Retail Cuppings and Barista Expectations

I was recently challenged with an opinion that I had to take a step back from. This was from a Seattle cafe that is strictly a retail coffee bar (not roasting in store). The challenge was this: cupping coffees should be for a roasters evaluation for purchasing use only and that often times retail establishments misrepresent cupping, furthermore confusing consumers. If a coffee bar were to choose to cup coffees with it’s customers, it absolutely should be done as flawless as possible with accurate information. But I feel most establishments reaching out to consumers already have that figured out.

I found myself needing to do an experiment the other day that directly correlated with evaluating coffees in a retail environment. So I busted out the cupping glasses, gathered some spoons, and turned on the kettle. Some friends were worried about a defect in a batch of coffee and were interested in what I was tasting. I had 2 roast dates of the coffee and cupped them side-by-side along with some leftover coffee samples from Anaheim. I later found myself at Trabant and decided to use the Clover to provide another brew comparison. I cupped the coffees again and
brewed some of the same on the Clover while we waited to break the crusts, using both roast dates. All of this was done with the help of some other baristas as well. On paper we were all just “retail coffee bar baristas,” but we all knew how to evaluate coffees using a systemic approach which, turns out, is a necessary skill set for a barista and needs constant fine tuning and development. Roasters cup to choose a coffee to purchase, and to evaluate their roast. When a roaster sells that coffee, they have a certain preferred flavor profile that, hopefully, best represents the coffee. If you stop to ask, they will most likely tell you about that coffee and give you some pointers on brewing. I get most of my coffees directly from roasters, but also buy from retail coffee establishments all the time. My first questions to the barista, as it always should be, are, “Do you have any recommendations?” and “Can you tell me a little more about the coffee?” When I get confused looks, I usually just say I’ll come back later. A baristas knowledge, especially of their own coffee selection, is a key part of our job to educate consumers.

Baristas’ expectations are being pushed more and more with every year. Look at the United States Barista Championships; not so many years ago mentioning the varietal and producer was groundbreaking. This year, if not all then most, USBC competitors showcased in-depth coffee knowledge, many having met the producer themselves. I realize that everyone can’t be expected to be on par with USBC competitors, and not everyone has access to seemingly unlimited information about their coffees; but I don’t think it’s too much to expect a barista to tell me what they tasted from a coffee before I buy a cup (or two pounds).


Categories: Barista, Brewing, Coffee, Grind, NEW, Spro'd Out!


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2 Comments on “Retail Cuppings and Barista Expectations”

  1. Brian Clemens
    04/28/2010 at 11:58 pm #

    Great short blog Alex! Love this: “but I don’t think it’s too much to expect a barista to tell me what they tasted from a coffee before I buy a cup or two pounds.” It is not too much to expect. If the barista can’t inform customers as to what they will be tasting, they are failing at their job, plain and simple. I love when a barista can tie it back to the farm, giving me the region/farm/varietal and perhaps even a story. I’m then much more inclined to: a) buy the coffee and b) pay a higher price

  2. 04/29/2010 at 9:11 am #

    Well said. I like the word transparency. Wine makers are fairly open about their ingredients and process. Beer–sort of. In my experience most roasters seem to be struggling to figure out how to talk about this stuff. There has been so much change –think back to 1995–nobody was talking origins, cupping, COE, farm tours etc.
    Best, Darryl

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