The State of Learning

This is something of a long rant.

I train for a living, and I enjoy it. However I think it is important to step away from time to time and assess what one is doing. Am I effective? Are people learning? How could I improve?

Training in the UK, in general, has approached everything the wrong way round. I feel no shame in making one simple, bold statement about the training currently being done (I can get away with this because I don’t think I have yet had the chance to make the impact I want – this will change, it is simply a matter of time).

Training in the UK has failed completely.

No one can possibly argue with me on this. In London, a city of 8 million people, I can barely name a handful of places that make truly excellent drinks. Oddly its probably easier outside London but simple fact is that the majority of espressos brewed the nation over don’t qualify for or earn the title espresso.

Why is this? Lets take a look at the training that has happened in the last decade, the decade that has seen the explosion of Specialty Coffee:
The vast majority of training is done on site. This simply doesn’t work. Learning needs to be done in an environment where the pupil isn’t being interrupted every 30 seconds to help brew tea or prepare food. No one would try and learn French and do their job at the same time so why do we insist on contradicting the obvious when it comes to the coffee.

I am not even going to begin to get cross with the huge number of people out there pushing the “your grind is set now, don’t touch it” line. I’ve seen grinder collars glued in place, tippex markings for the “perfect shot”. Oddly enough it’s these same places that also have never had a burr change, never cleaned a hopper and never brewed an espresso that has taken more than 15 seconds to whoosh through a fluid ounce.

Why are coffee suppliers frightened of giving training? Why are they unwilling to help their customer sell more of their product? Surely if I owned a coffee shop it is in both mine and my suppliers interests that I make the best cup possible, thus selling more and making more money for the both of us.

More often than not it is the simple case that the coffee supplier doesn’t have the knowledge to give. You need no qualifications to sell coffee. None. I can leave my old job as a school teacher or chef, start selling white label boxes of coffee and suddenly I am an expert.

These are the same people who have worked out that their only way to compete is to do it cheaper. Does no one buying this coffee stop and ask for a second “why is this coffee cheaper”.

So – I train. What am I/La Spaziale going to do about it? What makes what we do different? How can we improve what we are doing?

It amazes me to see the difference doing our training off site can make. Take people away from their business and suddenly they reassess every aspect, they ask intelligent questions and more often than not, without the pressure of work, they are just much nicer people to be around.

What I believe key to training is taste. So few people actually taste their coffee, they simply have no idea what they are serving. And guess what – they don’t care. Look at a chef – everything that goes out of a kitchen has been tasted. Everything.
The benefit of tasting is not just quality control. If you have are making drinks that are consistently excellent – guess what? You are going to be proud of them, passionate about them and you are going to enjoy making them more. Most places can’t think of a way to retain staff (that they grossly underpay and undervalue), or even how to inspire them. Let them be proud of what they do. Taste will always be the best possible guide, best detective and best teacher in the world of espresso.

I also think that other people have grossly underestimated the people they are training. I can teach anyone to mimic my actions, to do as I do. But what happens when something goes wrong? People have neglected to teach and give and understanding of espresso. I have met a great many people who can rattle off the recipe for Italian espresso, but ask them why any of the parameters is what it is and they are stumped.

Understanding espresso will make us far more capable of correcting mistakes, of diagnosing faults in the process letting us serve better coffee day after day.

6 Comments

  1. Once again a very interesting read. I sell coffee myself and have the same problems day in day out. I give comprehensive training to all my customers. Unfortunately most of them just don’t care at the end of the day. I go back a few days later to find the grinder has been adjusted, little tamping pressure and piss poor espresso. Often the reason is that they have drank the coffee and said to them selves this tastes wrong, because they didn’t make it properly. So to cure the bitterness of the drink they produce a small black coffee. Over and over again, the real problem is that few people in the industry really know what an espresso should taste like. How many times have I heard “it’s meant to be bitter” NO IT IS NOT. Even some coffee roasters don’t have a clue. There is so much crap spouted that no one knows what the real truth is anymore. Like Italians making the best espresso coffee! So explain how they do that with poor quality beans like robusta. Any way I’m ranting on. Keep up the good work because the end is nowhere in sight.

    Alistair Blake

  2. Preach it brother!

    I actually blame London consumers. The problem is much bigger than just espresso. I have been here for 5 years, and it took me ages to figure out why there were so few consumer choices in such a large city. Maybe it’s the legacy of post-war rationing, or maybe it’s just because of school lunches. Something has killed the desire for a ‘better’ experience, and replaced it with the cult of monoconsumability. Londoners walk like zombies into Boots, Mothercare and Ikea, buying their identical plastic experiences, talk about them with their mates in the identical pubs, and dream about them on their identical commutes into work.

    The scary part is not that they drink stale, watery coffee, it’s that they probably wouldn’t buy decent coffee unless it was available in Starbucks.

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  6. Interesting blog.
    Yes , it is a sad state of affairs,thatI, who know virtually nothing about espresso, make a noticeably better shot than I can buy in most coffee shops. Even when the shot I pull is a “rough” one.
    Basil Bush

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