Resources For Beginners

I’m very happy to be able to say that enthusiasm for espresso is growing rapidly within Bridgehead. We’ve introduced over 100 people to a detailed, quality-oriented, professional approach to espresso over the past year and the payoff has been more than worth the effort! With that said, there’s only so much I can teach one-on-one, and I know there are many baristas who are longing to learn more but don’t know where to begin.

This is the first of three related posts which will offer direction to new baristas who want to develop the scope of their knowledge of espresso, coffee and the Specialty Coffee industry but don’t know where to begin. The best resources are either found or identified on the internet, but there’s so much misinformation and other rubbish to wade through these days that I can only imagine how difficult it would be to get started.

This first post will guide new baristas to those resources they should look to in building a foundational knowledge of coffee.

The second post will be a guide to the Specialty Coffee industry, highlighting those organizations, retailers, roasters, equipment manufacturers, people of consequence and bloggers that all aspiring baristas should know of.

The third post will be a compilation of the many valuable internet resources where those baristas who have developed foundational knowledge can continue to learn more about the specifics of coffee and to keep up with the latest trends.

Where To Begin?

I was terrifically lucky when I first got into coffee: a google search of “How to make a cappuccino” lead me to an interview with one of the Danish World Barista Champions who, when asked about the training systems he used in his shop, mentioned what was then an incredible resource, David Schomer’s Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques. This book was an excellent primer to espresso preparation, and for its time it contained many profound statements that now seem quite obvious (use a clean portafilter, grind-to-order, etc,).

A great deal has changed since Schomer wrote Professional Techniques, and indeed many statements within the book are no longer considered to be wholly truthful. Thankfully there is a new(ish) book available that, in a far more comprehensive manner, aims to teach new and seasoned baristas alike just about everything they need to know to make great espresso. This is Scott Rao’s “The Professional Barista’s Handbook”. Any baristas that wish to further their skill and knowledge of the craft ought to have their own copy – and if you’re in Montreal on the weekend, you can stop by Cafe Myriade to pick one up!

Beyond this book, another highly recommended resource is with their forums and how-to’s section. Baristas should all be familiar with Jim Schulman’s The Home Barista’s Guide to Espresso.

While on the subject of major coffee websites, one can’t forget to mention – probably the most popular coffee website featuring a broad swath of information, such as Aaron de Lazzer’s Milk Frothing Guide.

Beyond Barismo

Of course, beyond espresso preparation there is a lot more to know about coffee and the industry. This is where it becomes difficult to recommend specific resources, because there’s just so much to learn about. The difficulty with internet resources is that they don’t provide the breadth of knowledge that one finds in a book. For that reason, I’ll list recommended coffee books before offering guidance on internet resources.

    Coffee Books – Building A Foundation

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast – a wide ranging, primarily historical overview of coffee that will provide anyone new to coffee with a solid foundation of knowledge.

Coffee: A guide to buying, brewing and enjoying by Kenneth Davids. Kenneth Davids knows a ton about coffee and runs the slightly controversial This is another great foundation building book.

The Joy of Coffee by Corby Kummer. It’s been a long time since I’ve read this one, but from what I recall it’s another comprehensive and approachable book that will help to build basic coffee knowledge.

    Coffee Books – Strictly Historical

Coffee: A Dark History by Antony Wild. This is a very well researched and extremely readable book on the history of coffee. The author is an English gent and coffee historian, and from what I recall his British wit makes the read all the more enjoyable.

    Coffee Books – Getting Serious

Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality. Want to know a lot about coffee? Read this book. Seriously. I’m not going to list any other books under this category because this is the one you should read. Twice.

    Coffee Books – Over The Top

Like to read a lot? Here are two awesome books that should rightly be considered “relics”. They are largely irrelevant today, but are fascinating reads nonetheless.

All About Coffee by William Ukers. This book was, I believe, originally published in 1935. It is an extraordinary look at what the coffee experts thought about the subject when the industry was still in relative infancy. Not for those looking to learn anything they can apply to preparing coffee, or for the faint of heart. It is massive and entirely outdated.

Coffee Technology by Michael Sivetz. The original version of this post listed this book as “outdated”, given that it was published in 1979. The resulting spirited defense of the book and its author by Scott Rao was enough encouragement for me to pick up the book again. I promptly had my mind blown.

Sivetz’s book briefly yet concisely covers the industrial and cultural history of coffee around the globe and then moves into a detailed overview of the “green coffee” side of the industry. Chapters on Coffee Horticulture, Harvesting and Handling Green Coffee Beans, Drying Green Coffee Beans, Hulling, Classifying and Storing, and Coffee Bean Processing (ie roasting processes) are perhaps outdated but are also intensely fascinating. I have to go back and read these soon. The relevant and valuable information in this book comes from its chapters on Percolation Theory and Practice with respect to instant coffee, and its section on Coffee Brewing. Having taken a second look at this book, I can certainly recommend it for those who wish to learn more about all aspects of coffee.

My recommendation is that those new to coffee read all four books listed in the first two categories. Anyone who wants to take their exploration of coffee seriously ought to then read Illy’s Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality. I have a copy and can loan it out. They first few books are widely available and are inexpensive, but that said you may want to see if there are other interested baristas at your shop who would like to pitch in for a copy of each.

Coming soon – The Asipiring Barista’s Guide To the Specialty Coffee Industry. Also, look out for a recap of the Great Lakes Regional Barista Competition in Chicago, IL this weekend. I’ll be heading there this afternoon and will post about the event early next week! There may be a live stream of the competition (which runs Friday – Sunday) – I’ll post a link here if there is.


3 thoughts on “Resources For Beginners

  1. I love that you suggest a book you refer to as “massive and entirely outdated” as a resource. Important to know where we’ve been to know where we’re going, eh?

  2. Ian,
    Thank you for the kind mention of my book in your post.

    I’d like to stick up for Mike Sivetz’ book a bit. Though it may seem “outdated” in that it is old fashioned, I learned more useful information from that book than from any other resource.

    Perhaps as importantly, only Sivetz and Illy (and now hopefully,Rao) published books that are predominantly accurate, well-researched, and contain a degree of detail that makes them useful to professionals.

    Sivetz was a chemist by trade and his book contains much information that is being ‘rediscovered’ recently by coffee professionals. Thirty (forty?) years ago Sivetz addressed the issues of channeling in percolation brewing (espresso is a sub-category of percolation), various methods of preinfusion and distribution techniques to minimize channeling, he addressed grind particle size distribution, dynamics of degassing in fresh coffee, the relative merits of different grinding machine architecture, the effect of water chemistry on coffee flavor, and the list goes on.

    I’ve always been surprised that Sivetz’ book has not received more attention and praise, and I hope it eventually receives the praise it deserves.

    I’m working intensely on a technical how-to book for non-espresso brewing, and hope to publish it by the end of the year. I believe it is sorely needed, and look forward to seeing our industry become more proficient, informed, and professional.

    Thanks for the great blog,
    Scott Rao

  3. Scott,

    You’re absolutely right about Sivetz’s book. When I read the book, about a year and a half ago, I approached it with a lot less experience and a certain aversion to the discussion of instant coffee. Going back to the chapter on percolation theory respecting instant coffee production this evening I’ve learned a ton, and I’m super excited to get to the section on brewed coffee.

    I’ve edited the post to remove any unfair statements!



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