Coffee's cup of woe
Your sommelier doesn't present carefully-chosen wines as if they're home-brewed plonk - so why do you treat your coffee so carelessly? Your barman keeps his real ales with love and respect - so why is your filter coffee like dishwater? Ian Boughton goes in search of coffee excellence
There is a vast amount of criticism of the standard of coffee in the hospitality trade, and much of it is deserved. What is most surprising is that the hotel and restaurant trades do not appreciate how bad their hot beverages are.
This summer, at a coffee trade conference, the level of this failure was highlighted.
"Ninety-nine per cent of all cups of coffee brewed in the world are bad," stated James Hoffmann, the first British world champion barista, and head of the respected Square Mile coffee roastery. "Maybe it's 96% but it's nearly all of them. In the trade, we are all agreed on that."
It was an astonishing statement.
"It is the education of those making coffee that is the missing piece of the puzzle," Hoffmann told the conference. "In other trades, a ladder is set out - you get this qualification, and the reason is progress and promotion.
"As an industry, coffee has not embraced qualifications. And we have not gone to the employers and said ‘what do you need your people to know?' We must demand their interest."
Hoffmann is not a lone voice. The entire hot beverage trade is agreed that too little is said about the practical value of beverage training, and that, as a result, the business potential of great beverages goes begging.
The business strategy of coffee training should be simple. So who, in which catering sector, needs to know what about which brewing methods - and why?
In this, the attitude of the modern coffee trade has not been entirely helpful to the catering industry. The "cool" sector of the coffee trade has effectively hindered its own progress in mainstream hospitality by preaching too much about the cliché of staff needing to be "passionate about coffee" - by contrast, any realistic food and beverage manager knows that, at best, "a bit of interest" is a more likely target to aim for than "passion".
"For the coffee trade to realise this is long overdue," says Marco Olmi, managing director at Drury Tea and Coffee. "Too many coffee trainers are caught up in the airy-fairyness of it all, and put ‘passion' above ‘practicality'. We must put our practicality hat on and think what we need to deliver. Because training for passion is not the same as training with a business purpose in mind."
So what are the sources of beverage training?
It is widely believed that there are no standards in coffee training, but that is not strictly true. It is more the case that beverage qualifications remain generally unknown.
Some programmes do exist - the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe is not widely known in the general catering trade, but has a programme of diplomas and created the Gold Cup standard for the brewing of filter coffee, based on scientific principles of flavour extraction. However, it speaks volumes for the coffee trade that the organisation's list of "authorised trainers" is breathtakingly short for an industry of such size.
The Academy of Food and Wine Service recently worked with United Coffee in claiming the UK's first accredited entry-level barista training scheme, the Licence to Work in Coffee, but as a very new scheme, it has no track record.
Probably the most significant independent academy is the London School of Coffee, which has put together a team of well-known independent trainers running sessions from barista work to roasting. The school's "how to run a coffee shop" courses are regularly sold out.
In the hospitality sector, the rating which is most likely to become established is the City and Guilds Level 2 VRQ in Barista Skills, driven by the Beverage Standards Association. Again, this body is not well known, but it has made progress in getting the standard recognised, and an increasing number of coffee trainers are taking the VRQ as the benchmark for their services.
"With so many now crowning themselves as ‘coffee professionals', there is an imbalance between the ability and the title," observes roaster Peter James, of James Gourmet Coffee. "It is time to take the gloves off and ask why our industry has become so self-important that it has lost the plot in training."
A major question, says Christine Cottrell, author of the Barista Bible and the Perfect Espresso training system, is whether independent coffee trainers actually have the skill of teaching. "From an educator's point of view, there has to be a balance between the passion and the skills. The typical trainer is a coffee geek who gets up and says the first thing that appears in his head - maybe a coffee expert, but not a trained teacher."
To be fair, she says, the trade's training efforts are often hamstrung by inadequate briefings from hospitality managers who cannot express their ambitions for their beverage business.
"It is the employers who generally have not thought coffee training through. Here, we are talking ‘mission statements' - and if you don't know what your own ‘enterprise standards' are for your own beverage business, then heaven help you!"
All coffee suppliers and machine suppliers offer training of some sort, and it is now fashionable for them to speak of "barista academy" services. There are arguments over whether this is always adequate.
