Samurai Barista Training

Helping Local Baristas Achieve ‘Nerd’ Stripes

Christopher Feran stands behind a counter in Phoenix Coffee Company’s downtown test kitchen, holding a flame to a small kerosene burner. The flame catches and begins to heat a glass pot filled with water. A half-dozen 20-somethings watch him from behind, rapt, as the water heats and begins to boil. Then it snakes upward through a tube, filling a second pot hovering above the first. A young woman lets out a low whistle.

“OK, you’re seriously blowing my mind right now,” she says.

Feran smiles. “The real magic hasn’t even happened yet,” he assures her.

And sure enough, everyone applauds a few seconds later when Feran snuffs out the flame and the bottom pot refills — this time with freshly brewed coffee.

“It’s like being at a fifth-grade science fair!” someone jokes.

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Welcome to Phoenix Coffee Company’s first-ever Advanced Barista Seminar, informally known as “samurai barista training.”

It’s happening at the company’s downtown Cleveland roastery and headquarters, a nondescript but aromatic one-story brick building on St. Clair Avenue and E. 17th Street. Feran, the company’s director of coffee and marketing, is co-leading the training with Stephen Shaum, a Phoenix staff trainer. They’re teaching baristas from across the local chain’s three cafés to appreciate the varying tastes, mouthfeels, and strengths produced by different brewing methods.

The technique Feran has just demonstrated — the siphon vacuum pot — is the final and most visually impressive of the session’s experiments. But when Shaum passes around portions of the siphoned coffee in small mugs, the group’s excitement dulls.

“It tastes flat,” someone says.

Someone else agrees. “Right. Not flat but less complex than, like, the Chemex or the AeroPress.” They’re referring to two of the afternoon’s earlier methods: The Chemex is a brand of pot used for pour-over brewing, and the AeroPress is a kind of evolved French press.

As in a controlled scientific experiment, the baristas use the same bean, a Kenya AA roasted on site, in each device. They want to taste how each method affects a single variety of coffee.

“It’s a coffee deep dive,” explains Phoenix CEO Sarah Wilson- Jones. “We’ve always trained our baristas, but with this we’re inviting them to develop that next level of skill, to become a coffee nerd.”

Throughout the two-hour session, the mood alternates between playful and businesslike. Caffeine-addled giggling mixes with erudite discussions of flavor.

Eleanor Baum, a barista who lives in Tremont and works in the Coventry café in Cleveland Heights, sips from a cup brewed in the AeroPress, which was invented in 2005 by the president of the Aerobie flying ring company.

“The sweetness is layered more underneath than in the French press,” she says. “It hits my mouth on the sides almost like orange juice does, where it lingers in your mouth.”

“I’m getting spinach and seaweed — is that crazy?” asks Chauncey Varner of Euclid, who travels among all three Phoenix locations and says she likes giving people hugs.

Feran shakes his head. “Not at all,” he says. “With the African bean varieties, you get a lot of those vegetal flavors, especially when they’re roasted so light.” He hands out copies of a color-coded wheel chart showing flavors associated with different beans. Broccoli, spinach, and avocado all show up on the spectrum, as does another unlikely flavor — wine.

Sarah Stocum, manager of the Lee Road café in Cleveland Heights, studies the chart. “See, I’ve heard that before. I don’t think I’ve ever drunk coffee that tastes like wine,” she says.

“Me either, or I would have had a lot more of it,” Varner jokes.

By the time they’re ready to compare notes on all the brewing techniques, the baristas have each drunk the better parts of half a dozen cups of coffee. The energy level reaches a caffeine induced peak.

Stocum returns to a cup produced in the V60 pour-over cone.

“Wait, I’m getting the wine finally.”

Feran nods enthusiastically.

“But it’s raisiny,” she says.

Feran holds a cup of coffee to his heart and smiles. “I love raisiny. I do.”

In the end, Shaum reviews everyone’s comments as recorded on a small whiteboard. The consensus is that the V60 and the Aeropress best showed off the Kenyan beans, producing sweeter, more complex cups than the other methods.

“But if a customer said they liked more texture, I’d recommend the French press,” says Molly Farris, the company’s catering manager.

“And that’s the whole point,” Shaum says. “To find out what the customer wants, right?”

Shaum just returned to Cleveland from a stint working in coffee houses in Portland, Oregon. He loved the city, but was put off by the show-off attitude of a lot of its baristas.

“In Cleveland,” he says, “the coffee scene is getting more and more sophisticated but it’s still accessible. People aren’t using their knowledge of coffee to push anyone else under their thumbs.”

The trainees pack up their bags, excited to try out the new methods on the job.

But don’t expect to see a siphon vacuum pot burbling away at your local Phoenix café — at least not yet.

“We’re still not using that one in the stores,” Feran says. He grins. “But soon, I hope.”

Plans are in the works to offer brewing classes and other workshops to the public. To find out more visit PhoenixCoffee.com