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Professionally Speaking
What Barista Jams Are Made Of
Author: Sherri Johns
Posted: February 12, 2004
Article rating: 6.9
feedback: (4) comments | read | write
Machine Steam

Coffee is the beverage that brings many of us together - and every loves a good coffee. There are messengers of good coffee, the professional Baristi, and if I could predict the future a bit, this will be their decade. With the advent of guilds, competitions, industry recognition and jams, Baristi will flourish and the profession will gain acceptance in all circles of N. American culture. As a consumer, you'll see a benefit too: exceptional espresso will be easier than ever to find. Thank goodness!

Speaking of Jams, we're rapidly approaching that time of the year again - the Northwest Barista Jam, having its second year in what is now an annual run. The Jam happens in Seattle from February 20 through the 22nd this year, and is hosted at the Espresso Specialists Incorporated main office and warehouse.

So what is a Jam? The premise is modeled after a musician’s jam session. That informal event is usually a group of musicians who get together on a regular basis to play tunes. Some bring stacks of “fake books”, books that have main melodies of jazz standard tunes alphabetically arranged for easy reference and ideas, other musicians would come with their ‘axe’, a musicians’ instrument as it is affectionately called. Still others would come just to ‘dig the scene’. Imaginative, free ideas of chord structure, phrasing, notation and tone would flow like wine or other inebriants that were often available and things always got a little wild as the evening wore on.

Jams were free form enough but some structure provided a framework generally someone would call a song, others would chime in and solo and everyone “jammed”. The song would last as long as the ideas did.  

A Barista jam is an assemblage with the same sense of inspiration and exploration; only the medium (or vehicle) is specialty coffee in general, and espresso in particular. Rather than musicians grouped together talking about riffs, scale changes, half notes and block cords, we have Baristi talking about shot times, tamping techniques, espresso blends and grinding burrs. Musical axes have been replaced with tampers, steam pitchers and beans. If this sounds like a science experiment to you, it is a little bit like one. Lab coats have given way to aprons. Loosely defined a jam is: anytime 2 or more Barista come together over an espresso machine to challenge themselves, or any time there is a gathering of several Baristi and machines all under one roof.

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Learning Time
John Blackwell talks to last year's attendees about the mechanics of espresso.
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Mark Pfaff
Pfaff was the winner of last year's in house competition at the NW Jam - here he's working one of the group machines.
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Sherri Johns
Johns addresses the assembled Baristi at last year's NW Jam.
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Jam 2003 Attendees
Many of the attendees of last year's NW Barista Jam

The Northwest Barista Jam came into being last year when Jeff Babcock, Danny Johns and yours truly were sharing coffee! Babcock and several of his Baristi had recently returned from a trip to Norway where Nordic Baristi had gathered at Solberg and Hanson headquarters over a handful of espresso machines. A good time was had by all and Babcock and his Baristi came away from this experience with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, not to mention a new drive to a more refined level of espresso expertise. I was coordinating and producing regional and national espresso competitions for the SCAA at this time, and I was also working with the World Barista Championship (WBC), internationally and other global events when I shared my coffee with Jeff, and was enamored with the idea.

We talked round and round about how really cool it would be to provide a place and space for Baristi everywhere to come, learn and share. As I recall it was a little bit like the old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies. Some cause would inevitably get the duo riled and ultimately the decision would be, “Let’s put on a show”.  We rolled up our sleeves, talked to many baristi, and I drank lots of espresso and wrote a curriculum like a maniac. Danny added the café crawl to visit several baristi favorite haunts to profile the diversity and expertise Seattle is known for and secured a school bus on the cheap!


The camaraderie and fun baristi have is obvious, once caffeine and enthusiasm takes over, the room bustles wit energy. After last years NW Jam the feedback came in baristi really loved meeting other baristi from outside the region. Regional differences of roast opinions keep the conversations lovely. Of course, tooling along on a big yellow school bus hitting cafes makes for close encounters of the espresso kind. The competitions get everyone involved without the pressure of a large audience. Everyone role plays as judges and baristi and gets a glimpse into competing aspect. Life long friendships are formed over coffee and I see the beginnings of this at the jams.

Café owners should see the value and support their baristi to attend. For a small fee, the barista comes away with a new sense of pride and profession. Savvy owners see the jams as common grounds for learning and bonding. Some of our greatest supporters are high profile cafes where learning and espresso experimentation is encouraged. Other smaller cafes see the value in exposing their baristi to a bigger picture of coffee, learning new techniques and skills or strengthening current skill sets while meeting other baristi. Rather than lecture format on the sessions, it is geared to small bar workshops lead by baristi and coffee professionals. We mix the format for espresso based learning and throw in a healthy mix of cupping and blending for espresso skills, per se. Face it, there are not too many occasions owners can get out with their baristi and support them in a structured event that is geared to the baristi. Owners tell me they attend to support their people. One roaster who came last year with two attendees was the first to sign up their year with six!

