Review: ABC Barista Training

To tell this right requires backstory.

Late September, early November, Jeff Hoffman, and myself began a journey to something we could love. A coffee shop. We had no industry experience, just a passion for good brew. What we did understand was to succeed required a team of advisors who knew their respected perspectives. A trusted advisor circle takes networking, review, and an understanding of what can and cannot be delegated. We did our homework purchasing many consultants/industry books, and reviewing the few consultants we could find out about. Out of this search came [Bellissimo]( “Bellissimo Coffee Infogroup”). Where as others might have a book that is 15-100 pages, Bellissimo’s [book]( “Bean Business Basics”) on specialty coffee is over 600 pages long and actually contains enough data to open a store without ever calling them. However we did call them. We wanted to know more. If they could handle the distilling of information on that level, what could they do if we talked with them. We spoke with Matt early on in the relationship and he was a wealth of good knowledge without any strings attached. We asked for their references and we called a good many of them and recieved glowing reports across the board. Since then we have hired them onboard to handle our first round of services including the business plan, property reviews, financials, lease negotiations, and have had access to a great deal of knowledge just talking with their staff. This isn’t a review on their consulting services since we are not done. That is for another day. The purpose behind this is that we did a lot of work to make sure we were going to build a relationship with someone lasting in the industry and we found it. Thus far we have had a wonderful experience with them and when we found out they also had a [school]( “ABC Coffee School”), I wanted to go.

I’ve wanted to attend the [school]( “ABC Coffee School”) for months but kept putting it off. Then I was faced with a few months of mistiming the flights and losing out on deals out to Portland. Finally I centered what I was trying to do and got the flights, lodging, everything I wanted for a good price, done. I attended February 16th – 18th. I did not choose to take the business portion of the class since we had them contracted for that part. I did get to hear a good amount of what Ed talked about in class but since it was not first hand I’ll just say that everyone enjoyed the first few days as much as the last. I tried to distill bits and pieces of our day through blogging and can be read: [Day 1]( “Day 1”), [Day 2]( “Day 2”),[Day 3]( “Day 3”). Pictures can also be seen in my ( “Pictures from Portland/ABC”).

We had a very varied class. A woman opening a shop in Spain, a father and son from Vancouver, a kiosk in Texas, small inlines in New York & New Jersey, and myself in North Carolina. We also had a representative from [Caffe’ D’arte]( who was a gem of a man. Everyone synchronized very well even with the amount of land and beliefs under each others belts. That made this class a blast. If I didn’t think of the question, sure as anything someone else would find one. I learned so much by just listening.

I entered this class with five months of self taught skills being developed at home by methodologies I gleaned from the net. This included places like [Coffee Geek]( “Coffee Geek Forums”), [SCAA]( “SCAA Forums”), and many sites that were extensions of coffee shops. I took on eyes of a beginner laying any hubris at the door. Which was a very good thing since the methods they are espousing are a little different than what the [current standards]( “US vs Italian”) are. Could we have translated the original Italian methods wrong? The two trainers, Matt and Austin, believe we should re-examine what Italy is doing and try and find the reasoning on how we have grown so far apart. Through the days of trials the Italian methods work equally well if not better than their US counterpart. Being that, following the Italian standards shaves time off the clock of preparation by cutting out extraneous movements. This also means that your employees will have less repetative taskings meaning less stress related injuries.

If you have prior knowledge the idea of grind being king, not tamp, would be the only thing I can see that might be a hangup and take a while to digest. Otherwise the class is trying to develop the landscape of basic proficiencies for what is going on in your shop. This is not an advanced barista training class. This is for those starting out and can nearly guarentee that you will be pulling a correct shot with correct milk frothing by the end of class. On top of that you will have a slew of ideas on what is possible for you to do and keep under control in your cafe. Since most of the items that you could have in your cafe are in the training lab for you to experiment with. I feel if I had taken this class on month one of my aquisition of a machine it would have saved me at least four months of trial and errors at home. For every question I had, Austin or Matt would step in and give a diagnosis of what is going on and where I should have been in process. That is an excellent ability to be able to have such an open line of dialog with your trainers. What you saw was this cycling of individuals trying out techniques, learning the whys, and then going back for refinement and coming back with a better product, cyclically improving iteself. I watched a lot of people who had never touched an espresso machine in their life walk away with skills enough to beat any shop in Portland that we visited.

From the outside some might think you’ll get a Bellissimo sales pitch being in class and I don’t think I heard one once. They have all their products and videos on a shelf. Not once did I witness them pawning off their gear. I had a few people ask me what I owned and I gave my opinions, but that was me. At the end of the class they mentioned that they give discounts on their line to students. This clean seperation went to their distributors/sponsors of class equipment as well. While they supported product literature and the showcasing of many vendors they never pushed one. When people asked, “What’s the best”, there was no real answer. The response might run, “It’s really what support network is the best in your area. All machines will break down, you want to run with the service plan more than the name brand.” Again, no conditioning. If however, like we had in the class one gentleman who wanted to purchase a Nuova Simonella machine they put him in touch with Roberto, but again, no strings just connecting people. I really liked this after taking some classes that do nothing but cram their literature and their (paid) opinions down your throat. I didn’t feel like I was at a dealership and thats important to me.

Those who know me are probably about to gag on how positive I am. Where’s the devils advocate Andy! Ok ok, you can’t smell like roses all day. The devil is in the details. Our class was 10 and it can grow to 15. The school will need to hire more staff and possibly more lab space as time goes on. The student to teacher ratio needs to be maintained to keep the level of service I got to enjoy. The lab could eject the super automatic (which broke down the first day for those who want to consider one) and install a fourth multi-headed machine. Once a line starts stacking for machines it gets kind of chaotic as people get involved. On top of this the rooms ventilation could use some work since the temperature from all this gear made it quite toasty to work in. From what I understand from Matt, Bellissimo will probably be moving its headquarters to Portland and moving everything to a larger space. They have proved their case that they can train, and train well, now they need to iterate on the idea so that it can continue to work and grow as the industries needs do. Plus I would love to see some All-Star training where you might bring in some ex-barista champs and do “Training the Trainer” like classes. Lastly on the gripes it might have been nice to see everyone go through a test cycle. While I think everyone got a good level of training I think at the end a proficiency test would have helped people know their final stand. I’m not talking anything crazy like I’ve seen in some stores (heheh like ours will have), but stacking against a measure would let the students know where they need improvement and it allows the trainers to find weak spots in their teachings. In the end, growth, improvement through iterative design, more trainers, more space, more machines and final proficiency testing are things I would keep my eyes on.

All in all it is a great class. I’ve expanded my network of people I know who are in the business. I believe more than ever that I have what it takes to operate a shop and know the indicators of quality that are necessary to stand out. I feel I can ally myself with Bellissimo since I got to work elbow to elbow with the consultants I work with over the phone by building an even stronger rapport. The only thing I would stress to those seeking out this school is to try and take the class for the class. I saw one person getting caught up in designing their business from top to bottom, layout, testing their roaster, etc, all in the class, and the class wasn’t designed for that. When you are concentrating so hard on your own model you will inevitably miss out on important pieces of the class. Listen first. If something pertaining to your future business is on your mind, document it and get it answered in the spaces between lecture and training. Our trainers were so friendly they offered us their numbers and email for futher Q & A as it occurs post class.

Two thumbs up for [ABC Barista Training]( “ABC Coffee School”),