Guess what? 'It's not our (their) responsibility and definitely not our (their) problem', as was explained to me one day as if I was a six year old, by their all-star salesman (I'm paraphrasing here, but the point was clear). What was instead implied was that dirty machines break down. Send out the service tech to righteously scold staff and then repair machine. It's not like it’s the machine's fault so who cares?
More importantly to this vendor is the concept that the machine is almost never the blame for awful coffee. Stick with me now, this is important. No one has ever had an insipid shot of espresso and thinks "I'm never having an espresso from that brand of machine again." They don't do they? They do often ask what kind of coffee is being used and say "That was awful. I'm never having Coffee Roaster Y's coffee again."
Ouch, that cut me deep but the worst of it was that he was 100% right! Did I cold cock him? No, but the thought did cross my mind.
I've also noticed that there are the "tunnel vision" service techs. They come in to fix the one thing they were called for and then leave. They never mention any other areas that need attention. I come in for training and try to wrestle a shot of espresso out of the current setup pointing out X, Y and Z that they might want to have looked at, changed or adjusted by a service tech. The manager tells me that the tech was just here.
"He was just here?!?!" I'm incredulous.
Now instead of it being the second time they've been told that they need new burrs etc., it's the first. My credibility is questioned (I’m just some punk trainer, the service tech is the real expert) and more often than not I'm seen as trying to hustle them out of a hundred bucks for new burrs. If it was important the tech would’ve mentioned it, wouldn’t he?
There are a couple of techs that actually pull and taste a shot of espresso before they leave. I love them. I haven’t hugged them but I have come close. They are doing good things for the world of espresso in Vancouver.
So now if you’re new to the biz (or not), chances are you’ve had no instruction/insight from two “credible” sources or "should be" experts about coffee: your machine salesman and the service tech. I bet it hasn't even been suggested that training is needed/necessary. It might have been hinted at that it would be nice, like some sort of frivolous extra but hardly foundational in its importance.
I'm talking about the guy or gal who sold the machine suggested that making great coffee is as easy as buying the machine, grinder and a couple of accessories from him. Throw in some coffee, plug it all in, et voila! We’re doing great things with espresso. Let the line up begin.
Ok, so like what's your point Aaron?
You mean other than the process of writing this down as a form of therapy?
Stay focused people. Remember we’re trying to change the world to a place where fabulous shots of espresso are everywhere.
Hopefully the my initial rambling as a "coming back to the fold columnist" for CoffeeGeek will shed some light on a couple of the backroom antics in the wholesale coffee business and the plight of the in-house Barista trainer at a Coffee Roaster near you. More than that, your help is needed because you also are to blame.
Oh you new it was coming. The whole menagerie continues because of you! But you'll have to tune in fifteen days from now for more on this, what you're doing to make coffee worse instead of better, and some big discussion about the drip coffee shenanigans out there. I'll even get a bit positive and talk about what you can do (please! I hope!) to make things better.
CoffeeGeek would like to welcome Aaron De Lazzer back into the fold as a columnist on this website. Aaron is now independently employed, with a new coffee and espresso consulting company called Coffee Missionary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .