A few months ago I was jokingly asked to personally cater the coffee for a conference (Devsum) I regularly speak at by the organisers who have been watching my learnings about coffee over the last year or so. Knowing that this was a two day event with 700 captive attendees, I enthusiastically accepted with the up-front admittance that I’d need help from somebody who actually knows how to run a busy coffee bar and that I’d need a budget for very specific coffee and equipment (EK43 + at least a two group La Marzocco volumetric machine).
To my surprise a budget was found and I found myself frantically trying to find suppliers for the equipment and coffee and to get help from the local Swedish crowd. This turned out to be an exercise in frustration, with initial promising communications either being ghosted by e-mail or simply turned around a week later with a “no we can’t help you”. Somehow we ended up with the gear we needed though via an informal rental agreement with Johan & Nystrom for the EK43 and Ditting grinders and via Espressospecialisten for the two group Linea AV and batch brewers.
As I was given budget to bring help in, I asked James Wallace from Back to Black to help and he graciously agreed to come out to Sweden and help with this silly endeavour (by help, I mean take charge of the bar and tell me what to do and how to do it).
We didn’t want to skimp on the coffee and we wanted to truly blow some minds – conference coffee is (for lack of a better word) usually shit – and even when they bother getting in real baristas the coffee is still just the standard sort of muddy crap you can get from any half-arsed “third-wave” operation on the high street, playing it safe for commercial reasons and not making any waves. For want of a better phrase – sack that.
In preparation for the event (having absolutely no experience of coffee bar workflow and being unable to use a commercial steam wand), I picked up four guest shifts in Glasgow a month beforehand and considered my preparation “done”. Two of these were with James at Bakery47, so I had a good idea of what the EK43 workflow would look like, one of them was in a quiet pop-up by Dear Green on a little Mazzer and Linea set-up and the other was at Spitfire Espresso where I took over a shift from the co-owner Danny and pretended to know what I was doing for the afternoon. Many thanks now extended to the owners of these businesses who took the risk of letting this “home barista” loose behind their bars and in front of their customers.
Koppi are excellent and local, Johan & Nystrom have a wide selection of coffees of which some are the type of thing we’d like to serve – Drop are also excellent and local. Papercup in Glasgow are our friends and occasionally pull in some stonking beans that just need to be shared.
With this in mind, we grabbed a day’s worth of beans from Koppi (their Colombian Buena Vista – Washed Caturra) for espresso, a day’s worth of a Kenyan Oreti Natural SL14 also for espresso (!!!) and a variety of beans from Johan & Nystrom and Drop for keeping the batch brewer interesting during the day (and if people wanted a manual brew during our quiet periods we could cater to them and have a nice conversation about it).
None of this stuff is cheap, it’s high-end specialty coffee and probably twice the price per kilo than anything you’d usually find at this sort of event. The Colombian was a fairly safe (light but easy/sweet) espresso and the Kenyan was (in our words) “Batshit crazy” – which meant it was also a risk because this wasn’t a self-selecting coffee audience but just a cross-section of geek society who (mostly) had mostly not really tried light roasted specialty coffee before.
So commercially this would be a bit “risky”, I have been insisting for years now that this isn’t actually the case and it’s all a matter of framing it properly to the customers (and our experience the coffee festival – an admittedly self-selecting audience backed this up) but this would be a real test. A light roasted Kenyan espresso? A natural at that? A non-industry crowd? Unthinkable – let’s do it.
We did over 1000 coffee based drinks in the two day period, in reality we only did about 4-5 hours of service in total (most of the time people were in sessions and not having coffee). We burned through over 14kg of the coffee that we brought with us during this time. Of this, about 800 of the drinks were espresso-based and the rest was from the batch (which grew in popularity as people realised that the stuff in our big jug wasn’t the same as the shite in the other jugs around the conference centre). We would have probably gone through all of our coffee were it not for the late set-up on the first day and the early finish on the second day (we organised pick-up of equipment at around 15:30 in the afternoon). We had to throw away probably 10 espressos during this time because they (probably) weren’t up to our standards.
By all accounts this was a huge success from an EK43 workflow perspective and quality perspective (all of our espresso was from the EK43) and from a general machine/milk/barista-orchestration angle.
