Thinking about barista training

Following on the from the discussion with Mike in the podcast, I wanted to write something about barista training and how we (as an industry) approach it.

I want to  briefly look at some established models and see how they could apply to developing skills in a bar environment. There can be doubt that we could do training better. It is such a high priority for the industry, that I am surprised it hasn’t been looked at more. A lot of the time we look to those who can do – those who have achieved some measure of success and have demonstrated skill to do our training. A typical example might be a barista champion. The concern is that just because they can make great coffee doesn’t mean a thing about their ability to teach others to do the same.

Like many other people who train others regularly I’ve mostly learned through trial and error. This involved, unfortunately, me being bad at it quite often. I needed to make mistakes to work out what worked and what didn’t. While I had an incredibly supportive employer I just didn’t know where to look or who to talk to on the subject.

The core ideas of what I teach haven’t really changed a lot, though have obviously become more nuanced. A lot of training I do is wholesale training that is a fairly short, and intense session. How to make these more effective is perhaps out of the scope of this post. Instead I want to look at training programs, perhaps as ones that exist in house for a cafe to get a new hire up to standard.

To start with I want to look at the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. This is based on a paper submitted by brothers Hubert and Stewart Dreyfus in 1980 (and it available as a pdf here.). It documents the five stages of learning a particular skill. By looking at these, and how they might apply to coffee, we may be able to make our training more effective.

I’m going to look at the stages and briefly discuss them in relevance to coffee. I’ve used Michael Eraut’s summary for each level:


– rigid adherence to taught rules or plans
– no exercise of “discretionary judgment”

I don’t think it is fair to think of rules and plans as brewing recipes, but more of the actions involved to prepare coffee in a basic way. This is where most baristas (globally) are – they can grind coffee, put some in a portafilter, put in it a machine and brew. This is repeated regardless of how the coffee brews. The result is, as we all know, consistently awful coffee.

Advanced Beginner

– limited “situational perception”
– all aspects of work treated separately with equal importance

This would probably apply to baristas who have been making terrible coffee for a while, but still lack training and development. Diagnosis of bad shots often flawed due to a lack of understanding of the process. (Example would be someone presuming a shot ran too slow because they tamped too hard) This could also be a barista who has been well trained, but has yet to get to grips with exactly how each of the brew parameters influence a shot.


– “coping with crowdedness” (multiple activities, accumulation of information)
– some perception of actions in relation to goals
– deliberate planning
– formulates routines

This reads very much like the description of a solid, well-trained barista. Good work flow, ability to deal with lots going on and working in a deliberate manner. This is the level I would want someone to achieve before they start working bar full-time. The challenge here is that learning to “cope with crowdedness” is difficult to do without being on a busy bar. Something to reflect on further down.


– holistic view of situation
– prioritizes importance of aspects
– perceives deviations from the normal pattern
– employs maxims for guidance, with meanings that adapt to the situation at hand

At this point we have an effective barista, looking for deviations with brewing and understanding the necessary steps to correct issues (reducing dose when everything tasting sour/underextracted) – though not necessarily understanding why this works. Drinks produced would be consistently very good.


– transcends reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims
– “intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding”
– has “vision of what is possible”
– uses “analytical approaches” in new situations or in case of problems

I don’t think this takes a great deal of explaining. Here we have someone who understands both coffee brewing, creating a menu of drinks and the ideas behind the recipes, and can build on their understanding to create new things and move us forward.

The uses for these kinds of models are varied. As a shop owner you could use it to assess your current staff against a fixed list of skills, to understand both their progress and your own success as a trainer. Knowing how far along someone is in their skill development means that you can train them to move to the next stage more effectively.

We tend to assess people based on their results rather than their methods. In situations where technology has moved on to help reduce inconsistency it may be possible for someone to serve good drinks without really understanding how they are doing it. The time we find out that their knowledge or understanding is limited is when the system breaks down – not an ideal way for a retail operation to discover this.

I’m not saying that I think this is the one way that we should assess baristas and their skill development. However, looking into the theory of learning was my introduction to the idea of tacit knowledge. The idea of tacit knowledge is, ironically, quite hard to explain. This is knowledge that is difficult to communicate by writing it down or verbalising. How to taste coffee is an obvious, and relevant, example of tacit knowledge. (Whereas knowing that Antigua is a growing region in Guatemala is knowledge that is easy to communicate).

I very rarely see much discussion about how we can train better. How do we take a barista to the point where they are capable and effective on a busy bar without going the sink or swim route of putting them there til they learn (or get fired, or quit)? How do we effectively communicate the necessary tacit knowledge in coffee – like effective tasting of espresso as a diagnostic skill?

