Coffeemania — from the mouths of baristas
We're going behind the counter to ask baristas to talk about themselves.
Seattle Times business reporter
Talking to baristas, the word "passion" comes up a lot.
Take barista Alex Negranza. Some weeks, he works at two Seattle cafes and visits about a dozen others. "I'm very motivated and passionate about coffee. It's kind of the only thing I do."
They also have strong opinions about coffee and the community around it.
Negranza recently dished about Nekisse coffee from Ethiopia's Sidamo region and criticized the Barista Guild of America on his website, "Why Not? Coffee," illustrating another well-known trait about baristas — their love of talking about coffee, from the bean profiles from various countries, to the best pressure and water temperature for pulling a great shot of espresso.
So, hang on to your travel mugs. We're going behind the counter to ask baristas to talk about themselves:
Alex Negranza, WhyNotCoffee.com Coffee shops visited each week: A dozen
Least favorite part of the job: "People who are like, 'It's just a cup of coffee.'"
More, better, more: "You can never know enough," says Negranza, who until recently worked 40 hours a week at Trabant Coffee & Chai, plus part time at Tougo Coffee. "A lot of baristas are on an obsessive quest. Why not go as fast as you can?"
Negranza says he is "absolutely fascinated by the culture of coffee and the people involved in it ... They're go-getters. Maybe that has to do with the amount of coffee we drink."
His dream is to start a coffee bar that is cooperatively owned by baristas, and he dreads the idea of ever becoming complacent about coffee.
"I pray to God that's not where I'm headed. That would mean I've accepted what I know. I don't think my appetite will ever be suppressed."
Andrew Milstead, Urban Coffee Lounge, Kirkland
Placed: 1st in latte art contest and 2nd in Northwest Barista Competition, both in Seattle last fall; 3rd in latte art competiton in Minneapolis in June.
Espresso tasted in one day: 50 shots, "because that's how the judge is going to be tasting it."
God shot: After graduating with a bachelor's degree in psychology, Milstead decided to stick with coffee instead of academia. Partly he didn't want to pay thousands of dollars for a doctorate; partly he was hooked by a great shot of espresso at Espresso Vivace in Seattle.
"I'd never had espresso straight like that, and it completely blew my mind," Milstead recalls. "I had no idea coffee could be so sweet and caramelly. It was a life-altering experience."
The next day, he says, "I went back and bought all of [David] Schomer's books and videos. Since then, it's been a daily thing."
Sam Lewontin, Equal Exchange Espresso, Ballard Market
Cause for recent chatter: His article at SlayerEspresso.com about why Seattle's coffee scene lags Portland's.
"There are a lot of baristas who earned their stripes and learned their trade at more established locations who are pushing the boundaries and looking for the edges of what's possible with coffee" and now are opening shops like Portland-based Barista, Lewontin says.
It's a phenomenon we'll see more of, he says.
Worst part of the job: The pay, which tends to be $9 to $10 an hour plus tips. "It's genuinely hurting the profession."
His fix: Working with coffee "is intoxicating." "It's the pursuit of a moving concept of perfection, and it's a beautiful endeavor in that even in the knowledge that I will only achieve perfect, genuinely flawless shots a handful of times in my career, every time I don't achieve that, it's still fascinating, illuminating, wonderful, stimulating and frequently delicious."
Tonya Wagner, Victrola Coffee Roasters
Years as barista: 12, until last year
Now: General manager for roasting operations and three cafes.
Self-identifiers: "The tech geek is only a half-step away from the coffee geek. They're doing something that's unique and different from what other people are doing," Wagner says. "Perfection or high performance is what defines the community."
Baristas also tend to be young.
"When you're a barista, you're in it fresh and have your hand on the pulse. You have to have those people who are going to be like, 'This is the next new thing,' " Wagner says.
Many baristas are white and male, which Wagner also explains in terms of geekiness.
"Why are so many bike riders white and male? Why were so many wine geeks originally white males? We have some coffee geek girls, but a lot of guys get excited about geek culture — bikes, tech; it's the same population we're attracting."
Zachary Carlsen, Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Sprudge.com
Current adventure: Working Stumptown's summertime coffee bar in Amsterdam.
Next adventure: A male bikini barista stand in San Francisco
Previous adventures: Carlsen first worked for Starbucks. When he moved to Washington, D.C., in 2005, he visited Murky Coffee.
"The barista came over and started talking about the story behind the coffee, and we ended up talking about Huehuetenango [a Guatemalan coffee region] for an hour," Carlsen wrote in a text-message interview from Amsterdam.
"With coffee, I've been able to travel to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Tokyo, London, all over the U.S., Amsterdam," he wrote. "My friend Katie and I were upset that the people behind the competitions didn't put video online of competitors ... so we asked our friends in the community to donate money for us to travel to Tokyo in 2007 and we put every competitor (47 countries) online."
Last year, he and a friend started Sprudge.com, billed as "The Internet's Only Coffee Web site."
David Schomer, Owner, Espresso Vivace
Known for: Teaching latte art; precision calibrations of coffee grinders and espresso machines
Trendsetter: When Schomer started Espresso Vivace in the late '80s, his baristas were musician friends who did not take coffee seriously.
"I immediately had fewer friends," he says.
Eventually, people who loved the drink surfaced, and now the profession has become trendy enough that coffee bars can choose from a sea of baristas devoted to pulling perfect espresso shots.
Some have celebrity complexes, which Schomer spots during tryouts in which he makes them wash dishes and do other grunt work.
As with any eccentric group, there can be scenes.
One of Vivace's longtime baristas started cursing on the job one day, telling everyone where to go.
"He was also quite brilliant, too brilliant and artistic to be doing five shifts," Schomer says. "I can laugh now, but it was a big, very public flameout."
The Mostly-at-Home Mom
Seri Ann Shaw, Café Lati, Wedgwood
Years in the trade: 12, off and on
Why she sticks with it: Rewarding work, extra income and flexible hours (especially important with three kids).
"I thought it was just slinging coffee, but there's a whole underground world to it," Shaw says.
"Most of the time when you run into someone who loves coffee, they're going to be an artist in some other way — music, painting, writing, craft things," she says. "It's not terribly surprising if you think of the trade, the physical creation involved in making coffee. They're people who like to create things in life in general."
Michaele Weissman, author of "God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee"
"A lot of them are talented, alternative people who never went to college and really need a subculture that's special ... It's hard to come up in America and find your way into something that isn't stupid and meaningless. The whole blue-collar thing is driving people into poverty and lack of meaning. These guys might smoke a bunch of dope, but they get up every morning and they consider it an art. They do their art, and they love it, and it's beautiful to them, and romantic."