Day 1 – The Koppi Washed Colombian
We started off with the Buena Vista because
a) It had actually turned up
b) It was the easier of the two espressos and we knew we needed to ease people into the fruity stuff.
For the first couple of hours of service with the Koppi on spro and the Johan & Nystrom in the batch most people were asking for the standard mix of lattes and cappas, and most people were ignoring the batch because they considered it suspect. The coffee was free and as we are chatty people we chatted to our customers despite the huge queue that would form between sessions. Talking/shouting to one customer would influence the other six customers behind them in the queue and was therefore a good use of our time.
If we were asked what we recommended, we would recommend an espresso – knowing full well that our espresso wasn’t like most espresso and even the non-regular coffee drinkers would probably like it. It was a quality light-roasted bean and was dialled in perfectly to our standards on the EK43 (buckets of sweetness and a light fruity acidity). If the customer agreed to this, the next half-dozen customers would end up asking for espresso too. This kept on happening and I kept on shouting about the batch brew being available and encouraging people to try it.
A few hours later a good 30-40% of our orders were for straight espresso as word got out that what we were serving was not what most people would expect when ordering espresso. We also started shifting more batch as people realised this was a good way to bypass the queue and get a tasty coffee immediately.
We were clearing the queue several times per 20-minute break despite it terrifying the hell out of me when I first saw it and our “repeat business” was booming (not to mention them then bringing their friends with them). When the bell rang and people went back into the session we’d count the doses of espresso we’d used and I’d be amazed to see we were serving 60-70 drinks in this short time period.
The Buena Vista was a great place to start because it was such an accessible espresso and during the day I made sure to tell all the customers (both in the talks I was giving and when serving them) that we were going to be serving something very different once we ran out of the Colombian.
Day 2 – The Papercup Natural Kenyan
I must admit I was nervous about this; I like this coffee as an espresso because it’s completely off-the-wall in pretty much every aspect of flavour and concept. Because we considered this one slightly “darker” (urgh, let’s not use this word too much) we dropped dose and tightened up our brew ratio so effectively we were using about 12g of coffee per espresso drink. The Kenyan was so out of the park that even in an 8oz latte you could taste the serious power of this coffee.
People were queuing up as soon as we had dialled in and asking if we had the “Crazy Kenyan” on yet (the power of advertising to a captive audience) and the day started with us shifting over 50% of our espresso based drinks as neat espresso (and we were getting through 4L of batch brew every break – again the power of education). The amount of neat espresso being served carried on increasing unbelievably and nearly all of our feedback was along the lines of “Wow, I can’t believe coffee can taste like that – it’s amazing”.
We served just as many coffees this day as the previous and people looked mortified when we shut the bar down to pack up again, at 15:30 people were still wanting shots of that natural Kenyan and were disappointed they couldn’t get it.
On Education Then
First up, neat espresso served in this style does not accept sugar – rather than balancing out the acidity it almost has a curdling effect on the espresso which turns it sour and is most unpleasant. We didn’t even keep sugar on the bar although there was some present on the back shelves which we were happy to serve people if they really wanted it. We had a few people who asked us if we had sugar for their espresso as clearly they were very used to doing this with their usual brews. We don’t want to be arseholes who get on high horses about the sanctity of coffee but we also don’t want people to go away with a horribly negative experience simply because they added sugar to an espresso that got worse because of it.
We would gently let them know that we’d be happy to give it to them but we’d prefer to serve them milk if they didn’t like the espresso as it was (and we’d be happy to give them sugar for that if it still wasn’t sweet enough). Every single one of them would then sip the espresso and then go “Oh, okay – I don’t need sugar”. Every single one of them. We ended up using no sugar at all – it doesn’t mean I’d choose not to have it – there is a huge difference between saying “We don’t do sugar” and “This style of coffee is going to taste really bad if we put sugar in it but here are some other options if you want to make it sweeter”.
Similarly, we were fairly relaxed about milk drinks at smaller ratios when we were serving the Colombian (Macchiato/Piccolo/Cortado/etc) but when we tasted the Kenyan with these ratios (We all do this right? Taste the espresso with all the ratios to get a feel for what it is we’re serving) it tasted absolutely awful and way out of balance – losing all the nuance of the espresso and gaining little of the sweetness of the milk, it was almost unpalettable.