By looking at education in a more structured way we can better share our own experiences and collectively get better at it.

Wikipedia is a pretty interesting place to get lost in all of this. The four stages of competence, or the Dunning-Kruger effect or many other topics within learning all feel compelling and important. (Read the Dunning-Kruger link, seriously…)

I often feel like I write these sorts of posts that ask lots of questions but don’t really suggest any sort of answer (all the while berating the industry for not offering answers or solutions).  Beyond looking outside our industry for help, I thought about a few suggestions that are quick and easy to implement:

– Get as much basic training as you can

I will never tire of seeing new people teaching familiar material. I’d happily go and watch many basic sessions because I’d be looking at what worked well, rather than to relearn the material. I’m constantly looking for better, more elegant and effective examples and explanations of coffee brewing. I’ll happily admit to stealing the best ones I use.

– Cross polinate your ideas

Talk to other barista trainers. Once the frustrations and moanings are out-of-the-way, talk about how you approach teaching. Obviously, much as different people learn in different ways, different people teach in different ways. However, there might be a structure in place or a narrative that you can refine. Chatting with Mike Phillips of the phone (though some of it didn’t make the final cut) was informative and useful for me.

I’d be interested if people have any recommended reading material on training – on skill development, learning process etc.  Link us up!

I’m interested to hear more about other people’s ideas on this one. Leave a comment, write a blog post and post a link, anything! I’d love to hear from you.

21 Comments Thinking about barista training

  1. Chris Tellez

    As the trainer for our shop, I both lament and welcome the fact that I will never be able to feel as though I’ve done a good enough job. Though I am proud of the baristas we have, I have come to accept that I will always want people to get to that next step, always pushing them higher and higher. Much the same way I push myself to get better as a barista.

    With this aside, I look at training like this: Training is about relating to the trainee. Taking the technical aspects and knowledge necessary for someone to be proficient on bar, laying it in front of them and allowing them to pick it up. Though our program may have specific sessions, these are guidelines which are completely dependant on the person being trained. I think a good trainer should be able to take the given material, break it down and explain it in ten different ways. One of these ways is bound to speak to the trainee, and allow for everything to click. It can be monotonous at times to watch someone dose, distribute and tamp a thousand times, but when you make it more interactive, and have them telling you what is happening, it becomes more interesting and ultimately more useful for everyone involved.

    So how can we improve?

    Allow for trainee’s to answer their own questions. Too often we simply give the answers to them, without letting them come to their own conclusions. Once armed with the basic knowledge of extraction understanding, let them run with it. There is no doubt it will allow them to grow as a barista much more quickly then having all the answers given to them

    Ask trainee’s for feedback. Even someone who is new to coffee will be able to tell you what is working and what isn’t, what is helping them understand more, and what is getting in the way. As a trainer, it’s important to put ego aside and recognize that despite the fact a trainee may have less knowledge when it comes to coffee, they still have a lot to offer when it comes to helping you grow as an educator.

    Ask other employees for help. The most useful thing I have on my side as a trainer is having people on staff who I can trust to reinforce my teachings. We recently calibrated all our senior baristas to how I’ve been training, and cleared up any confusions, meaning that they can now diagnose problems they are seeing in new barista’s with the authority, knowing that we are all on the same page. Since I rarely work bar with new barista’s beyond training sessions, these senior baristas are invaluable.

    There are many more ways we could improve how we train others. But that’s all I’ll say for now. I’m excited to hear everyone else’s thoughts on this.

  2. Nathanael May

    My birthday post! I was hoping I’d get one of these. And about the thing I do for a living, to boot. James Hoffmann, you’ve made my day. Great words.

  3. Paul Yates

    I’m not a trainer, I’m the guy who needs training. Recognizing my limitations, I seek to deepen my knowledge of coffee and its variables, thus my reading your blog. So, I end up with my head stuffed full of lots of knowledge, details, etc. This conflict of ready access to information, with little access to practical hands-on application of that knowledge, i.e. a shop in which to work, makes me a dangerous person. A coffee enthusiast with little real-world knowledge.

    So I look for ways to make practical what is at this point theoretical. It’s one of the reasons I got excited about the US Brewers Cup. Finally, a competition utilizing what is currently sitting on my kitchen counter, rather than a $20k espresso machine. I didn’t compete, however, choosing instead to be certified as a regional sensory judge for the SERBC. It was the right choice, though. That training gave me a great insight into what I should be looking for. Now I just need to know how to make it.

