Lessons on Passion & Purpose from a Barista
Today my barista-turned-friend, James, took me to one of the best coffee shops in all of Ireland. We hopped on a train down to Bray, which is about a 20 minute ride south of where I’m staying in Monkstown, Ireland. Then we walked over to Catalyst Coffee’s new beach front location.
At the coffee shop James introduced me to two of his friends who work there – Craig and Alex. Craig is their head barista and Alex is one of the co-founders of Catalyst Coffee. These guys were absolutely amazing. Right away, Craig asked me if I’m a coffee guy and what I drink. I told him I enjoy morning pour overs and afternoon flat whites. Without any hesitation, he told us he was going to make something special for us to try. About 10 minutes later he comes back with two cups of pour over coffee.
We wait for it to cool off a little and give it a taste – WOW! I couldn’t help but think that no pour over I ever made at home came out like this! He comes back 15 minutes later with the next cup for us to try. Even better! It was like drinking strawberry-infused coffee. I was blown away – easily one of the best cups of pour over coffee I’ve ever had.
We chatted for another 10 minutes or so and then left to explore Bray before going back to Catalyst for flat whites. That’s when things got really interesting.
A Masterclass in Coffee Making
Craig took us to a closed off section of the coffee shop where they are setting up their new and custom-built Sanremo espresso machine. I won’t even try to explain this machine because this level of coffee tech is over my head. Let’s just say it was the Ferrari of espresso machines, custom made to their specifications. It hasn’t been put into use for their customers yet and we got an advance taste.
Craig made us what were easily the best flat whites James and I have ever tasted. The consistency was on another level. The texture, structure, and flavor was the exact same all the way through to the last sip. You could feel it coating your stomach as it went down. It was almost creamy.
While drinking my flat white I asked Craig about his journey into coffee making. He shared some incredible gems of wisdom that I made sure to write down. Here are some of my key takeaways.
Scenius, not Genius
In his book, Show Your Work, Austin Kleon refers to a concept he learned called scenius. It’s the genius that comes from being part of a scene or community. Everyone learns a little bit from everyone, and that type of genius is actually more of a scenius. Craig’s learning journey was quite similar. Craig shared he wasn’t formally trained in coffee. He started out making coffee at a restaurant where he worked and was pretty good at it. He figured he could learn to become better and decided to go learn from some pros at a top coffee shop called Network Cafe in Dublin. It was there that he met James and got connected to the coffee scene. He learned about the art and science of coffee straight from the pros in the community. With each interaction he took away a nugget or two of insight. Eventually it compounded to a lot more. Today he teaches up and coming baristas the art and science of coffee making. Since he’s always experimenting and learning, he is able to contribute new ideas and knowledge to the community.
Challenging the Status Quo
James shared with me that Craig and Alex are innovators in the coffee world. They push the limits and operate on the bleeding edge of coffee. This was clear when we were tasting his pour overs earlier that day. Craig said the beans he was using had been roasted over 2 months ago. Even though normally people say to go with a fresher roast, one day he said to himself, let’s see what happens if I use an older bag of beans. So he tested it and discovered if he grinds the bean a little coarser, he can correct any bitterness and what is left is actually quite special. Having tasted the pour over that came from that 2 month old bag, I can confirm it was VERY special!
He just wants to make people happy
When I asked Craig what inspires him to continue going deeper into coffee, even 5 years into his journey, he shared something insightful. He said that when people go out to a coffee shop on a weekend day after a long week of work, they just want to enjoy a nice cup of coffee while walking around, reading a book, or spending time with friends or family. A bad cup of coffee can ruin that experience or day. However, if he can make them a great cup of coffee then they can enjoy their day.
Craig isn’t on a coffee making journey, he’s on a journey to help people have a nice day. Making great coffee isn’t the end, it’s a means to an end. Coffee is his way of making someone’s day better.
He said life as a barista isn’t all good days. There are definitely bad days. But in the end, there are many more good days than bad ones. And the chance to play a role in helping someone enjoy a good day is what keeps him in the game.
Gratitude for My Hosts
I cannot express how grateful I am to James, Craig, and Alex for all of their time, attention, and hospitality. This was a memorable and inspiring way to spend a few hours in the middle of the day. Great conversation, amazing coffee, and a masterclass in coffee making!