How do I get started?
One of the hardest things to do in specialty coffee is just... start! From learning how to just make the coffee go (it's coffee and water... why does everyone make it seem so difficult?!), to starting out as a coffee professional, or to opening a cafe or roasting business. After almost 10 straight years of answering the question, "But how do I....?" This post is dedicated to anyone getting started or trying to learn more. I've got you! These are resources I've come to know and trust after years of reliable success with the product, program, or service. I hope they make getting started and growing easy for you, too.
Please note that this page contains some affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I may receive a commission from the vendor. Basically, a girl doing specialty coffee growth strategy’s gotta eat! If you were thinking about buying a new home brewing equipment or a book on espresso preparation, do it through my links! It helps me out a bunch and gives me more time to answer your other more tantalizing coffee questions. I’ll put a little asterisk by affiliate links, just so you know which ones are “ads” – though if I were made of money, I would buy these things for you!
Some quick links here for you to hop right to it:
How do I brew great coffee at home?
First of all, buy high quality whole-bean coffee and use it within 14 days. Ideally, grind it fresh. If you have to get it ground, have your baristas do it for you. Have your favorite local barista help you, or if you want to explore outside your neighborhood, try ordering coffees recommended by roast ratings.
Ok! Now you've got coffee! It's time to make it. That's the scary part right?
The only grinders I recommend are by Baratza*. Get one, get your dad one, be happy forever. Hopefully my dad will comment that he agrees.
Coffee brewing equipment is a little trickier, since there are about a bazillion different kinds and ways to make coffee. I recommend that anybody who just wants to have a great cup of coffee at home start by getting an SCAA Certified Home Brewer. These puppies have been tested to make sure they make your coffee taste good. My personal favorites are the Bonavita 8-Cup Brewer* and the Technivorm MoccaMaster* (my parents have one of these, and I'm honestly pretty jealous).
Once you've got all that out of the way, you can start to explore different brew methods, recipes, and get brewing on a whole other level of nerdy if you want to. I always recommend brewmethods.com to anyone ready to go explore brewing. As they put it: "Brew Methods is designed with one thing in mind: To provide anyone and everyone with access to the best coffee brewing guides in the entire universe."
How do I become a better barista or make better espresso?
Ok, so now you're captivated by the coffee life. You're geeking out on coffee preparation, and you need to learn more. Or you need a promotion! Or to teach other people about coffee. Here are professional resources I recommend and come back to time and again.
The classic text on american espresso preparation & milk steaming by David Schomer. Espresso science and standards have since surpassed the basics laid out in Schomer's book, but to date no one else writes prettier prose about the art and science of espresso extraction. So read it anyway.
Scott Rao brought updates and step-by-step guides to much of the prose laid out in Schomer's book. At times the book can get pretty unnecessarily technical, but it's really the only true starting place in the book market for professional baristas, especially if you don't have access to classroom education.
In my humble opinion, the only way to really get good at making coffee (especially espresso) is by taking many good classes and getting lots and lots of practice. Fortunately, there are so many classroom resources now it's relatively easy to get started on this path.
The SCAA Pathways Program is now, and likely will be, my favorite platform for coffee knowledge in the U.S for the foreseeable future. Because it was built by hundreds of volunteers over several years, its content provides a platform of general knowledge that applies in most coffee businesses. Full disclosure -- one of those volunteers was, and still is, me! It's also taught by certified instructors who are experienced, vetted, and recieve feedback on their teaching. And full disclosure, I'm one of those too - an SCAA Specialized Instructor.
The SCAA now offers these courses in Certified Labs throughout the U.S. So if you're starting to learn about coffee, I highly recommend checking these event offerings first!
There are other good places to learn about coffee in-person though, and I would encourage any young professional to take whatever classes their budgets allow and they have access to. Here are some other programs I recommend (in alphabetical order):
- American Barista & Coffee School (Portland OR)
- Counter Intelligence by Counter Culture Coffee (Many major U.S. Cities)
- Intelligentsia Public Training (NYC, LA, and Chicago)
- Texas Coffee School (Arlington TX)
One of the classic ways coffee professionals learned in the business was simply by getting together and talking. To this day, we still do this, and it's probably the second most valuable way to learn about coffee after formal classroom training.
I cringe at the word "networking" as much as the next guy, but I can't count the number of times I've learned something invaluable by showing up, and hanging out. From job leads, to mentoring, to connections and inspirations, when I've find my people in coffee I'm blown away by their depths of knowledge and their generosity. This website would not exist if literally thousands of people hadn't sat with me as I peppered them with questions, begged them to give me 1 on 1 latte art training, asked about processing methods, or given me career advice. I am grateful, and hopeful now that I can be generous with you.
The two best way to get started networking are by joining the Barista Guild of American (BGA) and by attending local events in your area. If there aren't events in your area, you can host them yourself - the BGA will be happy to help!
How can I learn the specialty coffee culture?
For some, this question comes after a while of making coffee, either personally or professionally. For others, especially those that change careers into the coffee industry, it can feel like jumping into a waterfall. There are all these terms like "origin" and "third-wave" and "ristretto" that people bandy about... What do they all mean? On top of that, there's a uniquely collaborative and anti-salesy subculture that's really resistant to traditional sales styles and "non-coffee" people. And then we add in a layer of inherent insecurities and strangeness that comes from being society's misfits and nonconformists: voila! You have the American coffee culture.
Ok, are you still confused? I understand. I also recommend the Joe: The Coffee Book*, God in a Cup*, and the Cat and Cloud podcast to get you up to speed on some of the basics of our little coffee world.
How do I start a retail coffee business?
Excellent question! Much tougher answer. First of all, do all of the above. Then, start doing your real homework - building a viable business plan and getting great partners to share in your work. Utilize your local coffee network to find the small business resources, roasting wholesale partner, and all of your other vendors. ABC's Bean Business Basics is a must read, as well as Nick Cho's Tips on Opening a Coffee Shop.
Another important note on starting a cafe business: opening a retail cafe is extremely difficult. If anyone tells you that it is easy, they are lying and probably trying to sell you something. If you are doing math that shows high profitability, run the numbers again. Build a plan that ensures your physical, mental, and financial health will stay in tact as you embark on a tenuous journey.
How do I start roasting coffee?
Ah, the last question on a long list in the pursuit of coffee. While its last in the post, for some, it's where they like to start. My best advice on this topic is that if you are drawn to roasting more than coffee preparation, start there. Don't try to learn how to roast coffee and prepare coffee or open a retail business at the same time. If you want to roast coffee, start by roasting coffee - and building on your success as you go.
Learning about roasting is a little bit more challenging than learning about coffee preparation. The time and resources required make it a bit more of an investment. There are also fewer written resources available with practical and high-quality information.
If you are interested in home roasting, the Sweet Maria's website is the go-to place. Start there.
If you are thinking about professional roasting, I'd again recommend the SCAA Pathways courses, this time for roasting. Some U.S.-Based Labs that offer frequent roasting training are Atlas Coffee in Seattle, Boot Coffee in San Francisco, Probat in Illinois, and the Academy of Coffee Excellence in Williamsburg, VA.
One thing to keep in mind when learning about roasting is that a variety of opinion is really, really helpful. Focus on finding folks who collaborate and build consensus on what creates well-roasted coffee. I'm usually dubious of any proclaimed roasting expert who doesn't have good things to say about other roasting experts. Proceed with caution when you run into those folks. The Roasters Guild & its forum is a great place to start looking for friendly roasters.
We did it! You can get started now!
If you made it all the way to the bottom of this post, I just want to say, congratulations. I hope this was helpful, and please share any questions or feedback in the comments below!