    And it has become painfully apparent to me that for me to do this, to cross from the theoretical to the practical, I’m going to have to pony up the cheddar to pay for this training from someone who knows it. Find a consultant, and spend some time in a coffee lab, doing what I love, but can’t seem to find a job doing.

    Unrequited passion’s a pain in the rear, sometimes, you know?

  4. Nathanael May

    I read any other Barista Trainer’s materials that I can – for example, I was on Barista Exchange the other day, and Brady was asking for feedback on his new Espresso Fundamentals material – I grabbed it and read it…

    …and had moment after moment of, “Oh wow! Yeah – that’s a much better way of saying that than I have been.”

    Now, I think I’ve been doing fairly well in my training over the last several years, but there has not been a single time that I’ve listened to another trainer train, or read another trainer’s stuff, that I didn’t change something about training that I do – either what I say, or how I present a concept. It’s awesome.

  5. Bludviksen

    I think a vital step in learning is humility. Too often, I encounter “over-empowered ” baristas that let their egos get in the way of both their coffee skill set and their customer service. The only time this type of barista seems to have a shred of humility is when they’re in the presence of notable peers or industry mavens, while actual customers and patrons tend to fall second tier.

    I quote Third Bass: “He’s stupid but he knows he’s stupid, and that almost makes him smart.”

  6. Scottlucey

    Well said Chris,

    Things I’d add that help improve training are just a few,

    1) start w/ the harder things first. for example – over the 9 year’s worked at alterra, i’ve seen the phasing in of 20 oz pitchers be a difficult thing, as well as the 12 oz pitcher. you could divide the group old school versus new school, who had problems using smaller pitchers and who didn’t. i think easing people into more difficult things sometime just takes too long. start with bigger challenges and you’ll have an easier time finding those with a faster uptake for learning. zero waste is another example… getting more senior baristas to waste less is harder than training a new barista not to waste at all

    2) be capable of clearly showing what the expectations are. example: showing a trainee what zero waste looks like, what a great looking drink looks like, and associating them to great taste… then they know what to shoot for.
    another part of this is clearly written material and reports – for example, when we test people on their skill the score sheet is very basic, every step is written as a checklist, points are merely yes or no, one point or zero… our better baristas have to pass this w/ a 100% score, baristas in training 90% (after scoring 90 they move into “apprentice” mode)…. depending on where points might be missed there could be more crucial feedback.

    3) test the trainee. after two sessions we readily test baristas so they know and can prioritize what they need to improve on. i think it’s all to common for a barista to assume they’re further along than they are. making them step up to the bar, dial in a maladjusted grinder, target a profile, and make a set of multiple drinks in a given amount of time is certain to make it clear what they are or aren’t doing. the test is great also to serve as a check point – not allowing people to move forward until they’ve conquered a given level has been really helpful.

    Chris made some great points, using senior baristas to uphold standards, feeling out the trainee… all of those things I agree w/ .
    The SCAA’s Instructor Development Program was something I enjoyed. It really focuses on these sociological points of being a trainer. Getting to the expert level really demands thinking of the bigger picture, stepping outside of the box, and upping a person’s level of patience and accommodation.

    great conversation here…

  7. Lameen

    Good thought provoking article. I suggest a check list measuring methodology especially for those who love & running a coffee shop but don’t have the experience on the front line

  8. M1ke

    You obviously heard that I have just become a trainer and wrote this post just for me. You are too kind Mr. Hoffman, too kind.

  9. Heather

    II love this conversation, and for me what is most interesting is the busy bar scenario. How do you teach it without throwing them in the deepend? One thing that I’ve done when we get into on the bar training for our staff, is I just shadow them for a week literally telling them where to put their hand next. So in a busy situation its pour the milk start the grab the cup steam the milk stir….and so on. It is super time consuming, but what I have found the most effective way to teach baristas about multi tasking and also setting the pace that they need to be moving at. Because im thete im still have control over quality and I can step in if it gets to be too much. How does this translate to my wholesale customers? It doesn’t unfortunatley. I think speed of service with quality and consistency is really my ultimate challenge on a regular basis.

  10. Ellie Matuszak

    Perhaps irritatingly i feel the need to provide some personal context, for those uninterested in that please feel free to skip to paragraph 5 or even 7.

