Think about your favorite drink—be it tea, wine, beer, hot chocolate, or coffee. What was it about that first sip (or third or seventh) that made you love it, that changed the way you thought about that drink from then on?
Taste is preference, and every preference is extremely personal. Hard as you may try, coaxing certain flavor notes out of someone isn’t gonna happen. If they don’t like drinking it, they aren’t going to, and no amount of discussing or educating is going to help.
For a personal example, my favorite beer is Bear Republic’s Racer 5. Well balanced and hoppy, it’s not too hard to get into—it’s just solid beer. However, before I had a Racer 5, my favorite beer was good ol’ P.B.R. Imagine what that first sip did to me, moving from such a light and sugary beer to hop heaven! I hated it! Until sip four or five. I got so into it that I thought, “I’ll never drink anything else!” But, one does need water, so I did have to stop, eventually. I thought about it constantly, though. All the time. Because it changed the way I thought about and drank beer! Thinking about that moment, I get so excited for me! I want to watch that happen to people all over the world. I want to push this beer on everyone and everything, and it could work. It also probably won’t work about 80% of the time, though, because everyone likes different things and different beers, coffee, clothes, music, etc. Everyone tastes differently and has different tastes.
But this excitement, this always gets the best of you, whoever you are and whatever you love, and that’s a super-great thing. What’s life without these preferences? Miller High Life and oatmeal? Blah! (Sidebar: I love oatmeal, I find High Life disgusting, and I love cheap beer, so you know I find this hard to admit.) However, as a barista or a purveyor of any specialty drinks, this is where we run into some trouble with customer service.
Let’s say you have a man. This man, we’ll call him Terrance. Terrance orders an espresso. You, a barista, expected to be as familiar with your coffee as you are with your left hand, carefully pull Terrance a shot. He picks it up, shoots it back, and runs away with a happy and cheerful, newly caffeinated, “Thanks, kid!” (Terrance is 80). You’re left without a hint of how Terrance felt about your espresso except for that he’s a polite man who has some more energy—thanks to you! I say, be happy; you did your job to its acceptable minimum.
Take two: let’s take this idea of baristas being educators and get Terrance back in here for that shot. You’re the host, the waiter, and you have all the answers to the questions he may have. So, you’ve got his ear and he’s the only one at the bar—how to broach it?
First, I’d start with,
Hi, how are you today?! Is this your espresso?
To which he will reply yes. Then you might say,
Awesome to hear! I’m really excited about the espresso today. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how it tastes! Will ya taste with me, T?
Yadda, yadda. Then you ask Terrance about that special tomato taste goin’ on at the finish. T says,
Why, no! I taste savory beets/plums/corn!
No matter what T says, that’s what his palette has picked up on, and that’s so beautiful! You’ll probably say,
Oh f&*$, T! I totally got that corn flavor too! Ya blowin’ my mind!
Both perceptions of these shots have changed. The education happens on both sides of the counter, and something even greater occurs: communication without pretense!
You and T have created a beautiful array of tasting notes, and T has done something different—he talked about his preferences. This is T’s one great cup. This is his first Racer 5 or Baroida or Gen Mai Cha or Caramel Macchiato (whatever, T likes it—so, it’s great!). From now on, when he tastes espresso, he won’t just taste the bitterness of the crema or the acidity—he’ll compare it to that corn flavor and remember why he liked that one (or didn’t; that’s good too!) and be able to distinguish the reasons why. And the only real reason why Terrance does or doesn’t like something is because he just either does or doesn’t—that’s the amazing thing about taste.
Approachability is an issue that comes up a lot in specialty industries, especially coffee. Speciality coffee shops are popping up all over the place, and more and more people are turning to these shops more than chains! So cool, right?! But, your ideal interaction with Terrance doesn’t always happen in high-volume shops; there just isn’t enough time. When these do happen, though—that’s when both the barista and the customer learn.
As baristas, we all have opportunities to impact someone’s day—or give them that one great cup they need to get started on the flavor ride of a lifetime! Now, they don’t even need you for this—they can do it all on their own—but it’s always great to watch people enjoy something. Why else do people procreate but to watch children laugh? (Or, whatever.) The most important parts, though, are that we never stop communicating with each other about our preferences in drinks and that we never stop getting excited about what we serve. If we do, we may miss that chance to change Terrance’s life with that one great cup.