Barista Interview: Ryan Soeder

barista-Ryan-SoederThere is at least one thing passionate Baristas all have in common- building the coffee community. Ryan Soeder certainly has had a great impact on his home town before moving to Seattle to take on a little different project.

When did you start drinking coffee?
It’s a tale as old as time. When I was a wee lad, my mother, like a responsible parent, would not allow the children to have coffee. So it naturally fell to my grandmother to show us how sweet a caffeinated life could be. She would gather us at the table for breakfast in the morning and fill our favorite mugs (mine was a porcelain bust of Kermit the frog) with cream, sugar, and just the slightest hint of Maxwell House. Of course, once you start that train a-rolling, the only way to stop it is expensive rehab which my mother, saint that she was, could not afford.

When and how did you decide to become a Barista?
Again, a fairly typical answer. I needed a job after high school and knew that I liked the mochas at Starbucks and there were always cute chicks milling in and out of that place. The rest is history.

How long have you been in the industry?
I celebrated my 7 year anniversary with Starbucks on September 23rd but I would say that I’ve been intently interested in coffee as an agricultural product and art-form for about 2 years.

What all are you involved in with the industry?
I’m currently employed at Roy Street Coffee and Tea. Yes, it is a Starbucks project but the only similarity between the two is the coffee itself and even that is pulled right from the cooling trays and into our store as opposed to 6 months down the road. The goal is to see how well Starbucks coffee can perform given the chance to do so in an environment and encourages quality. I’ve been here for almost 2 months and, with a wonderful and talented partner, am in charge of writing the training manual, retraining the new and current staff, and maintaining coffee education for the store.

Off the clock, I am a home brew fanatic with a more and more alarming array of brew equipment in the kitchen. I’m also fascinated by the tech behind the bar. I have restored and modified an old Brasillia Portofino as an intro into what makes a machine tick and am always looking for opportunities to learn about the mechanics of grinders and espresso machines. As a result, I’ve spend a good amount of time in Seattle talking tech with machine manufacturers and trying to wrap my mind around the “hows and whys” of the mechanics behind espresso extraction and what we can do to improve and put more control back into the hands of the barista.

I also compete in late art competitions and took 3rd place at the Coffee Fest competition in New York, but I view competition as a social lubricant and community builder, not something to pursue as an end unto itself. I am constantly scouring for ways to expand my coffee knowledge and encourage barista community growth. As a result, I find myself volunteering my time to anything that will make me or the the people around me better baristas.

Where do you see Latte Art going in the upcoming year?
This is a difficult question to answer because I think that the concept of latte art is at a critical stage. The cultural awareness of latte art has certainly grown in recent years to the point that even Starbucks is beginning to concede its usefulness as a customer draw. The danger is always that baristas will view it as the “end all be all” of espresso preparation.

I view it in the way that a chef views garnish or plating. It’s the last thing you need to worry about perfecting and it doesn’t make the drink itself taste one bit better. Having a barista behind the bar who can’t dial in espresso but pours beautiful latte art is like having a designer or architect in the kitchen: the food will look outstanding but will taste like garbage and that is what makes a lasting impression. It is, however, a powerful tool in the hands of a mature competent barista who has taken all previous measures to make sure that an espresso beverage tastes a good as it looks.

As far as the art itself, I see more baristas returning to well-executed, classic designs and away from the more garish. For a while it was all about how many rosettas you could fit in a cup or how far around you could make a wave and still fit 3 hearts down the middle. Now (thankfully) people seem to be valuing the difficulty of a single, solid rosetta or tulip with excellent contrast and framing.

How did you improve the coffee scene in Louisville, Kentucky?
Louisville was my home until this very recent move to Seattle. The coffee community was completely stagnant and I didn’t know any different until I started asking questions and doing some digging. It turns out that a few local baristas had started questioning the state of things at around the same time and we wound up hearing about each other through mutual customers and other barista friends. It wasn’t long before we found each other and started sharing information and practicing together.

This was about 2 years ago and ever since, we’ve been inspiration and friendly competition for one another. If I started slacking, I knew that they were out there researching and practicing and if I wanted to keep up, I had to get cracking. Soon we started gathering regularly to host brewing and tasting events, latte art competitions, roasting parties, and more or less just creating an arena in which local baristas could gain knowledge and get excited about the craft. Personally, I always made myself available to help anyone who was willing to learn and improve.

Whenever a barista or shop needed consultation, I took it because I love being a barista and never worried about compensation. Coffee is one of my favorite things to talk about and I found that just being available opened up avenues of vast growth both personally and for the community. As a result of a few baristas’ passion, there has been significant improvement in Louisville, KY.

Where once there were just auto brewers and old, beat up espresso machines, there are now several shops doing manual pour overs and using paddle group Lineas with top-of-the-line grinders and, more importantly, baristas who can use them with skill. There are now regular events held by Prima Coffee that attract hundreds of coffee enthusiasts to watch baristas compete in latte art competitions and brewing demonstrations. It’s been inspirational to look at all of this growth and be able to directly trace it back to four or five baristas getting together in a friend’s kitchen to pour latte art and brew coffee.

What advice would you give to someone looking for their first barista job?
You’ll get out of the job what you put in and how good you are is completely in your hands. Even if you’re not in a position to be trained by someone who really knows what they’re doing, there is such a wealth of knowledge available for free from people who are more than willing to teach and if you find yourself getting bored, it means you’re not trying hard enough. I worked at a retail Starbucks location for 7 years and never was there a time when I couldn’t be developing skills like managing milk waste, maintaining a clean bar, or dialing in french press coffees.

Then, get online and scour for brew method methodologies, or coffee processing and origin information. Next thing you know, you’ll find yourself up at 2 in the morning, itching to get back to work and try pulse brewing the new Kenya your shop just got in. Also, never discount the value of getting together with other baristas and being a part of coffee community. There’s no faster way to grow as a barista than by bouncing around ideas and learning from people who value the same things you do.
qotd – Are you involved in your local coffee community? How?

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Jennifer has been in the coffee industry since 2003. She started Daily Demitasse to educate and share her experience with other passionate coffee enthusiasts, from a Barista, Cafe Manager, shop Owner and freelancer perspective. When she's not working or blogging, you can find her at Transpire Life.

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