Six years ago, when Kopplin’s Coffee opened in St. Paul, it was unique in its approach to serving. Owner Andrew Kopplin wanted a shop that was similar to ones in Portland and Seattle, where patrons could get artfully brewed coffee, complete with “latte art” — those creative leaves and swirls that baristas produce in the foam atop a cup.
Kopplin’s has been joined by a score of coffee shops where the menu is long, complex, and detailed. Places like Blue Ox, Quixotic, Angry Catfish, Spyhouse, Urban Bean, Peace Coffee, and Bull Run give patrons descriptions about each coffee, emphasizing its origin in terms of being fair trade and carefully roasted.
The baristas at these shops spend a luxuriously long time — sometimes to the frustration of get-it-and-go commuters — creating artful blends that seem to have more factors than a math problem.
“We’re seeing more restaurants opening up where they’re very conscious about ingredients, in terms of being local and sustainable,” says Kopplin. “The same thing is now happening with coffee.”
Driving the change toward higher quality coffee and the promotion of barista skill is the same major element that’s changing food, beer, and cocktails locally: quality.
The word “quality” has been so overused in the advertising world that it seems almost meaningless. But when applied to the coffee scene, it freshens back up and takes on its original meaning.
“Quality is what’s driving this trend,” says Micah Svejda, manager at Quixotic Coffee. “It’s an approach to coffee that’s taking that as its primary element. It’s about creating a superior product to what we’ve had before, all the way from the farm to the exporters to the roasters to the shop. There’s work being done at every level.”
In the past few years, companies at each of these links in the coffee chain have been perfecting their techniques, and Svejda believes that when people taste a truly superior cup of coffee that’s been through all of these processes, they’ll recognize the difference.
“Personally, I always had an interest in coffee but it wasn’t a passion,” he says. “Then I began tasting this super delicious coffee and I was amazed. I had no idea it could taste like that. The potential was very exciting.”
Those few cups led Svejda to pursue an education in coffee and to begin working with companies that were elevating the beverage. His story isn’t unique, either. He hears from customers who’ve had similar “ah ha!” moments, and with the growth of better quality coffee locally, it’s likely that more people will discover the difference as well.
That difference stretches all the way back, quite naturally, to the growers. Given our climate, coffee can’t be grown in the Twin Cities, but it can be roasted here. Also, there’s a much broader effort to get to know the coffee farmers who are supplying the beans.
“The conscious choices that people make around their food is now translating to coffee,” says Gordon Bellaver, co-owner of Bull Run Roasting Co. and Bull Run Coffee Bar. “People want to know where the beans are from, they want to hear that the farmer is paid fairly and that people grow with care.”
Understanding the relationships among growers, roasters, and shop owners adds to the overall experience, believes Melanie Logan, owner of Blue Ox Coffee Co. “For me, it would take one email to learn the name of the farmer behind any of our cups of coffee,” she says. “I think that’s important, and other people think so, too.”
As a result of the demand for better coffee, the barista culture is growing quickly. Kopplin recalls when he had to do intensive training for his baristas, but now, he’s seeing more applicants walk in the door with skills at the ready.
Baristas in the Twin Cities tend to be in their 20s, and some work at multiple shops, honing their skills and occasionally competing in barista competitions.
There are plenty of skills to perfect. Baristas do more than run an espresso machine; to perfect their art, they have to tamp down the coffee just so, learn the many ways to froth and steam milk (yes, they’re different techniques), create latte art, monitor the temperature of the water, grind the beans correctly, and time the whole process exactly right.
Then, after they’ve delivered that perfect, balanced, creative cup of coffee, they have to do it all again, hundreds of times.
“They have to be willing to practice,” says Adam Dunn of Angry Catfish Bicycle + Coffee Bar. “That involves a lot of self-training, reading, tasting, skill development, and even palate training. It’s not just about how to pull a shot for espresso, it’s about developing the mindset of: what is the science behind how this tastes? What can I adjust to make it taste better?”
Like craft beer brewers, baristas are like artists who bring in elements of science and performance. Every cup is a chance to create anew, to inch one step closer to absolute perfection. That may seem like hyperbole, but plenty of people are appreciating the artisan quality to their coffee these days.
“Really, it’s kind of a shocker, how fast the specialty coffee scene is growing in the Twin Cities,” says Dunn. “That’s led to the natural rise of the barista culture, which is great.”
In terms of the future, it’s likely that superior coffee–much like local, organic produce and craft beverages–isn’t a trend that will disappear when the next big food wave hits. (We’re looking at you, cupcakes.)
And if it takes a little longer to get a decent cup of joe, then consider that a perk, Bellaver believes: “This process allows people to slow down, take a breath. Talk to the barista, connect with each other. We’re building community as much as we’re producing quality coffee.”
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Elizabeth Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line.