Coffee Sommeliers in a Starbucks Nation

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
May 2014

Restaurant

  • G & B Coffee
    324 South Hill Street #C19
    Los Angeles, CA 90013
    (312) 555-5555
    www.gandbcoffee.com

Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski don’t go around referring to themselves as coffee sommeliers. They don’t wear badges. They don’t have a beans cellar. And they definitely don’t carry white linens over their arms for the presentation of a latte. They just see the term as a kind of philosophical approximation for their approach to coffee.

“Coffee is not like wine in so many very important ways,” says Glanville. “But insofar as the farmer and Mother Nature are truly the ones who inform quality, it’s very much like wine.” With two Los Angeles outlets (G&B and Go Get ‘Em Tiger) and a growing clientele, not to mention consistently sold-out cupping and brewing classes, Glanville and Babinski have a vested interest in that perspective—sharing the terroir, processing methods, and expressions of a wildly popular and misunderstood product. “When you talk about coffee that way, you are talking about it in a way that only one other beverage is really talked about, and that’s wine.”

G and B Coffee- Los Angeles, CA

G and B Coffee- Los Angeles, CA

Ethiopian Drip Coffee

Ethiopian Drip Coffee

Almond-Macadamia Milk Cappuccino

Almond-Macadamia Milk Cappuccino

Baristas Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski of G and B Coffee- Los Angeles, CA

Baristas Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski of G and B Coffee- Los Angeles, CA

While traditional sommeliers might find a greater concentration of limestone or kaffir in a particular vintage or appellation of Sauvignon Blanc, Glanville and Babinski are blind-tasting their way into a selective catalogue of coffees with type-true regional characteristics and annual variations. “Because we’re dealing with something natural and a perennial crop, we found that certain years, certain origins just really shine,” says Glanville, who counts Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Kenya, and Ethiopia among this year’s most consistent selections for drip coffee.

What’s staggering to him is that while most people could easily identify a preference for Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, many don’t even begin to appreciate differences in coffee. “The vast majority of people who drink drip coffee in America, if you asked them which origin they like best, almost none of them would have a response.” Yes, there’s already an entrenched, self-selected coffee audience that knows its Yergacheffe from its Sumatra. But the majority of people (potential paying customers) are used to an over-roasted, improperly extracted product dosed with milk and sugar. “It’s like coffee is a vehicle for something else. But coffee in and of itself is the thing,” says Glanville. Imagine wine sommeliers waking up in a world of Franzia.

That’s what makes their work significant—not the term coffee sommelier, but what it yields. For the industry, it’s information. Glanville and Babinski share the results of daily blind tastings with roasters, including digital refractometer solubility tests. “It assigns a numerical value to the degree to which coffee has been extracted,” Glanville says, quantifying the successful expression of coffee. “Roasters often do a very bad job of analyzing how soluble their coffee is.”

And for their customers, quality of service is another way the coffee sommelier ethos impacts their coffee experience. The bar set up at G&B lets customers walk up to anyone behind the counter—literally anyone, no ducking or blank expressions—and engage in some form of coffee interaction, and that’s where Babinski sees the most significant parallel to what they do and the work of sommeliers. “It’s about being able to attend to customers, and their needs,” he says. It’s also why they brew in a Fetco 2032 automatic drip instead of the highly popular, highly variable, and time-consuming pour-over method. “Automatic allows us to have a place that’s a little more engaged, more vibrant, less cookie-cutter,” says Babinski.

It also means they have more time for the espresso drinks, which are an industry-wide, high-demand product. “Economically, they’re what make coffee shops function,” says Babinski. “I’m a coffee professional, and I don’t like a straight shot of espresso enough. I don’t want to live in a world where nothing else is served.” Their solution is to treat espresso as the star, building recipes like the rich, nutty Almond Macadamia Milk Cappuccino around it, the way a bartender would a spirit. “If you’re saying [espresso] tastes like chocolate and caramel, it’s going to take you in one direction. If it tastes like effervescent berry, it’s going to take you in another,” says Babinski. The trick [to crafting espresso drinks] is following carefully.

Coffee sommeliers, or just Glanville and Babinski, are wise to marry service with savvy from the ground up, guiding their customers on an inclusive java journey. An especially prescient notion, too, as high-end coffee culture threatens to mature to the point of brittle esotericism (think back to mixology’s early stiff-collar days). Glanville and Babinski do have certain purist ethics of their own. Coffee Regular, a pre-mixed, painstakingly balanced coffee with milk and sugar. It’s their “if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em” solution for older customers, used to drowning their drip with milk at Go Get ‘Em Tiger. So, yes, they will draw some lines in the grounds. Oh, and they’ll never, ever serve soy.

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