At Kimbo, a supplier that has created its own training programme to City and Guilds standards, managing director Angus McKenzie advocates setting a realistic expectation from a supplier-trainer. "Any coffee supplier should be able to turn a novice into a confident learner within a few hours - what you must look for is a positive eagerness to help improve your standards and sales. If you don't see that, you'll probably find their coffee is cheap, and the rest of their service will be, too!"
Among bigger food service companies, a popular trend is the training of top management first. Putting directors through coffee courses is reckoned to be a fine idea, because it shows them the link between beverage quality and profit.
Lavazza, which first put the entire top level of JD Wetherspoon through barista courses, has now done the same for Little Chef, whose chairman, Graham Sims, has followed it with the ambitious, and perhaps surprising, addition to his menu of the flat white, the rich and creamy latte which is an "in drink" associated with artisan coffee bars.
"I am now a coffee-trained CEO, and I decided that for credibility, we couldn't not do the flat white," he explains cheerfully. "We're on a coffee-business journey - we know we can do the core coffee menu well, and we are now feeling good about improving our coffee business!"
Involving senior hospitality management is a sound tactic, says renowned trainer Paul Meikle-Janney of Coffee Community, who wrote the City & Guilds course and is on the educational committee of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe.
"Decision-makers must have an understanding of what makes a coffee business work. Too often, management sees beverage training as a band-aid job - you train just the front-end staff, your coffee improves immediately, the management tick a box, and then as the staff change, the knowledge ebbs away. Remember that in coffee, we don't have ‘the pass', the point at which the chef looks at a dish going out and says ‘yes', or ‘do it again'. So, when your coffee gets worse, it stays worse.
"Your training should really answer the bigger question: ‘What is feasible for coffee in my business environment?e_SSRq"
The difference can be tangible, he says.
"It is interesting how many people will make a point of saying they enjoyed a good coffee. So, ask yourself how many comments you get - and if your customers are not currently saying ‘your coffee is excellent', you probably have to consider the possibility that your coffee may be terrible!"
Without genuine management interest in beverage training, a coffee business will fail, agrees Ian Balmforth of Bolling, the roaster behind the Grumpy Mule brand.
"The biggest threat to the coffee trade is from those food service operators whose management commitment to coffee quality is superficial, and who are happy to serve poor quality in the hope that consumers will not know the difference but they do!"
Observe the contrast with the high-street chains, says Matt Tuffee, sales and marketing manager for La Cimbali espresso machines.
"Where coffee is the core business, those at the top appreciate quality standards. The non-specialist sector of hotels and restaurants is the fastest-growing part of the coffee market, yet it is the area where the widest gap in coffee quality is occurring. Here we find fine food prepared by those who train religiously to reach the top of their craft but the last taste on customers' lips is left to front-of-house staff!"
One non-specialist sector has certainly begun to take coffee seriously - the big contract-catering operators. At BaxterStorey, in-house trainer Tim Sturk has set up his own coffee academy, and even risked going up against the very best in the national barista championships, purely to gain practical experience which he could pass on.
"Coffee training does increases sales," he says firmly. "It is one of the few areas of training where we see an immediate impact on the business."
He too adopted a management-first approach.
"In general catering, poor standards are the result of ‘I was trained by someone who was trained by someone else, badly'. But all 70 of our senior management team have attended a three-hour ‘appreciation of coffee' session with a world barista champion, and this has set the tone of a serious coffee business.
"A barista returns from our eight-hour level-one course and can instantly make coffee better. We align this training with the SCAE standard, so it isn't just an in-house certificate, but something people can take with them, which they value not that we let them, because these qualified baristas are now incredibly valuable to us, and we intend to hang on to them!"
Stuart Coombes, the operations director for Caffè Ritazza, the travel hub specialist, has also decided to bring coffee training in-house, citing equally practical reasons: "We used to use external trainers, but no one can understand your brand as you do so in-house training is the more successful way of passing on both skills and brand values."
There have, however, been some extremely imaginative training projects by external suppliers. Miko, the firm behind the rainforest-friendly Puro brand, recently made a documentary film about its work with the Leon restaurant group in London. This project included an in-house barista contest over 12 of the restaurateur's sites, with the prize of two winners being taken to a rainforest and coffee farms in Brazil.
