Coffee educators gladly spread the java gospel
Steeped in the finer points of beans and blends, 19 employees spread their knowledge and passion for the beverage throughout the company, for the benefit of Starbucks customers.
Seattle Times business reporter
Call them the java evangelists.
Just 19 employees strong, they make up the front line of coffee devotion at Starbucks, enlightening everyone from the chief executive to the newest barista about all things related to the little brown bean.
Like buyers, they can taste the difference between coffee grown in volcanic soil around Antigua, Guatemala, and beans picked in the foothills of Mount Kenya.
Like good baristas, they have personality to spare.
The job of a coffee educator is to spread knowledge and passion about coffee. People like a story with their jolt, and Starbucks believes that the more it imparts about its beans and blends, the more excited customers will be to drink them.
Major Cohen, a 55-year-old former schoolteacher, figures he snagged one of the best jobs at Starbucks.
"We get paid to drink coffee and talk about it," said the lifelong coffee drinker who can rhapsodize for hours about the dark elixir.
On strong brew: "We never use the words weak and strong. They only mean something to you. If you equate acidity with strong, that would be strong to you. But another person might say body is strong, and you might be saying opposite things to describe the same thing."
On coffee tasting: "We use the open steeping method, which is the way that professionally, around the world, coffee is tasted. ... You get the best taste out of the coffee, the purest way to taste, nothing between you and the liquid that's been allowed to be saturated with the oils and flavors of the coffee."
Cohen started working for Starbucks in 1995 as a part-time barista after 19 years as a photography teacher and administrator at a private school near Boston.
He liked the coffee and wanted the health-insurance benefits when he decided to be a freelance photographer.
Starbucks quickly became his new career. Cohen rose through several layers of management, memorizing and sharing everything he could about coffee.
Three years ago, he moved from Massachusetts to Seattle to become one of nine coffee-education specialists at company headquarters. The other educators are scattered around the world — in Kent; Nevada; Pennsylvania; The Netherlands; Japan; and the United Kingdom.
To learn about coffee, people do tastings, which in this industry are called "cuppings."
Coffee buyers sample dozens of cups each day, sniffing and slurping and spitting much like wine tasters. They use similar language to describe the liquids traversing their palates: earthy, citrusy, berry, cocoa.
Nice nose, full body
Ask a barista for a tasting when she's not too busy and notice the coffee's:
Aroma: Smell for earthy, spicy, floral and nutty notes, which often correspond to flavor.
Acidity: Tastes like a bit of lemon juice in the coffee, particularly on the sides and tip of your tongue. High acidity is described as bright, tangy and crisp by people who like it. Those who don't might call it bitter. High-acidity coffees tend to have a clean finish, whereas low-acidity coffees are smoother and linger longer.
Body: Describes the weight of the liquid on your tongue, sort of like skim milk compared with cream. Coffees with light body will feel light, while full-bodied coffees will feel heavier and linger in your mouth longer.
Flavor: Often reflects the aroma, including citrus, cocoa, berries and herbal notes.
Roast: Lightly roasted coffee tends to have more acidity, while darker roasts bring out the body. With extra-dark roasts, you taste the roast more than the acidity or body.
It takes six months to a year for a coffee-education specialist to feel completely comfortable, said Mary Williams, a retired Starbucks executive who helped start the coffee-education program in the mid-1990s.
"People tend to take coffee for granted," she said. "If you aren't given the opportunity to notice the differences between an Ethiopian and a Guatemalan, if somebody's never pointed that out to you, you might never notice it."
For the record, Ethiopian coffee has a floral aroma, medium body and a lemony flavor. Guatemalan beans have a refined acidity and a soft cocoa and spice flavor.
Williams wanted baristas to have access to coffee experts, but Starbucks was growing too fast for the experts to train everyone. She eventually stopped holding cuppings at each new store and instead hired coffee educators to train the baristas.
Now the company is so large that even the educators don't do most of the hands-on training, but instead help write manuals and oversee training programs.
All Starbucks employees receive basic coffee training. Some choose to have extra training and earn a black apron indicating they are "coffee masters," making them recognized experts in their stores.
Like most coffee educators, Cohen spends almost every morning cupping coffee with Starbucks' green-coffee quality team. They decide which beans to buy and evaluate the quality of incoming shipments.
In three-plus years of cupping with the pros, Cohen says he has contributed something useful exactly twice.
The first time, he said, "I wrote in my journal that it was the first time I noticed something in one of the cups where they didn't make fun of me."
When Cohen first started working at Starbucks, he was amazed that some customers could tell when a Kenyan coffee was brewing because of its distinctive aroma.
Now he looks up to Starbucks' head of coffee buying, Dub Hay, who can identify which farm a coffee is from by its taste.
Soil and climate play a part in coffee flavor, although most high-quality beans grow in fertile, often volcanic soil in a warm-weather band on both sides of the equator.
The roast also makes a difference. Starbucks had to get used to a new way of roasting coffee after it bought Seattle's Best Coffee, which is known for being smooth.
Starbucks' roast, which some critics say tastes burned, brings out more acidity and body than some roast styles.
But processing techniques make the biggest difference in taste. A fermentation process in Central America and Africa creates consistent quality and crisp acidity, while semi-washed coffees in Indonesia are known for their full body and deep earthy notes.
As a store manager, Cohen recommended new customers start with Caffè Verona. A blend of many characteristics, it gave him a base from which to guide customers.
If they complained of bitterness, he sent them to something less acidic such as a Sumatran brew.
If they liked the citrus flavor, he moved them toward beans with more acidity, such as coffees from Costa Rica and Ethiopia.
Using a dog-eared notebook that Starbucks calls a "coffee passport," Cohen kept notes that helped him advise customers and ultimately propelled him into a job of tasting and talking all day.
The biggest challenge, he said, is proving to people coffees have different flavors.
"They're so skeptical," he said. "It's a sensory skill you have to exercise."
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org