The Baristas' Baristas

Earlier this week I was asked a pretty classic good question.

How do I know what good espresso should taste like?

As always, my answer was "go have a shot of great coffee pulled by a great barista." In hindsight - this is a somewhat glib response. It was pointed out that, if you don't know what good espresso tastes like you're also unlikely to know what a great coffee is and even more unlikely to know who a great barista is - or how to identify them.

So I started to think about how to address this. If I wanted to make sure that someone were able to taste a shot that gave them an idea about what great espresso was all about - who would I send them to?

I realized that the best solution would be to ask the people that I think are great baristas and great judges of baristas who they thought were great baristas. More than that.... to ask them who they would be excited to get a shot of espresso from - who they would look forward to a shot from.

So I asked this question of 30 people in the business whose opinions on the matter I deeply respect. This was a mix of great baristas, WBC/USBC judges and coffee professionals.

I then took the answers and created a list of the people who had more than one mention from this group (figuring that if two or more people vote for one barista - that's validation). Ironically, almost everyone on this initial list was someone on the "voting panel." In some ways, I think this is a good validation of that panel itself. I then sent the first cut of the list back out to the group along with the list of people who had only one vote - and asked for any suggested corrections. After a bunch of back-and-forth, I arrived at what we all seem to think is a good list.

It's important to note that this is not a list of who we - or I - think are the "best" baristas. This is instead a list of the Baristas' Baristas. These people might not, in fact, pull the absolute best shots in the world - but they are the people who we believe always pull good shots. They're the pros' pros.

In alphabetical order:

Billy Wilson -- Barista, Portland OR
Bronwen Serna -- Hines Public Market - Origins Coffee / Joe Bar, Seattle WA
Chris Baca -- Verve, Santa Cruz CA
James Hoffman -- Square Mile, London UK
Klaus Thomsen -- Coffee Collective, Copenhagen DEN
Mike Phillips -- Intelligentsia, Chicago IL
Scott Lucey -- Alterra, Milwaukee WI
Stephen Morrissey -- Intelligentsia, Chicago IL
Tim Wendelboe -- Tim Wendelboe, Oslo NO

Now... there is one important caveat and one important disclaimer that need to be mentioned.

Caveat - because of the "multiple vote" criteria, this list punishes people who work in remote areas and don't compete in barista competitions. In addition, because I got minimal response from contacts in Australia and New Zealand, it entirely leaves out the great baristas in those countries. Just because a barista working out in the backwoods isn't on here doesn't mean they're not amazing. And just because a barista who works in Sydney (or Christchurch) isn't on here also doesn't mean they're bad. It's a flawed system - what can I say.

Disclaimer - these baristas do the best they can with what they have, but they're only as good as their coffee. This list does not attempt to judge either the coffee these baristas are using or (as a result) the quality of the shots they are pulling day to day. It's simply a list of the baristas that baristas love and respect. I'm considering how to apply this same approach to coffees next. If I can pull it off - that should give a more useful final list.

In the end - however - this list should provide some direction for people who want to taste what espresso should and can taste like. It should help people calibrate.

At least... that's what I hope.


Shawn said...

I'm a bit curious as to what constitutes a 'barista' because, I'm not quite sure how to say this, ... I've never really thought of James as a Barista.

Is that fair to say?

I get that he's, undoubtedly, a coffee professional, a wonderful ambassador, and even a barista champion but the opportunities for non-coffee folk to happen upon an espresso pulled by James have been (and currently are) very limited.

With that being said, I'd absolutely love to receive an espresso pulled by Mr. Hoffmann

chris said...

I understand your confusion - but given that a large number of professional, working baristas nominated James... I mean, if other baristas think he's a barista - he's a barista. Right?

To further validate I asked myself (as an ex bar manager), if James asked me if he could pick up some bar shifts at a place I was managing - would I be comfortable with the idea? The answer would be hell yeah. As a current bar manager I also asked responded, "damn - I'd ask him if he could start right now and then I'd leave for the day (after first telling the whole world that he'd be working the bar for us)."

A ton of the baristas who are respected and admired by other baristas have a breadth of skills beyond being a barista. As such, many of them have roles that extend beyond being a barista - and in some cases mean they're no longer a production bar barista with any frequency. That doesn't mean they are not a barista as far as I'm concerned.

And in terms of the opportunity for having a shot from James.... my guess is that it's easier than you might think. You'd just probably have to ask him when the next time he might be pulling shots would be - and be there. It might be at some sort of event, or at a roastery. But I would guess it's easier than you seem to think. Of course... here comes James to first curse me for volunteering him and then correct me (grin).

James Hoffmann said...

There has long been a certain awkwardness about describing me as a barista. I had been training more than anything else in the run up the the WBC win, and training more than anything else after.

That isn't to say that I didn't make a lot of drinks for people in between, or that I don't regularly make drinks for people still. I spent most sunday's for a year borrow a spot on the current world champs bar to make coffee for people, because I enjoy high volume, high quality work and the challenges therein.

However, I will concede that you can't just drop in to a cafe where I supposed to be behind the machine.


onocoffee said...

I'll leave the question of who is and who is not a "barista" up to others to decide.

But I would be very interested (and I think it would be more informative) to see the verbatim answers of the baristas you queried. It seems that disseminating or distilling the responses you received down to those who received two or more votes amounts to a psuedo "best" barista list, or at least a popularity contest.

I'm guessing that you queried some respected baristas for their opinions and considering the geographic dispersion of those baristas, I'm guessing that many of their answers would lead us towards remarkable and noteworthy baristas deserving of a little recognition and a visit.

Othewise, the experiment comes off as a popularity contest because it doesn't tell us anything that James, Stephen, Mike or Tim will pull us a nice shot of espresso.

sLucey said...

Wow! It's an honor be included in such a line up - thanks to those who considered me.