A year and a half ago, I never would have thought that I would be writing a column for Coffeegeek. Heck, a year and a half ago, I hadn't even heard of Coffeegeek! But here I am, and I only hope that I don't make a fool of myself.
I am only 23 and have worked in coffee since January of 2002, which doesn't give me a lot of experience compared to most people in the industry. Point being... I make mistakes. Mistakes like arguing with Andy Schecter thinking that all La Marzcocco's have e-61 group heads, and that over-packing your portafilter is cheating. I have a long way to go, but hopefully I will shed some light on what it is like to be young, dumb, and trying to be a professional in the best industry in the world.
For everyone reading who does not know me by now, my name is Billy Wilson. I work at a café called Lava Java in Ridgefield, Washington. This has been my only job in coffee, and has been the springboard from where I garnered my understanding of espresso. When I first started at Lava Java, the shop was owned by a twentysomething who thought it would be cool to own a café. She grabbed a spot in her dad's new strip mall, and away she went. Not unlike many coffee shops we see today, her business came into existence because it was trendy, not for a love of coffee.
Six months later she was going under. Evidently free rent and utilities will not compensate for a shoddily run business.
I began working there at the tail end of her run, right before the current owners bought the place. To be honest, I was about to bail on the whole situation. There was not a whole lot keeping me there, as I had only been working there for a little over a month, and could have gone without the drama that comes with such a change. But, I stuck with it because I am lazy and didn't want to look for another job.
A week into the new ownership, Jessica Rice from Coffee Bean International came out to do some training with the new owners. I was there for most of it, and noticed that Jessica was giving a little bit different information from the last time she held a training session at the shop. Upon asking her about it (the issue was mainly tamping techniques), she said that the SCAA had come up with guidelines on proper techniques. Now, I had never heard of the SCAA and certainly didn't know that tamping was such an issue that there needed to be an official decree from some association on the topic. Like I said, I had a lot to learn.
A short time after Jessica's visit, a friend of mine took me to Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon. This was my first visit to Stumptown, and my original intent was to just get some French-press, but I figured that it wouldn't hurt to try a double espresso. Mind you, reader, that I had been trying espresso for a couple of months by my own hand. It was bitter most of the time, but I figured that espresso was supposed to taste that way, right? Right? Wrong! My first double from Stumptown was beautiful. Everything in it was wonderful, and was that chocolate that I tasted? I was hooked.
The next few months consisted of me driving from my Portland campus to Stumptown- to get espresso- and then to work. My goal was to make my espresso taste as good as it tasted at Stumptown. It would take me another month to find out why the taste wasn't improving, when I happened by a copy of David Schomer's Professional Techniques. Okay, I didn't happen by it... I drove two hours up to Seattle and bought it.
It turns out that one needs four things to work in conjunction to have a good espresso program. You need an adequate machine with thermal stability, a great grinder, a fantastic espresso blend, and a barista who has the know-how to put all the variables together. We were severely lacking in these departments, as we were running off of a La San Marco (without any knowledge of temperature surfing), a San Marco step-grinder, CBI espresso beans, and a haphazard crew.
It wasn't immediately possible to change all these variables. In fact, the only one possible at the moment was training of the staff. As some owners out there can attest to, employees can be a bit stubborn, especially when they have already been trained a certain way, and someone comes by (me) and says that we are all doing it all wrong. Luckily enough the new owners saw and agreed. We no longer had CBI come out and do the training anymore, but when they did, we quickly retrained. (I don't want my first article to sound as if I am ranting on other companies... but oh well. You see, CBI was just about 20 miles away, but for some reason they weren't able to get us our coffee until a month after it was roasted. Quality? I don't think so.)
Come September of 2002 we were informed about NASCORE, and how there was a barista competition. I figured that I was hot stuff and signed on. I had about two weeks to practice and come up with a signature drink, but I didn't sweat it... after all... I was a pro.
Come September I got schooled in the art of being a professional barista. I competed against the likes of Mark Pfaff, Bronwen Serna, Chris Davidson and Stephen Vick. (I know that there were a lot of other great barista there as well, but I am just naming the ones that stood out to me). If you didn't catch the news about that 2002 NASCORE competition, the Zoka crew and Hines' Public Market swept the competition.
I wanted to see professionals and that's what they were, and to be honest, they are the best in the nation. I was impressed with their dedication and their ease behind the bar. I had a lot to learn. The next seven months our crew experienced the most growth that we had seen. We hired a guy named Jason Cook who has turned out to be a fantastic barista... just don't talk to him while he's concentrating or you might end up getting a lungo). We also noticed our sales starting to multiply, and it was no longer weird for customers to say that our coffee was the best they had ever had.
And in January of 2003, I stumbled upon this website called Coffeegeek. You may have heard of it. I found several hundred people posting on the bulletin boards and debating over roasting profiles, tamping techniques, machine temperatures and the ins and outs of PIDing their Silvias or supposed triple baskets for the La Marzocco. I was in heaven... I was a geek.
| Psyching up... |
Billy Wilson does some dry runs on the competition machines at the 2003 USBC Barista competition
Armed with a new blend (we switched to Stumptown a week before competition), new training ideas, and supportive owners, I flew out to Boston in April 2003 to compete in the National Championships. To the shock of mainly myself, I ended up taking 5th place honors and a memory of one of the proudest moments of my life. While there, I was able to talk shop with Jeff Babcock of Zoka, Jon of J.J. Bean, the John's of Hines' and some guys from Intelligentsia. I felt like I was on top of the world.
Did I forget to say that I was a dish runner for the World Barista Championships, and got to taste Paul Basset's 1st place espresso? All in all, it was one of the best weekends of my 23 years, and I left knowing that I would be in the coffee industry for life.
Since then a lot has happened. We have secured the four variables of espresso. We get to play on a 3-group FB70, we have three Mazzer grinders, we use Stumptown's espresso, and we have some of the best barista in the nation working at our shop. My owner, Phuong, took home fourth place (just a half point behind 3rd) in the 2003 Western Regional Barista Competition, and I had two barista compete in the latte art competition at CoffeeFest in mid-October.
Things are good and they are just going to get better. That's why I am here, writing for Coffeegeek. I will be giving the heads-up on what's going on in the world of professional baristi, spreading word about the barista guild, and just overall comments about our wonderful addiction. So stay tuned, and I look forward to bringing all of you more articles.
Did I mention that I am applying to be the apprentice roaster at Stumptown? Mwahahahaha!!!