Culture Watch: Third Wave or Blurred Wave?

It starts with a glimpse into coffee’s live and wild Twittersphere…

Kevin Roden is a distinguished councilman in the Texas city of Denton, home to the University of North Texas. Mr Roden (@kevinroden), an erstwhile foodie and founder of ThinkDenton.com, posed a question via Twitter to Ritual Coffee Roaster’s competition barista (and noted good-guy) Kevin “Tex” Bohlin. Mr. Roden asked, “Is there much of a line between the skills of a barista and those of a bartender? I like when the two merge.

The question was a reply an earlier Tweet from Mr. Bohlin about his guest shift at the San Francisco Mission District bar Thieves, where Tex sold “adult” versions of his SWRBC signature beverage to help fund travel to this month’s USBC. That question began an interesting Twitter conversation, drawing in current Southwest Regional Champ Jared Truby, of Verve Coffee Roasters. Since Twitter can be super hard to follow, we’ve manufactured a transcript:

Kevin Bohlin: Mixology is pretty fascinating and there is definitely the same element of being a bar man, but I can say that a line is much easier.

Jared Truby: Will the barista ever be recognized as having a superior skill set to a bartender? Cause I believe we work a lot harder for less money.

Kevin Bohlin: The context makes a difference, in dive bars they make two-three times the tips of the best baristas just pouring shots and beers.

Jared Truby: Exactly, and in busy upscale bars even more. Their hours suck more than ours but the money can be a living. Who gets them going? Us.

Kevin Bohlin: Some upscale bars here in SF have a comparable knowledge, skill, and craft but baristas have more variables to master. Of course they are paid even more. . . this still has a lot to do with consumers assumptions, values, and expectations.

Jared Truby: I just think baristas have a lot more to do in their craft. Bartenders have more to memorize.

Kevin Bohlin: Good point, good baristas are knowledgeable, skilled, adaptive, taking/informing orders as well as crafting the drink and good service.

Napolean (SF-area barista, or perhaps a historical dictator tweeting from the grave): On top of those variables we are repeatedly criticized for our customer service and bartenders seem to get a free pass.

Jared Truby: Service is what we are about though. Service is synonymous with coffee. If we are criticized we we probably aren’t good. I find it weird that service is a problem in our industry at all. And a little sad that it’s even a topic. Give good service. Be nice people.

At this point, the conversation gets a little less transcript-worthy and a little more Twitter-wonky, but valid points were made, and it’s a conversation worth exploring further. So if you’ll allow us some editorializing…

The extra-specialty coffee movement feels like it’s stuck in an awkward phase. The public treats the craft bartender with more respect than they do the craft barista. It’s easier for a dive bar to get a new bar manager, develop a new bar menu, and build an entirely new base of clientele. People seem to “get” that. But for a coffee bar to make the switch from poor quality coffee and sugar smoothies to a progressive roaster, brew bar program, a well-maintained espresso machine, it’s still harder to communicate this new dedication to quality. It’s a struggle to reach the consumer…

Tex and Truby have touched on something we’ve been thinking about for a while. We don’t think we’ve ever truly been in the “third wave” of coffee. We’ve really been in kind of a “blurred wave”, a coffee culture identity crisis. We’ve spent the last decade groping for meaning, while tremendously improving quality. Until we as an industry identify ourselves in a way that is embraced and adopted by the consumer, the same way that craft cocktails and name-brand bartenders have, we can never achieve that true “third wave” status.

Your hard work and dedication is key; this is a good fight, with both local and global ramifications. Conversations like this one we found on Twitter are important. Figuring out a way to communicate this culture on the Today Show, and to folks like Kathy Lee Gifford, Anthony Bourdain, and Conan O’Brien, and Councilman Kevin Roden…that’s the next step.

 Comments are open below.

Comments

  1. says

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  2. says

    I agree with your comments about being in a “blurred wave”…..a coffee culture identity crisis. While I am disappointed by the direction that Fair Trade USA is going, (a company could label a product “Fair Trade Certified” that contains 25% certified fair trade ingredients), there is not Direct Trade organization setting standards or marketing Direct Trade to the general public.

    In my blog http://indiecoffee.blog.com/?p=26 I propose a Direct Trade alliance, modeled after the Meritage Alliance in the wine industry. My fear is that, outside a minority of Direct Trade devotees, most consumers don’t understand the concept. The end result of doing nothing is that Direct Trade stands to become marginalized as Fair Trade acceptance and visibility grows.

  3. says

    Really interesting post and great comments. I wonder what the response would be to high end coffeeshops autogratuitizing a barista tax or factoring it into price… I don’t really know how tipping works at dive bars, or bars with drinks priced equivalent to craft coffee drinks (which i assume is $3-5ish, although i suppose if its a pourover of a good single origin the price can be a lot more) but i see two big barriers psychologically to people tipping baristas per drink:

    a. tipping a dollar or two is drastically increasing the price of the drink as opposed to most craft cocktail bars, where i’d say 7.50 is the cheapest i’ve seen (boston area) for a well-researched and made drink and 10-12 is much more common. Hence, put in a 20% charge onto the bill, maybe make it opt out as a solution? Especially given the line-up-and-leave nature of coffee shops, makes sense

    b. related, i assume most people drink coffee on a much more regular basis than they go out for drinks. If you expect a 1-2 dollar tip per drink, i think you’d end up losing a lot of regulars. But 15-20% (which admittedly in some cases *would* work out to an extra dollar a drink) is much more reasonable as a base line for every person to pay if you want to keep them coming back. (that said, i personally tip a dollar on any pourover or espresso-based drink i get)

    One last note, there is definitely the issue of shops where you have one person staffing the register and others running the machines. I think a lot of what goes into the psychological influence of tipping the bartender is that they seem like one-person shows. Certainly, i think people approach drink tips differently, if they think about it at all, when they are at a restaurant as opposed to a bar/the bar section of the same place.