    Like many others, my process of learning to be an effective trainer was mostly trial-and-error based, especially at first. Coarsely: “I explained it this way, trainee did it correctly, therefore this way is successful; I explained it that way, trainee did not do it correctly, therefore that way is not successful.” Reflecting on those early days I think my best resource was my parents who are both (now retired) public school teachers, although I don’t remember them telling me specifically to approach training with basic parameters such as providing a variety of approaches (written/hands-on) and having a plan going in, but in retrospect I am certain that a lot of my style came from modeling behavior learned growing up in a home where education and teaching were such focal points.

    Performing training more and more (approaching Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hours) I like others got to the point where I could train people with equal effectiveness in progressively shorter amounts of time, which could be construed as being better or at least more efficient. During this process I definitely “knew” a lot of training and education theory, principles, best practices intuitively but was totally unaware of any formal resources, labels, or structure to workplace education.

    My first big breakthrough was when a coworker who had come from a professional HR background introduced me to a website that I still use all the time- It is geared towards corporate HR departments but is insanely useful for any trainer with an entrepreneurial spirit. The site is made up of several “channels” and the one I use most is (duh) the Training and Development Channel. There are decades of archived (free) articles, forums, troubleshooting ideas, and above all else a wealth of discussions that address the technical aspect of training- making complex training issues & questions seem more like math problems with clear solutions. Due to its size it can be difficult/overwhelming to navigate at first but it is so 100% worth it for any trainer who wants to understand the tacit knowledge of training. (I nerdily laughed out loud at your statement above, James!) and further resources recommended by this website were my main resources for a long time, and although I endorse it, it’s still a website which can only go so far. The real a-ha moment of my career as a trainer (and furthermore, even more annoyingly, a trainer of trainers who train) as Scott alluded to was the launch of the SCAA Instructor Development Program in 2009. This program was designed by Ildi Revi- an incredible woman with a Master’s degree in Workplace Education who married a Zimbabwean coffee farmer and became a coffee roaster, bringing her to our industry. In other words, an angel. For most of the two days of the launch of this program I spent my time between furiously taking notes and picking my jaw up off the floor. Things i had kind of known subconsciously were part of a known process- with names, plans, structure. On top of this, I was experiencing this along with 43 other SCAA trainers who were all in virtually the same headspace and position. Discovering this elegant system was intoxicating. The coffee breaks in between modules (Instructional Design, Principles of Adult Learning, Testing, Presentation Skills) were the most hyper of my entire career- all 43 of us chatting together, furiously comparing our impressions and describing ways we were going to take our new learning back to our companies. (At the time I was still working for a member company as VP of Training, I have since been hired by SCAA).

    Ildi became my mentor. She helped me to develop a custom Definition of Levels for SCAA (similar to the one outlined above, but more specific), Instructor Competencies (we have 13), and clear plans for overhauling our educational program to make it more effective. I have never been more sure that I have found what I was born to do- the field of workplace education is extremely fascinating to me and I can’t get enough of objectives, competencies, performance-based analysis, Bloom’s Taxonomy (consistently ranked among IDP participants as their favorite thing as well), test validity and rigor, and all kinds of other nerdy stuff. More importantly, these resources are now available on a regular basis to our industry, helping us all to get better. And most important of all, trainers can take these skills back to their companies. I say this as a former participant, not as a shill.

    The most important takeaway with respect to defining skill level was recognizing a huge flaw that we have in our industry, which is modeling training to our own skill level and not to the learners. It is far too common to see a trainer who has expert skills communicating to a beginner using expert concepts. It is critical that we meet learners where THEY are, not where we are, for training to be effective. A quick Q&A with a learner reveals easily where they fall on the gradient- beginner, intermediate, advanced, expert (to use the SCAA levels); and adjust communication accordingly. Beginners cannot process advanced concepts, full stop.

    I also think the most important thing I have learned from the IDP and further study is that the absolute critical piece of training of any kind is value. Adults do not learn for the sake of learning- they need value. This means different things to different people which is why wholesale training presents a particular challenge. Value is tied to motivation- people don’t change their behaviors (fundamentally this is what training is supposed to do) unless they see it as being a good choice for themselves. Trainers that do not provide this value piece will not change anyone’s behavior, which, for us means the coffee will still taste like s*** even if the person has been “trained.” I haven’t yet figured out a way to do this consistently with wholesale without it costing an arm and a leg. We are working on testing a few different models in SCAA that could provide some of this type of assistance to our members but we are not yet there. I welcome any input from this group!!

    The best resources I can recommend are the books “Performance Based Certification” by Judith Hale, and “Telling Ain’t Training” by Stolovitch & Keeps, as well as the series of topical-based mini books from ASTD.

