Self-proclaimed coffee geek Paul Asquith is a barista trainer with a colorful coffee history. He started his career as a barista and manager at the well-known Australian chain Gloria Jean’s, where he worked his way up to become the brand’s national trainer.
From there on, Paul held trainer as well as barista positions at big and small coffee places (including at ONA Coffee, owned by World Barista Champion and Typsy course instructor Sasa Sestic). He also entered competitions, and claimed a win at the Danes Grand Barista Championships in 2012.
We caught up with Paul Asquith to get some barista training tips, and he shared his wisdom about using the right tools and knowledge to take your coffee to the next level.
Hey Paul! Let’s start with some barista basics. What is something you think an early stage barista should focus on?
The biggest thing is to try and get information from as many different places as you can, and to compare each piece of information with all the other information you get. Because if you’re just listening to one person, you could be steering down the wrong path sometimes. If you’re able to get information from a whole bunch of coffee professionals and trainers, you’ll be able to decipher what’s important and what’s not important in making coffee.
The other big thing is probably experience. Just going to a course is not going to allow you to learn coffee until you actually get solid time behind the coffee machine. Being able to make your own mistakes is vitally important to learning what coffee’s all about.
Speaking of mistakes, what would you say is the most common mistake you see beginning baristas make?
Consistency is the biggest thing. The industry and training has really come a long way in the last couple of years, particularly with the introduction of scales. I often say if I had scales back when I was learning fifteen years ago, it would have made my job and journey a lot easier.
Scales have given me the ability to be consistent. If you consistently dose and extract the right amount of coffee, those two bits of data will set you in the right direction from day one. Being able to be consistent is the hugest gift a barista can have when they’re starting out.
Yeah, it’s a completely different ballgame without scales, eh?
Absolutely. Scales have given baristas the ability to look at data and even record it and see where changes in everything that they do throughout the day will have positive or negative effects on the coffee and the flavor. And they've given baristas the ability to track that a lot easier, rather than just looking at the extraction and hoping you’re extracting good flavor.
You’re then dealing with your palate fatigue throughout the day as you’re tasting too many espressos. You can get to a point where you can’t taste anymore and you’re not being objective anymore. It can become a huge problem, so having scales and targets to work towards makes a huge difference.
One of the unique things about you is that you’ve worked for both big chains and smaller independent shops. When it comes to training, what would you say smaller cafes could learn from larger chains?
Having a clear idea of what your systems are. The biggest mistake I see in small cafes and companies is that they haven’t defined what their system is, and how to best work with coffee behind the machine.
At Gloria Jean's, things are kind of like a production line. You take the order, you pull the shot, you steam the milk, you pour the milk and you give it to the customer. Having a steady line gives the baristas the ability to be fast, accurate and consistent.
"Being able to make your own mistakes is vitally important to learning what coffee’s all about."
Having clearly defined systems really works, and the same goes with training. Understanding what you’re training and training the same thing every time, and having clear outcomes for what you’re trying to get out of your baristas, is another thing that’s really important.
Try to work with people through the course of their career whenever you can. Eventually after a good long amount of training, you can see them grow and make changes and eventually get that thirst for knowledge, the same that I had when I was young. And that sets them on the right course to hopefully learn more and become a better barista down the track.
And what are some fundamentals that help a barista take a good tasting coffee to an exceptional cup of coffee?
Having the right place to do so. One of the biggest mistakes coffee places make is not having the right tools in place. And by right tools, I mean any tool you can use to be more consistent and to help you make better coffee. Things like scales, the right grinders, the right cleaning tools even.
That’s the biggest mistake I see behind every bar – they’re just not set up right. Whether it’s the unwillingness of the owner to pay money for those tools, or maybe it’s a lack of knowledge, the biggest mistake is that overall set-up. If you’ve got the right tools in place, then with a little bit of education you can do coffee a lot better.