Thinking about barista training

March 17th, 2011

Following on the from the discussion with Mike in the podcast, I wanted to write something about barista training and how we (as an industry) approach it.

I want to  briefly look at some established models and see how they could apply to developing skills in a bar environment. There can be doubt that we could do training better. It is such a high priority for the industry, that I am surprised it hasn’t been looked at more. A lot of the time we look to those who can do – those who have achieved some measure of success and have demonstrated skill to do our training. A typical example might be a barista champion. The concern is that just because they can make great coffee doesn’t mean a thing about their ability to teach others to do the same.

Like many other people who train others regularly I’ve mostly learned through trial and error. This involved, unfortunately, me being bad at it quite often. I needed to make mistakes to work out what worked and what didn’t. While I had an incredibly supportive employer I just didn’t know where to look or who to talk to on the subject.

The core ideas of what I teach haven’t really changed a lot, though have obviously become more nuanced. A lot of training I do is wholesale training that is a fairly short, and intense session. How to make these more effective is perhaps out of the scope of this post. Instead I want to look at training programs, perhaps as ones that exist in house for a cafe to get a new hire up to standard.

To start with I want to look at the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. This is based on a paper submitted by brothers Hubert and Stewart Dreyfus in 1980 (and it available as a pdf here.). It documents the five stages of learning a particular skill. By looking at these, and how they might apply to coffee, we may be able to make our training more effective.

I’m going to look at the stages and briefly discuss them in relevance to coffee. I’ve used Michael Eraut’s summary for each level:

Beginner

- rigid adherence to taught rules or plans
- no exercise of “discretionary judgment”

I don’t think it is fair to think of rules and plans as brewing recipes, but more of the actions involved to prepare coffee in a basic way. This is where most baristas (globally) are – they can grind coffee, put some in a portafilter, put in it a machine and brew. This is repeated regardless of how the coffee brews. The result is, as we all know, consistently awful coffee.

Advanced Beginner

- limited “situational perception”
- all aspects of work treated separately with equal importance

This would probably apply to baristas who have been making terrible coffee for a while, but still lack training and development. Diagnosis of bad shots often flawed due to a lack of understanding of the process. (Example would be someone presuming a shot ran too slow because they tamped too hard) This could also be a barista who has been well trained, but has yet to get to grips with exactly how each of the brew parameters influence a shot.

Competent

- “coping with crowdedness” (multiple activities, accumulation of information)
- some perception of actions in relation to goals
- deliberate planning
- formulates routines

This reads very much like the description of a solid, well-trained barista. Good work flow, ability to deal with lots going on and working in a deliberate manner. This is the level I would want someone to achieve before they start working bar full-time. The challenge here is that learning to “cope with crowdedness” is difficult to do without being on a busy bar. Something to reflect on further down.

Proficient

- holistic view of situation
- prioritizes importance of aspects
- perceives deviations from the normal pattern
- employs maxims for guidance, with meanings that adapt to the situation at hand

At this point we have an effective barista, looking for deviations with brewing and understanding the necessary steps to correct issues (reducing dose when everything tasting sour/underextracted) – though not necessarily understanding why this works. Drinks produced would be consistently very good.

Expert

- transcends reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims
- “intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding”
- has “vision of what is possible”
- uses “analytical approaches” in new situations or in case of problems

I don’t think this takes a great deal of explaining. Here we have someone who understands both coffee brewing, creating a menu of drinks and the ideas behind the recipes, and can build on their understanding to create new things and move us forward.

The uses for these kinds of models are varied. As a shop owner you could use it to assess your current staff against a fixed list of skills, to understand both their progress and your own success as a trainer. Knowing how far along someone is in their skill development means that you can train them to move to the next stage more effectively.

We tend to assess people based on their results rather than their methods. In situations where technology has moved on to help reduce inconsistency it may be possible for someone to serve good drinks without really understanding how they are doing it. The time we find out that their knowledge or understanding is limited is when the system breaks down – not an ideal way for a retail operation to discover this.

I’m not saying that I think this is the one way that we should assess baristas and their skill development. However, looking into the theory of learning was my introduction to the idea of tacit knowledge. The idea of tacit knowledge is, ironically, quite hard to explain. This is knowledge that is difficult to communicate by writing it down or verbalising. How to taste coffee is an obvious, and relevant, example of tacit knowledge. (Whereas knowing that Antigua is a growing region in Guatemala is knowledge that is easy to communicate).

I very rarely see much discussion about how we can train better. How do we take a barista to the point where they are capable and effective on a busy bar without going the sink or swim route of putting them there til they learn (or get fired, or quit)? How do we effectively communicate the necessary tacit knowledge in coffee – like effective tasting of espresso as a diagnostic skill?

By looking at education in a more structured way we can better share our own experiences and collectively get better at it.

Wikipedia is a pretty interesting place to get lost in all of this. The four stages of competence, or the Dunning-Kruger effect or many other topics within learning all feel compelling and important. (Read the Dunning-Kruger link, seriously…)

I often feel like I write these sorts of posts that ask lots of questions but don’t really suggest any sort of answer (all the while berating the industry for not offering answers or solutions).  Beyond looking outside our industry for help, I thought about a few suggestions that are quick and easy to implement:

- Get as much basic training as you can

I will never tire of seeing new people teaching familiar material. I’d happily go and watch many basic sessions because I’d be looking at what worked well, rather than to relearn the material. I’m constantly looking for better, more elegant and effective examples and explanations of coffee brewing. I’ll happily admit to stealing the best ones I use.

- Cross polinate your ideas

Talk to other barista trainers. Once the frustrations and moanings are out-of-the-way, talk about how you approach teaching. Obviously, much as different people learn in different ways, different people teach in different ways. However, there might be a structure in place or a narrative that you can refine. Chatting with Mike Phillips of the phone (though some of it didn’t make the final cut) was informative and useful for me.

I’d be interested if people have any recommended reading material on training – on skill development, learning process etc.  Link us up!

I’m interested to hear more about other people’s ideas on this one. Leave a comment, write a blog post and post a link, anything! I’d love to hear from you.

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