Maize and brew: Student baristas take coffee seriously

December 7, 2010

Originally published in The Michigan Daily

In this December exam season, students inevitably make a habit of bundling up and studying late into the night. And as a comprehensive solution to the stress of the month, there’s nothing better than coffee.

Ann Arbor and the University campus area offer a variety of options for coffee lovers looking for a fix or students looking for a study pick-me-up. There are the chains — Starbucks, Biggby, Espresso Royale. And then there are the locally owned Ann Arbor coffee shops that students, professors and city natives frequent.

The baristas in each shop are vital in creating shop loyalty and establishing a warm environment. They stand between customers and their coffee and represent, for many, a valuable part of any coffee shop experience.

“Barista” is Italian for bartender, and in a similar vein to their pub counterparts, baristas often invest significant energy in perfecting their skills to be ready for whatever the customer may order. While the idea of the barista may conjure images of a blank-faced, rote assembly-line job, a look around Ann Arbor coffee shops — where students are often the faces behind the counter — reveals a different picture.

“Being a barista definitely has a lot of personality, because there’s such an interaction with the customer,” said LSA junior and Espresso Royale barista Kristopher Gutowski. “It’s a very high-energy job.”

Gutowski used to work in The Coffee House, a small shop in his hometown of Muskegon, Mich. While the job proper remains the same, Gutowski said the extraneous elements of working in each shop are very different.

“(The Coffee House) was a lot less busy, because it wasn’t right on the corner of a college campus,” he said. “But there are also a lot of different business practices. At home … I worked directly with the owner, I talked to him, I knew him really well. Now, there’s sort of a distance.”

Baristas at smaller coffee shops here on campus echo Gutowski’s feelings concerning the difference between working with the owner of a local shop or as part of a chain.

“I haven’t worked in any shops that weren’t specialty shops,” said Ben Saginaw, a barista at Comet Coffee in Nickels Arcade. “This is by far my favorite, because … the owner of this shop has a set of values I can stand behind, and that’s a rarity in business. It is a requirement for (the employees) to appreciate everything that goes from the farm to the grocer to the cup, which I don’t think is apparent in all coffee shops.”

A concern for many baristas as they look to advance their skills is the opportunity to be creative in their jobs and infuse their own styles into the different drinks they make. While in larger coffee shop chains, consistency is paramount, baristas in smaller shops try to do things their way.

“Starbucks is all about making everything the same,” said Jason Bies, an LSA senior and barista at Café Ambrosia on Maynard Street. “If you get a French Vanilla cappuccino at that Starbucks and you go get a French Vanilla cappuccino at another Starbucks, they’re all supposed to be the same, and that’s just not what (coffee is) about. It’s about going places and having your own individual thing.”

Matt Roney, a 2009 graduate and former Michigan Daily staffer, is a barista at Lab Café on East Liberty Street and was the lead barista upon the shop’s opening in January. Having worked in coffee shops since he was 17, Roney had the basic barista skills. But in order to gain experience with the advanced equipment he was going to employ at Lab, he traveled to Chicago to train for the job.

Roney highlighted the specific technology as a unique characteristic of smaller, more personally involved coffee shops. While using Lab’s espresso machine, he talked about the “superautomatic” machinery that a shop like Starbucks uses.

“I’m not deriding them,” he said, “but they can push a button and out comes the espresso shot. There are a lot more steps that go on with a semi-automatic or a manual espresso machine.”

The more complicated techniques associated with coffee-making in those smaller shops, as Roney explained, allow for more personal creativity in the final product.

“We get to experiment a little bit with the methods that we use, because the owners are entrepreneurs and not baristas,” he said. “Those of us who have a lot of experience and a lot of training and have been doing this for a long time, we’re allowed to try things and work on keeping our coffee as high quality as we can.”

But even in a shop as large as Espresso Royale, Gutowski finds the opportunity to express himself through his work.

“It can be a creative job,” he said. “There are definitely instances where, when it’s really busy, it just seems like the rough-and-tumble of getting customers their drink as quickly as possible. But when there’s room for creativity, you can get creative.”

One way baristas choose to be original is through latte art, which allows the coffee-maker to “draw” a pattern into the layer of foam atop a shot of espresso by pouring in steamed milk. One of these shapes is a heart, which many baristas strive to perfect.

At Café Ambrosia, Bies and other baristas often experiment with new ingredients and drinks, even beyond coffee. Among these is “Purple Drink” — what Bies described as a blueberry, raspberry and white chocolate steamer. Another is “Quicksand,” which involves putting cherry flavor in a bottle of Coca-Cola and then adding cinnamon on top.

“When you’re in a place like (Ambrosia), it’s not like, ‘You have to make it this way,’ ” Bies said. “I know what a bad cappuccino is, and I know what a really good cappuccino is, and I’m always trying to strive to make my cappuccino really good.”

No matter which shop they work in, each barista values the same parts of his or her job. Each shop appears to have its own community, but every barista also has the opportunity to connect with his or her customers.

“The best part of my job is all the people I get to meet and talk to, straight up,” Roney said. “Coffee’s very interesting. I’ve been very interested in it for a long time. But I think what makes me like it more than other jobs I’ve had is that face-to-face interaction with hundreds of people every day. It’s an extrovert’s job.”

In a place as unique as Café Ambrosia, Bies enjoys the diversity of people that come through the shop.

“You start learning a lot about people who are really interesting,” Bies said. “It kind of gives you a microcosm of a community.”

For Bies, that community represents a reprieve from his academic life. Gutowski also finds his job to be a healthy relief from school, especially during the stressful time of exams.

“It’s not school, so it’s also a distraction,” Gutowski said. “Even when it becomes time-consuming … I would say it’s a fun job.”

Bies, who once worked at Beanster’s in Pierpont Commons on North Campus, finds Ambrosia to be a relaxing place to work, with its own customer community.

“It’s totally an escape,” he said. “Professors come here, and GSIs hold office hours here all the time. It’s also where people come to break up — two people come in together, have a serious conversation and then leave separately. It’s like, ‘I’m really glad we can facilitate your breakup.’ ”

The ubiquity of coffee is so embodied in campus culture that it even becomes a part of the rise and fall of relationships. Coffee is an integral part of many students’ daily lives, and in appreciating the drink that runs our late-night study sessions, it’s best to not overlook the baristas who form the lifeblood of the coffee exchange.

 

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