"No other food product that is generally served suffers the injustice of being compromised time and time again like coffee," Miko remarks. "In the past, we have had problems with staff not ‘engaging' with coffee. This contest really got the team behind coffee, which was the critical thing - when peers support and motivate, the magic starts to work, performance improves and the operator can actually start to measure the results."
six training tips
Top Tips on getting the most out of coffee training, suggested by Kenco's head barista, Stuart Haden
1 Be clear on what you expect you and your staff to get out of the training, and agree that with the trainer.
2 Be honest with the trainer about your staff's personalities and current skill levels.
3 Be sure of how much hands-on work is involved. Making mistakes away from the customer is a valuable part of the learning session.
4 Be sure that taste is involved. Your staff should know what a good coffee looks like, but training should leave them clear on the taste they need to achieve.
5 Check if the trainer will cover commercial aspects, such as upselling, menu development and operational hygiene.
6 Be sure of follow-up - will the trainer supply materials for staff to refer to after the event? Are follow-up calls part of the service? Will the trainer agree to educate one of your staff to be an on-site leader, and help set the quality standards to be maintained after the training?
Filter coffee - what do they need to know?
The skill of filter coffee is vastly under-taught, because managers think it is simple - as a result, one of the most profitable products in the business is regularly ruined.
"At 60% of the out-of-home market, filter coffee is still the most popular way to serve it," says Chris York, sales director at Marco Beverage Systems. "It is quicker and produces a larger gross margin than espresso. It is easy to make, but it is more difficult to make well."
The world's very greatest coffees generally lend themselves to filter brewing, and the Gold Cup standard dictates the optimum extraction of flavour. The essential principles apply - the right "dose" of coffee, with the right amount of water, at the right temperature, for the right time, produces a good coffee.
However, a massive problem in the catering trade is the reduction of the dose of coffee per brew, literally "watering down" coffee in the hope that the customer will not notice at exactly the same time as customer perception of good coffee is at its highest, and customers are in the mood to pay well for the best! Any business using 60g of coffee or less per litre of water probably has coffee quality being dictated by its accountant.
A cafetière is the simplest of all methods, which suits just about every coffee, and yet the one which most often produces a disaster. Never allow staff to slosh in a handful of coffee and a vague amount of water at any hot temperature there is a right way to dose the coffee, to pour, and plunge.
A Chemex is a classier paper-filter method; guests do like seeing coffee poured from what is essentially a carafe. But staff must be shown how to pour carefully and slowly.
An Aeropress is the quickest and most entertaining method of delivering a very clean filter coffee. It is rather like a bicycle pump - perfectionists advocate the "inverted" method, but five minutes' straightforward training will have your team producing a perfectly good brew, in a way which holds the customer's attention.
The Siphon is the most attention-getting method of all in front of the customer. Water is heated in the lower of two glass chambers; it boils and moves into the upward chamber where it infuses the coffee. When the heat is turned off, the brewed water returns to the lower chamber for serving, leaving the grounds in the top. Customers are fascinated by it.
costs of training and the return
Christine Cottrell Someone, somewhere seems have decreed that roasters and suppliers have to give their training services to the catering trade for free well, you don't get a driving licence for free, do you? This is a big problem - the hospitality trade should value this knowledge.
Paul Meikle-Janney Costa is investing in coffee and making money. The independent cafés are doing the same. The mid-range hospitality sector isn't, and is wondering why they can't upgrade their coffee business.
BaxterStorey It costs us between £300 and £500 to train a barista for our "level one" course, including trainer, employee's wages, travel, and other administration costs. We took 15 baristas from one site on a Saturday, ran them through the course, and monitored sales in the three months after the training. We found a 10% increase in coffee sales that we can directly relate to the training - in a business selling over 3,000 coffees a day, that's significant.
Kimbo If you spend £300 on some excellent training, how many more coffees would you need to sell over an eight-week period to fund this? The answer will rarely be need to be more than five per day.
London School of Coffee Costs range from £150 to £600 for scheduled courses lasting from one to three days. A customised private session for up to eight people using our venue, equipment, and consumables would start at around £700.
Espresso Service A well-trained barista will know how to maintain their machine in good working order. One service call is a minimum of £100, more than often it's nearer £200. How much would a training session cost?