One of the things I love about the coffee industry is the excess of passion, almost everyone who works in specialty coffee is absolutely in love - dare I say obsessed - with what they are doing. This is a wonderful thing for an industry, it allows innovation to happen quickly and almost always for the better. However, despite all of this passion, there are few places baristas can meet up to discuss their love and their ideas for coffee. Sure, there are barista jams every now and again, but most are concentrated on competition or skills workshops.
So here’s my idea. I would love to start what would essentially be a gym/club for Chicago area baristas. Open to any barista from any coffee house in Chicago (or even state wide). Stock a location with all the equipment a barista could dream about using or playing with but can’t afford, things like the newer pressure profiling espresso machines, every manual brew method you can think of, and all the equipment needed to analyze what is going on. In this sense it would be less of a club or gym and more of a lab, thus the name.
This is how I see it working, each person has to apply and pass a series of tests to make sure they know how to use the equipment well enough not to destroy something. Once they are members they pay a monthly fee (something affordable for everyone, maybe 35-45 dollars a month). My guess is that demand for such a space would be pretty high, so it is entirely possible that it would be based more on a reservation system than a walk-in-and-do-what-you-want system.
Another thing I would love to do is allow people to play around with theories they have, perhaps submit a short request stating something like “I would love to see what variable-x does to the end product”. This would allow newer baristas to discover the intricacies of brewing coffee, and give more intermediate to advanced baristas a space to expand their understanding. This is not to say that baristas cannot do these things at their respective places of work, but there is something to be said about having a location that they can go to without having the bustle of the shop distracting them.
Something else I would love to do, and this is probably one of the things that would be the most fun, is bring in guest speakers on subjects chosen by the members/staff. This would give a more or less permanent place for people to see speakers who they might only otherwise see at coffee conferences like coffee fest or the annual SCAA conference. Some things I would love to hear people speak about are things like the socioeconomic conditions at source, detailed talks from both farmers and green coffee buyers on processing methods and their effects, and more technical talks about roasting and coffee brewing.
I would also love to have a roaster or two on site to allow baristas to learn some basics about roasting. In my opinion, and this is an opinion that I feel permeates the industry, is that the more you know about each step the coffee has to take before reaching the end consumer, the more you can critically look at what you are doing and make adjustments - this also would give baristas a deeper amount of knowledge to pull from when talking to customers and others in the industry.
At the moment this is more of a half-formed idea with, no doubt, numerous holes and problems. However, I would love to hear what others have to say. Thoughts?