  11. Bill

    Incidentally I was talking about training with Andrew Tolley a few days ago. On a practical level, he had some great ideas for a comprehensive training program hes putting together

  12. Ildi Revi

    James, the article you mentioned is super, especially the distinction between competence and proficiency, which are often used interchangeably. Check out this article (Scott, your point #3), “Why We Overestimate our Competence” . Ha! The antidote is excellent, appropriate feedback.

    Recent research on training involves pattern recognition studies done by scientists programming robots! They studied thousands of hours of single tasks, recording different variables that might affect ONE part of the task. That’s how you have become an expert barista– your brain has seen, smelled, tasted, heard (and most importantly RECORDED) thousands of different patterns in pulling shots. Now you unconsciously adapt based on a recorded pattern from possibly 8 months ago for which your brain triggers a correct response after recognizing! Fascinating stuff!

    The itch I think you are trying to scratch, James, has to do with the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge, that is described well in the book Ellie mentioned, “Telling Ain’t Training”, which I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone doing performance-based education. Stolovitch’s follow-up book, “Training Ain’t Performance” would also address concerns you have about the transfer of learning to the actual work environment.

    There is a gem of a website that used to be called “Big Dog’s Training Tips”, by Don Clark, who also conducted and researched training in the armed forces, just like the Dreyfus brothers (the military, incidentally, has some fabulous training and adult education research). Here is a bit on declarative and procedural knowledge: .

    I actually got into the field of performance improvement (PI) back in 1991, because I was frustrated by conducting stand-up training that often didn’t make any difference to the individual, work group or organization, and PI filled that gap for me.

    Performance improvement addresses a couple of issues you and others have raised here:
    1. Often a performance issue (bar crowding) cannot be solved by training, but rather work tools, work design, organizational issues, environmental issues, etc. We can rack our brains for a training solution to no avail.
    2. What is “the gap”? Identify, isolate and record each aspect of the performance you want to see using a “best practices” performer, then observe the trainee barista performing each aspect of the task. Often you can see what the gap is, i.e. what they are not doing. From there you can find either a training or work tool or process solution. In 1992 I spent hours at Owens Corning roofing material factory, when I was doing training for them, writing down each and every little movement the “best practice” line worker who ran the machine did and then made a checklist. It was amazingly easy from there to see what the lower level performers were not doing by checking off each tiny movement on the checklist. (Heather … thus the performance checklist for Barista Certification!). Scott, you touched on this in #3, too. You are “identifying the gap” and finding what is called an “intervention” (yuk, jargon) to bridge the gap.

    I look at what SCAA is doing and am so impressed with how Ellie and others are conducting cutting edge work, aligning their training programs to provide real return on investment to member companies AND improve the industry as a whole. Really, they are on par with some of the best training organizations I’ve seen, yet done with VOLUNTEER talent!! Corporations spend millions on less effective training than I’ve seen Ellie, Heather, Jason, Scott, and now the Roasters Guild churning out. They really focus on value!

    Here are some of my favorite sites, James: (for training) (lots of management and performance stuff in addition to training) (performance improvement) (here’s a bit on the brain research, I gotta remember where I put that article and send it to you!) (fun article on brain waves!)

    All the best y’all!

  13. Erik Fooladi

    Just for the record (since it has not been mentioned yet) I guess Michael Polanyi’s groundbraking “The tacit dimension” form 1966 should be mentioned as literature reference on these matters.

    Furthermore, the concept of “Threshold concepts” might be relevant, described in two papers by Meyer & Land (2003 and 2005).

    I did a post on this previously because I think it might tell us something about how difficult it is for “those who know” to put themselves in “those who don’t know”-s shoes, and vice versa:
    “Why are some considered food lovers whereas others are considered food geeks?”

    Full references:
    Meyer & Land (2003). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge 1 – Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising. In Rust (Ed.), Improving Student Learning: Theory and Practice Ten Years On (Vol. 10). Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (can be read at google books, or downloaded as pdf)

    Meyer & Land (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge 2 – Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373-388.

  14. guest

    Fabulous thread! Thank you. Unfortunately, I can’t contribute meaningfully but I’d like to say that it seems to me that it’s easier to get into a Med school than to figure out the best path to becoming a well trained barista. I’ve been searching and asking questions in forums and all i get is dead air.
    One simply doesn’t know where to start, where to go for reputable training in this field etc.
    Help seeking from Toronto!

  15. Erik Fooladi

    Without doubt :) Note that my use of “food geek” is not a negative term but rather a descriptive term, just to rule out possible misunderstandings.

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