We resolved that we would advise the customers to either try the neat espresso or get a flat white off us, anything in-between would be advised against because we didn’t want people to get a negative eexperience with our coffee. Surprisingly all of our customers chose to try the espresso without any milk at all and again walked away happy with their drink.
Due to this experience I started offering espresso to people when they asked for a milk drink (while they waited for the milk to be steamed), a large number of these people then decided they didn’t need a milk drink after all and in subsequent returns would then ask for an espresso. Being in a busy service environment the milk wouldn’t get wasted – it’d go to a customer a few people back (after seeing somebody enjoy the neat espresso, folk within ear-shot would invariably change their order to an espresso as well.
Customer expectations are so far removed from what we are serving that we have to almost reset them, and being in an environment where the coffee is pre-paid and the customer isn’t handing over any money directly we were given a lot of flexibility in experimenting with ways of doing this. The trajectory of milk vs espresso orders was a testament to how well this worked – and we ended up using far less milk than we expected on the second day because of this.
It helps that we were being super nice to our customers and they were in a mood to be super nice to us, this is probably a conference thing.
On Workflow and Consistency
- The EK43 + Good Coffee is so damned consistent. With the Koppi we had the EK43 set to 2.3 *for the whole day* and not once had to change it. Pre-dosing our shots no doubt helped with that as the coffee was temperature stable. Conferences are very peaky for traffic and this stability really helped us with the 30 minute lulls between customers as we rarely had to throw any shots away.
- So long as you can set expectations and can sell it to them, customers are ready for some really over the top coffee and indeed they loved it, I told them we would be doing something mad-crazy and they couldn’t wait for it to be on the bar because of this.
- Milk is still the bottleneck, and we managed to avoid this by converting a lot of our orders to neat espresso – hah, more happy customers
- Some of these customers were classic continental types (Italians) who have (by reputation) a very fixed view of what coffee should be, not a problem – see also: expectations once set
- Part of this was (apart from some banter with a known friend) was because we weren’t dismissive about their “usual” coffee, what we were doing was simply “different“, not “better” (okay it is better but we don’t need to say this to them…)
- Good workflow, once taught makes everything possible. I’m not a “trained” barista but with James’ guidance I managed to fulfil a large amount of the duties without stressing unduly and making a mess of everything. That the pre-dosed EK43 is so dependable probably contributes a lot to this frictionless service.
To Tibi for asking and Johanna from Cornerstone for “fixing” so much of what we needed and for James for agreeing to make it possible, to Johan & Nystrom for stepping in with the grinders at the last minute and to Espressospecialisten for being some of the most professional and courteous engineers we have ever had the pleasure of working with – this was amazing and has increased my thirst to do more with this passion…
On Espressospecialisten – our engineer came in and we did him a quick Aeropress of the Colombian before we’d dialled in “It’s a bit crap” I said, “first of the day” his response was “don’t worry, I’ve had two geishas already”.
He sat and watched us work for our final service and didn’t once make us feel as though we needed to shut down in a rush, it was a pleasure to make him and his colleague some of the crazy Kenyan spro (which they very much enjoyed too).
I love interactions like that, pure friendliness and enthusiasm from everybody involved – this event had the feel good factor all over it.
Which brings me to…
Tech event coffee is something that needs shaking up. We have been asked already if we can provide services to more events and seeing how much we enjoyed doing this and how much our customers enjoyed what we were doing, we are opening ourselves up to do more of this in the future.
Hanging out with software developers and being able to bring something very different to the table and give them something to talk about and bond over as well as educating whole waves of people at a time is a very exciting prospect.
We’re calling ourselves “Tame Baristas” and if you know of a (tech) event that wants to do something a bit different at the ludicrously high-end of coffee, we are now available for hire as a team. Given our efficiency structures and absolute focus on consistency and quality we are confident that we can bring something unique to the table.
If you’re a barista who is open to travelling to do (well paid) service at international events and learn the EKspresso workflow, please drop us a line so we can gather a list – it’s time to start team building.