  4. says

    Lots of people walk into a coffee shop with an expectation – stand in line, order a drink, wait for the drink, GTFO.

    I think that Alex makes an excellent point about the difference in ordering and service styles that coffee shops and bars use, but I believe that the difference is due to the expectation that customers have when they decide to patronize a coffee shop or a bar. Bars don’t serve drinks to go, and typically folks aren’t getting a cocktail as a pick-me-up before their morning meeting.

    Unfortunately, I believe that because of how many Americans currently use coffee in their daily lives coffee shops often serve the function of a convenience store. If more people were willing to plan 10-15 minutes extra in their morning to sit down at a cafe and have a stellar cappuccino with a pastry, our jobs would require less stamping and more dish washing.

    Just discussing, not complaining. I’m interested in progress and solutions.

  5. says

    Jared Truby: Will the barista ever be recognized as having a superior skill set to a bartender? Cause I believe we work a lot harder for less money.

    That is just a silly statement to make. I am not impressed.

  6. says

    I am both a craft bartender and craft barista. I’m a lead bartender at a neighborhood dive cocktail bar that does everything you think a great cocktail bar does- focus on the classics, barrel-aged cocktails, ice program, fresh citrus to order, etc…. I primarily work Friday, Saturday and Sunday shifts as lead (a 14 hour shift). Every one of the 600-800 drinks that leaves my bar has been made by me.

    Both coffee and alcohol serve as catalyst to people’s days. Coffee brings people out of their morning grog and kick starts them to be mentally prepared for their work day- typically an office job or something of the sort. At the end of that same day- that same person will have an alcoholic beverage to bring them out of “work-mode” relax them and allow them to enjoy their personal time with friends and family. We serve a purpose- we’re enablers.

    The amount of people that care about a barista dialing in their espresso for a freaking vanilla latte is close to nothing. Sure- there’s more tasting involved on a day to day- but craft bartenders taste hundreds of spirits and need to be able to differentiate each and every one. Dialing in a coffee is the same as a bartender tasting citrus each week to know how it influences their Daiquiris. There are dozens more reasons, that make the two different- and I’m hoping that Chris Owens’ response will cover a lot of the craft side.

    Baristas, as a whole, could easily make more money if they learned somethings from bartenders- but more often than not it’s attitude and entitlement that prevents them from doing so. If I were to file every one of my customers into a line at the bar, make them order and pay from the register and then stand around like a bunch of cattle waiting for their name to be called to receive a beverage from the Barista Gods- well shit, take my pennies and loose change. When an establishment decides to stop herding people, and starts seating them- that’s when you’ll see something amazing happen in coffee. When a barista has a 20 person bar top to serve and interact with people, instead of an endless line of paper cups- that’s when baristas will start making good tip money. When a bar-back’s job is to make to-go drinks on a machine in the back room, and to pour lattes and cappuccinos table side to patrons- that’s when people will “click” with the craft baristas term. Oh yeah, then there’s that whole $2 cup of coffee thing that needs to go.

    It’s all smoke and mirrors anyways.

    I’ll follow-up as necessary.

  7. says

    Thanks to those who wanted my opinion. I sat down to write a response and realized that I need to devote something more to it. I’ll try and get all my thoughts down tomorrow and post it. Right now I’m going for a drink!

  8. says

    While I agree with some of the points Jared and Kevin are making, I think we are simplifying the work of a craft bartender. Sure, there is a distinction being made between bartenders and craft bartenders, but we could also make that distinction with baristas. Can we call Chris Owens into the conversation?

  9. Llewellyn Sinclair says

    from facebook user Kevin Johnson:

    I am willing to wager that craft bartenders have many frustrations similar to those of craft baristas.
    I believe that the worlds of coffee consumption and alcohol consumption are different in the favor of tips given to bartenders because of the different effects of intoxication that coffee and alcohol bring. Also, I would rather interact professionally with groggy people at 6am than with drunks at midnight.
    Plus, a barista doesn’t have to cut their customers off because of intoxication.

  10. says

    I think when customers realize that this is not a part time job for many of us and they see that you are a career focused coffee professional you do get the same respect as a craft bartender. I know that I have customers that view me in this way and it really is an amazing thing. It takes time and effort to build this type of customer base but it is possible.

    I remember a time when I was annoyed when people would assume that I was in school just because I was a Barista. I now see this as an opportunity to bring this customer into the world of craft coffee and often these conversations led to them developing a great deal of respect for me as a Barista.

    I know the industry has a lot of work to do and many people are doing such an amazing job. I must say though I all to often get really bad service at coffee shops that lead the way in quality.

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