The main reason we do this is because it’s fun and we want to promote baristi and see baristi get together over an espresso machine outside of their everyday cafes. The recognition of a baristi is almost unknown in the US so I keep banging the drum. I began my own coffee career in 1976, slinging shots, hence baristi are near and dear to me. At the time, I just made espresso with “love”. The “passion” verbiage came about to a more p.c. culture in the 90’s, I suppose. It is all good stuff when talented people come together of varying ideas, expertise and enthusiasm to talk and taste coffee. I am one who likes to organize things, call it: type A meets ristretto doppio macchiato, add willing volunteers, several espresso machines and great coffee, you get a barista jam.

The Second Annual Northwest Jam Events

This year's Northwest Barista Jam starts on February 20th in Seattle, WA with a reception at a local micro brew pub - basically a get together event for those who arrive in town early, and no flash photography is allowed.

The following morning we jump start early at Espresso Specialists Inc.'s headquarters with fresh baked pastries and coffee, then the curriculum and things to do start full tilt. John Blackwell of ESI will educate Baristi into the inner workings of La Marzocco espresso machines, and talk some about the theory of espresso and what goes on while the shot is being brewed.

A cupping session and experimentation with espresso blending will follow a break, and the true fun and test is the following morning when we all try everyone else's' blends for our chosen morning ritual - the espresso shot.

Later in the day on Saturday we pile onto a bus and scope out the local espresso scene for what's become the famous “café crawl”. Stalwartly souls from last year said had reached their peak at 5 cafes, having as many as 8 espressos and then some... and all this after a morning of espresso and coffee. This year we’ll stick to four of Seattle’s finest, and some discussion with the cafe owners, roasters, and Baristi.

Saturday evening is a dinner at the new Zoka Roastery, which will be a mixer and social hour or two of pizza and brews of the alcoholic variety. As mentioned above, the Sunday morning ritual has us taste testing and brewing espresso blends from the day before. A ballot box to vote for your favourite blend will be on hand, and four espresso stations will be manned by volunteers who have espresso expertise and recognized experts in their field. These volunteers will continue on at their stations and attending Baristi break up into small groups around each station. I've found that small groups create learning and sharing opportunity for all.

At these intimate sessions around the machine stations, grinding, tasting and dosing are examined, as is steamed milk art and building signature drinks. Signature drinks are something that is really taking off: quite a few Baristi have created signature drinks with the approach of a master chef, and the time has come to share the thought process and play with flavors and combinations, hot and cold. The milk art is new this year. Designs are getting more and more sophisticated and we like to highlight some Baristi doing great things with new shaped pitchers, pour angle and cup sizes to name a few.

The afternoon is wrapped around Barista competitions. WE have our 2003 national champion Heather Perry in Seattle at the Jam to demonstrate this year, and the small group process continues when the groups are coached on the process as a judge and Barista, then everyone gives a competition run through a go as we role play. It gets pretty exciting to see the shyer Barista come out and slam some pretty incredible espresso. We make it fun and not so scary if this is a first crack on competitions.

At the NW Jam, we use the same score sheets, rules and regulations as the SCAA competitions to acquaint everyone in this mock comp. Top scorers go into a final round and everyone watches. Now things get a bit serious - we have SCAA certified judges who have judged before and we have a real session. Everyone hangs onto the Barista as they do their best. It’s inspiring to experienced and newer Baristi alike to sit around, up close and personal, as the final four do their thing.

We end the jam with awards, sponsor thank yous, hugs and gifts. Fully caffeinated, we head back into the world full of new ideas and new friends because after all, it’s about sharing and soon enough we’ll be sharing with customers and coworkers alike.

The Nitty Gritty Details

Details, details. The NW Barista Jam is open for all, beginning and advanced Baristi welcomed. Due to space considerations and to provide participants greater hands on experience we are limited to 25 participants. Yes, I know it’s a tiny number and we just filled up during the editing of this article. The cost was $100.The dates at February 20 – 22, location is Seattle, Washington. For more information, please email sjohnswholecup@aol.com or call 503-232-1016.  Because the jam has been confirmed FULL, we are already planning a second. Thank you for your interest.

Sherri Johns

Sherri Johns is the owner WholeCup Coffee, a consulting firm located in Portland, Oregon. She specializes in Retail Development and Barista Training, and she is an author and avid origin traveler. Johns is a former Board Member of the SCAA, a current member of the SCAA Training and USBC Committees, a WBC International Coordinator, and the 1978 Barista Champion in San Francisco where she was dubbed the “cappuccino queen”. Johns can be reached at sjohnswholecup@aol.com.

Article rating: 6.9
Author: Sherri Johns
Posted: February 12, 2004
feedback: (4) comments | read | write
Professionally Speaking Column Archives  
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With each new Professionally Speaking feature article, you'll read the words of a professional in the coffee industry, addressing issues that matter most to other industry members. Topics will include commercial roasting, green bean buying, staffing and managing a cafe, and anything else related to the business of doing coffee.

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