I can’t emphasize enough how intimidating coffee is. I risk redundancy by mentioning this again partially for the selfish reason that it helps to gives me a little calming perspective when I sigh the mantra with determination in coffee situations that feel out of my league, “I will never know everything about coffee.” This is a magically complex product with more history than some countries are old, endless potential for refinement and development, and hosts ever-more-talented professionals who also started their careers from scratch. Knowing that frees me up quite a bit to feel excited about my slowly developing role in that. I also reemphasize that coffee is intimidating in hopes that it serves as a humbling reminder to those coffee-jerks who tend to make you feel small for not knowing everything, and who never noticed the approachable culture of coffee comradery that has taken shape in our industry.
That said, coffee-jerkitude is becoming less acceptable. Too many talented people have been inhibited by the stiff exclusivity that once was the prevalent way of demonstrating coffee expertise. That stoicism of old created huge barriers for many professionals and customers new to the scene. It wasn’t sustainable. But luckily the question-askers, demo-doers, experimental-brewers, customer-appreciators, knowledge-sharers, quality-trainers, and professionals with a good sense of humor were the ones who had energy to change the scene. It is a great time to be a coffee professional and this industry is only becoming even more of an accepting and forgiving place to learn.
I always imagined that the coffee geeks I respected most were on just born with higher level of coffee intuition and talent, and I worried that I was not. What I realized was that these pros were just people who really liked what they did, and couldn’t help but learn more just from being around coffee and they definitely hoped the same for me. Going back to the intimidation factor, when I had the early opportunities to hang out while roasters talked about the nuances of the coffees on a cupping table or hear two baristas talk excitedly about the flavor profile of a coffee I wasn’t very familiar with, I felt completely lost. I would try to piece the conversation together hoping that if someone made eye contact with me I could struggle my way through some kind of interesting, albeit brief, response. It wasn’t for lack of welcoming hosts, I was just lost by the language of coffee that was so new to me.
When you are engaging in any coffee conversation, regardless of how much you knew before the conversation began, there is information you will be able to walk away with. Rather than being overwhelmed by that charge, try to wrap your head around how much that frees you to just relax into those situations. Without the worry of a pop quiz by an evil teacher who wants you to fail, the hope all coffee professionals have for each other is that the learning process will be challenging but so fun. Every experience, no matter how profound in the moment, shapes your craft. With every experience you have with coffee you will either have a breakthrough moment where a concept or method finally clicks, you will hone a basic skill that you will continually build on, or you will encounter some idea that just feels to you (for whatever reason) like utter bullshit and you will wisely dismiss it from your practice.
Start small. I admit that it is easier said than done, so here is a broken down example of how you can approach tasting coffees and build your knowledge without trying to process and remember too much too soon.
When someone is thoroughly describing a coffee you are tasting, challenge yourself to remember just one detail about that coffee rather than being able to regurgitate every point you heard. If you take it piece by piece, you’ll be surprised how naturally the experience fits into your memory. First off, did you like it? What is one thing you liked about it, or not? What general area of the world did it come from? Does it remind you of anything in particular? Once those questions are easy to answer every time you taste a brew, get a little more creative with your descriptions and start mapping out some of the characteristics of coffees you do like. Refer to the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel and identify just one term. When that feels less intimidating, start spending more time on each sip and contrast how the profile changes from when it’s just brewed and really hot to when your cup has cooled down a lot. Your palate will refer back to each of those moments and traits you are becoming familiar with and help you expand the vocabulary you refer to in your ever more complex coffee dialogue. You’ll feel more comfortable at cuppings, excited to try new coffees, capable when guiding customers through the same questions.
This same logic applies to every area of the coffee realm. Practice makes (closer) to perfect, and everyone started out small. You are in an industry where the product we are passionate about is intended to be savored, and the growing pains you may experience as you learn more about your craft are lovely things as well that make for a great coming-of-age story further down the road. You will encounter, as we all have, people that make you doubt yourself. Customers that roll their eyes, trainers that seem exasperated when they have to explain the same concept to you a couple times before it sinks in, coworkers who are pretty aggressive and make you feel inadequate on bar, conversations about coffees production methods you’ve never even heard of. Take heart, you barista of little faith! You will learn more every day, and you will find with certainty that people in our industry value your contribution, and at the very least your interest and passion.
There are loads of rad resources to study up on as well. If you have any questions or need some help over your most daunting hurdle, I’d love to walk you through that.