About six months ago I managed to snag what is essentially my pre-career dream job. In all honesty I would be perfectly happy keeping this job even during my (hopefully successful) career as a cinematographer. This job is at what is, arguably, one of the best coffee bars in the states - Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea.
To preface this post I should probably explain a bit of my history with coffee. I have had a pretty interesting relationship with coffee throughout my life, I was raised a Mormon and in Mormonism there is this idea that all “mind-altering” chemicals or substances are bad - that includes caffeine. So until I was eleven I saw coffee, and really any caffeinated beverage, as being bad. Then my family left “The Church”. My father firmly embraced the once taboo world of caffeine, and a few years later I had my first cup of coffee. I distinctly remember my mother mentioning, well before I started drinking coffee, that she had heard in some NPR story that real coffee drinkers drank their coffee black.
I have always been of the opinion that if you are going to do anything in life, you should do it well and true to form. So here I was, drinking my first cup of coffee - black. It was horrible, but I stuck with it. I was lucky in that my father had at least somewhat decent coffee, specifically coffee from Jittery Joe’s in Athens Georgia. Now, this was not the best coffee (their quality has gone up since then) and it was brewed in this horrible auto drop brewer, but it was better than the Foldgers and Maxwell House that most people get introduced to coffee with. As I grew older I never really increased my knowledge about coffee, but I always had this latent interest in the culture that surrounded it.
Cut to July 2007.
I was eighteen years old and had been living on my own for almost two years, my family had moved to southern Illinois and I had opted to stay behind in Georgia to finish high school. I was working at a horrible Deli making potatoes for $5.15 an hour, it was hell. One nigh I get a phone call from my mother, she tells me about their plans to open a coffee shop where they are living - a “quaint small town” with no real café to speak of. She asks if I would be willing to move up there an manage it for them. I almost immediately agree. Just under a week later I find myself in Belleville Illinois. Over the next nine months I was part of the grueling process that was opening a café, the hardest part of which was remodeling/rehabbing the building we had bought. That is an entirely separate adventure though, nedless to say one filled with pain, frustration, and loads of dust.
The best part of the nine month process was my introduction to the coffee industry, part of which included reading as many books as I could get my hands on about the subject, though what really got me revved up and solidified my love for what I had come to know as specialty coffee was the first coffee conference I went to. Specifically CoffeeFest Seattle in 2007. I remember walking in on the second day of the conference (I had to attend a day late due to some work that needed to be done on the building) and going almost directly to the latte art competition. By this time I had read a few issues of Fresh Cup and Roast magazine so I knew a little bit about the competition but seeing it happen was an experience I will not soon to forget. I probably spend a good five hours just watching the competitors and listening to the commentary (done by non other than Heather Perry). Then I got to the trade show part of the conference, I was overwhelmed by the whole thing, so many people who where so passionate about coffee. I got my first introduction to roasting at this conference during a talk on profile roasting given by a team from Diedrich, I had just finished reading Home Roasting by Kennith Davids and heading all the concepts I had read about and understanding them was an experience by itself.
After a few months of more work on the building I got my first real lesson in coffee brewing at the SCAA conference in Minneapolis, I took the first classes of, what was at the time, the new Barista Guild of America certification curriculum. I learned how to pull a shot (also what “pulling a shot” really meant) thanks to Jason Dominy, who also taught me how to steam milk. Though he may not remember me, I will not forget how absolutely awesome and patient he was with me. After stepping behind the espresso machine for the first time I never wanted to leave, I was so in love with coffee and the community that surrounded it.
Just a few weeks after SCAA Minneapolis we opened our doors, we had hired some “Baristas” who had worked at another café in town that recently went out of business. It was then that I was introduced to one of the problems in the industry. Miss-information and bad training. The people we had hired where horrible, I knew very little about coffee at the time but I knew that I was better then them. When they steamed milk they moved the pitcher around as if they where making butter, they never paid attention to their shots, they never dialed in, they tamped like they where trying to suffocate the puck, and on top of that they hated that I was the manager. After about three weeks they came in one morning and quit right before we opened.
Que the month from hell.
For the next month or so I was the only person on shift, aside from my mother who ran the baking side of things. I worked from six in the morning to nine or ten at night every day of the week, hundred+ hour weeks, it was a crash course in sleep deprivation and coffee. In addition to all of the work as a Barista I was also the one responsible for roasting all of our coffee, for that month I did nothing that was not related to coffee. The weird thing was, aside from the sleep deprivation, I loved it.
Sure it was probably one of the crazies months of my life, but I still did not have enough coffee in my life, I started hanging out after we closed to practice pouring latte art, worked on making a blend to be used in our espresso based drinks (dubbed snake bite), and read my way through the La Marzocco Linea Series Technical Manual (aka - The Big Orange Book). I convinced my parents to buy a Scace, low flow steamwand tips, and got close to getting them to PID one of the boilers. Only a few months earlier I didn’t even know there was so much to making good coffee. Finally we managed to hire some new people, I spent the next few weeks training them, got “accepted” to Columbia College Chicago, and eventually moved up to Chicago.
One thing that this experience gave me was an understanding of how everything in a café works, and not just from a business standpoint. Since we where trying to save money at every turn I had done a wide variety of tasks from wiring the whole building to running the water and hooking up the RO+ system. As well as loads of experience in staying true to making quality drinks under high stress situations. When you are the one doing register and running bar and have ten drinks up and three people in line it is easy to say “fuck it” and just half ass it. I am proud to say I never did, every drink I made I was proud of.
During all of this, in the back of my mind, there was an aspiration - a dream if you will - to someday work at Intelligentsia. When I moved to Chicago I relentlessly applied for almost two years when finally I broke through. The day I got the call from the manager of the Millennium Park Intelligentsia I almost exploded with excitement. I may still have been on crutches from a wonderful run-in I had with a car a few months earlier, but I still found the strength to give a few good hops of excitement.
On my first day I walked in and was shocked to see both Stephen Morresy and Michael Phillips (before his WBC win), it dawned on me at that moment where it was that I was working. Over the next few months I was drawn deep in to the world of coffee, where I still reside. There is one thing I have got to say about Intelligentsia, and that is that the people who work there are amazing. I mean it. You constantly hear about all of the resources available to us, and out of all of them the people are probably one of the best resource avalible. There is not one person I work with who is not an amazing and passionate person, both at work and outside of work. Every day I go to work I feel the need to become a better Barista and a better artist. I actually hesitate at calling it work, since I never feel the sense of dread that came with going to any of my past jobs. Even when I have to wake up at four in the morning to open, despite of how tired I may be, I am excited to go and rock out a shift. Sharing my love for coffee with those that I work with, and those that I make drinks for every day.
So to everyone at Intelligentsia, thank you, and I look forward to spending the next six months with you. Working at Intelligentsia really becames my passions.