Coffee O’Snobbery

Coffee O’Snobbery

Coffee snobs, barista hipsters, coffee geeks, elitists—just some of the slings and arrows tossed at baristas in specialty coffee shops on a daily basis. Do these terms have any merit, though? Do coffee professionals display exorbitant amounts of, what I call, “coffee o’snobbery”? Or is this simply a case of mistaken identity – altruism being confused with elitism?

It’s certainly evident, just in the media, that baristas and coffee shops are viewed in a negative light. Click around the Internet – it’s not difficult to find any number of graphics, text, or videos that display disregard and even, to a certain extent, prejudices against baristas and the specialty coffee industry as a whole. This particular video, which was produced by Funny or Die not too long ago, made the rounds on the Internet and became a pretty big hit:


As funny as I think this video is, I also find kind of gut-wrenching. Before becoming a part time coffee blogger, I was a full time barista for six years, and this was the sort of prejudice I fought against all the time.

And the sad truth of the matter is this: coffee folks are easy targets, and in many cases, we inspire the sort of lampooning we get so offended by ourselves. Baristas and roasters alike are incredibly prone to assuming that their customers (and, in some cases, their peers) know as much about coffee as they do. When this assumption is proven errant, of course, said baristas and roasters typically have an overzealous approach of correcting their customers.

How many times, for instance, must it be said that “there is no ‘x’ in espresso!” before the customer stops pronouncing it incorrectly? How many times must a barista reply “those aren’t real cup sizes” before the customer stops ordering talls, grandes, and ventis. (Before I proceed any further, let me just put in my own two cents on these specific issues: you know what they mean – just serve them, or correct them without being an ass about it.)

Once, when I was working as a barista at Seattle’s Best, a woman ordered a “chocolate latte.” I said, “You mean a mocha?” She replied, “No, no, no – I know what a mocha is, and I don’t want that. I just want a latte, but with chocolate in it.” This sort of back and forth went on for a couple minutes until I finally said, “Oh! A chocolate latte! Sorry about that, I was confused,” and then I made her a latte with chocolate in it – a mocha. And she was pleased as punch.

Looking back, I’ll admit, I feel kind of guilty for being a jerk about, when it comes down to it, a really stupid and pointless argument. Just like the “no ‘x’ in espresso” and “tall, grande, venti” thing, I knew what she asking for, but I was doggedly determined to make her realize her error – even to the point of belittling her.

And that was over a mocha. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve heard baristas say to customers about more advanced coffee topics (like sustainable farming, fair trade, varietals, crop seasons, rainfall, elevation, flavor profiles, etc., etc.).

As far as the customer is concerned, baristas will just have to learn to accept that just about everyone who walks through the cafe’s door is not going to rise to the level of self-education that a coffee professional has and that that fact doesn’t bother them. Baristas are conveyed as coffee evangelicals – born-again baristas – out to convert the sinful, Caribou-consuming non-believers. But this fiery, zealous, missionary-like proselytizing often backfires and ends up leaving a bad taste in the customer’s mouth. No matter how much we preach the good word of specialty coffee, there are always going to be people that like French roasts, that prefer their coffee with milk and sugar, that don’t care about tasting the difference between a Peru and an Ethiopia, or a Bourbon and a catuai, that – God forbid – actually like Starbucks…

My take on all that – who cares? There are those that will be intrigued by your passion for coffee and want to learn more, and there are those that just want a rush of caffeine. To each their own. Serve both of them with equal amounts of respect and dignity.

I was teaching a cupping class at Peet’s once and one of my favorite regulars said, “I don’t get it. I can’t describe the coffee like you do – you say all this stuff like chocolate and caramel and brown sugar and fruity and earthy and whatever else – I don’t know how to do that.” “Well,” I replied, “are you at least able to point out which coffees you like and which you don’t?” “Of course I can do that,” he chuckled. “Honestly,” I said, “that’s all you really need to know. The rest is trivial.”


But, let’s forget the way customers see us for a moment, though. I think the real problem that coffee professionals have to deal with is our prejudices against one another. I was recently talking with the owner of Bridgeport Coffee Company, here in Chicago, and he made a statement that I found quite moving: “All of us independently owned specialty coffee businesses in Chicago make a big family – a big coffee family. Dysfunctional, yes, but a family no less.” Even though he was referring specifically to his competition in his city (Metropolis, Intelligentsia, Ipsento, Asado, Dark Matter, etc., etc.), I think this outlook is reflective of the specialty coffee industry at large. And if we’re a big, dysfunctional family, I think that the dysfunction lays within our sibling rivalries.

I’ve been in and out of the coffee business for a long time, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know everything there is to know about coffee. Hell, it wasn’t until this past year that I paid any mind to varietals (and I know I’m going to have a roaster call me out for using that phrase instead of “cultivars”). And as long as anyone’s been in the coffee industry, whether it’s been for one year or 20 years or 50 years, I think it would be the epitome of asininity to presume that you know everything there is to know about coffee.

It’s like a tenth grader teasing a first grader about not even knowing basic algebra yet.

And yet, it amazes me how often I have been belittled or made to feel stupid because at one time I wasn’t using a scale to measure out brewing ratios, that I didn’t know what a “1:30 drop” meant, that I didn’t appreciate the difference between caturra and typica, that there was a time in my life when I enjoyed Seattle’s Best Coffee. I could go on and on and on with these examples, as I’m sure most specialty coffee shop customers could as well.

Like anything else in life, coffee education is a long and arduous journey and, sometimes, one has to account for learning curves.

  • There was a time in my barista career that I didn’t use scales or timers. I used a few scoops or roughly what I thought to be a 20 gram dose of espresso to make coffee. I didn’t adjust my grind depending on the humidity of the morning for our drip brews or care that I could make my coffee awesome with a few tweaks here and there. Now I do and people often make fun of me for it. Prepping for CoffeeCon this past weekend I practiced several different techniques to make pour over brews. I sat in my kitchen pouring Chemex after Chemex testing my water temperature in the kettle and my slurry temperature. I measured out my coffee dose and my water weight for each brew. After brewing I remeasured the actual “brew” to find its weight to then assess my extraction yield of the coffee. I then tested pouring techniques to see how this varied my extraction yield and flavor of the brew. When I arrived at CoffeeCon I knew what would be, in my opinion, the best way to represent the coffee by all this geekery. Do I expect the average consumer to do this? No. But you should expect me to. My job as a barista is not to give you the same thing you can get at home. My job is to give you something you can’t get, an expertly brewed cup of coffee or shot of espresso. You should expect that your barista cares more about coffee than you do (as long as you are in a premium shop). When I get asked “How do you always make such good coffee?” my answer is always “practice.” If you ask me further I will take down your email, send you specs, recommend grinders, scales, books, etc. Yes, we “career baristas” get overzealous which leads to us getting let down that more people aren’t as stoked on coffee as we are, but honestly the people I get the most snobbery from is other baristas, so feel good that you aren’t on that side.