Breaking the Fourth Wall

In the beginning of the 19th century, coffee became a major commodity. A convenient, packaged and ready to go product meant that it gradually came into the public's perception. Later, soldiers battling in WW2 used it for the marketed caffeine ‘pick-me-up’. Taste and quality are sacrificed for convenience. This was the First Wave of coffee.

In came homogeneity. There was an improved focus on consistency and quality. The ‘experience’ of coffee is crafted, especially by big chain stores selling you their cup of comfort with caramel and whipped cream on top. Factions are created where ideas on consistency and quality differ, perhaps ingraining the first seeds of coffee snobbery. The Second Wave of coffee began in the 1960s.

The 1990s brought an artisanal movement. Trish Rothgeb, the first person to separate these coffee movements into waves said “The third wave is, in many ways, a reaction. It is just as much a reply to bad coffee as it is a movement toward good coffee.” We became connoisseurs of coffee. Speciality coffee was a phrase gaining even more momentum. Knowledge and understanding of how to manipulate and isolate specific variables in coffee meant we knew what product we were creating. We knew why it tasted so good. Or perhaps, we began to want to know why.

I use the word ‘we’ perhaps in an incorrect way. ‘We’ is the coffee community, a specialist group of baristas, roasters, green bean buyers and trainers. There are associations called the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) and Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) which are the main bodies which hold all this coffee wisdom. The people who get the finished product, the customer, I would argue are not privy to most of this knowledge. I think rightly so, it wouldn't be specialist if everyone was exposed to this. But I think we need to be more willing to part with this information to the regular coffee consumer.

I believe, right now in the coffee community, we have never been more informed about coffee.

As a Barista I actively study and train to gain certificates from the SCAE focusing on specific disciplines as a Barista, working towards a diploma. It helps me enrich my passion in coffee but also quantify and qualify everything I do within it. I believe within the coffee world, we bear witness to a fascinating dance between rigid science and limitless art. We have gone from creating experiences in the shop to creating experiences in the cup .... but do the people we make it for know that?

I think there are three main barriers to why we don't share our specialist knowledge with customers.

1) Pretension: There is a strong fear of becoming condescending towards a customer. No employee wants to feel they are inadvertently admonishing a customer's understanding of coffee. Certain specialist trades can have a tendency to feel superior (honestly, i’m trying my best to be accessible in my writing!) A truism lies within this worry. Recently I took part in a latte art competition where one contender plugged his earphones into some heavy dance music and self indulgently bobbed his head whilst showcasing his flourishes with his jug pouring. After finishing his design, he lurched over his competitor trying to unhinge him. The struggle is real.

No self aware barista wants to alienate our customer, so sometimes, we don't say anything.

2) Environment: There needs to be an open format created where barista and customer can interact. This of course means knowing when to interact too. As a Barista, you are not going to explain the solid to liquid yield ratio to a customer in the middle of a morning rush. Unless you want to be punched in the face.

3) Opportunity: You have to WANT to share your knowledge. The best customers for this are the regulars where certain formalities have been eroded and you can engage in a personal way.

This will inevitably put us all on our toes, creating a better informed coffee demographic which can ultimately challenge all coffee culture from the big names to the independents.

Many more people have a personal passion for coffee, with home espresso machines, pour overs and grinders. The thirst for coffee is parallel for the thirst for information. But I don't think you have to be a coffee creature to be interested.

My parents are definitely from generation Nescafe. That is their point of call for a coffee experience. If the boat is really pushed out, my Dad will create a traditional stove top espresso.

But these strong, dark flavours were their only reference. In came their youngest son with an unconventional passion. Each day they ask me a plethora of questions and respond in increased amazement at the answers:

“ A coffee that tastes like blueberries?!”

“ I would have never thought coffee would grow in the Congo!”

“The milk tastes sweet?!”

A few years ago I wouldn't even have considered where coffee grew at all. I had no interest in it.

My point is you do not know the wonderful things that can happen if you expose people to this knowledge. I fear we have jumped a long way in the last century and some people have fallen into the void.

If you are a cafe that prides itself in specialty coffee then I think that should overarch into specialty service too. It shouldn't just stop when the coffee is delivered but extend beyond that.

It can be as simple as offering tasters of different products or an alternative to a customer's order. If someone has a latte, offer them to taste the espresso that is the base of their drink. You could create time slots in your cafe where you showcase the basics of making an espresso or crafting a pour over. There can be sessions focusing on milk texturing and the magic of latte art which is fun and engaging for all ages. But also, we have the responsibility to encourage an open mind within education of technique and practise we do it like this here but other places may do it differently (with reasons explained if possible).

Perhaps this is a big ask. Speciality coffee is somewhat a new science but how we relate this to our customers is in its infancy stages. But we need to break that fourth wall between customers and employees. If there is a Fourth and Final wave, let it be that.

In the new year CWTCH are planning to have ‘coffee lover’ sessions themed on specific subjects to inform and open up the baristas world to those passionate about coffee.