Capitol Hill baristas pour over what it takes to join their ranks

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Erika Zumwalt at Kaladi Brothers on Pike (Photo: Alex Garland)

Hot, fast, and with a smile. For most coffee customers, that’s enough to please. Even baristas at Capitol Hill’s most established coffeehouses say its a baseline level of service most people could deliver. But if you want to join the ranks of career baristas who are pressing the limits on coffee culture, you’ll need to take an obsessive, practically academic approach to the craft of coffee.

This week, Seattle invaded New York City for Coffee Fest 2014. The Seattle-based festival started “before coffee was hot” in 1992 and continues to be among the nation’s top coffee trade shows. So what does it take to land a barista job on Capitol Hill (and perhaps one day pull “America’s Best Espresso” at Coffee Fest?). Most baristas and managers we spoke to said it all comes back to customer service.

“If you make a good cup of coffee with bad service, who cares,” said Bauhaus owner Joel Radin. Like other managers, Radin said previous coffee experience isn’t a requirement landing a job at Capitol Hill’s most venerated shops. Demonstrating grace under pressure is a skill in much higher demand.

Josiah McLain is a barista at the 15th Ave Victrola. He told CHS by email that making it in coffee comes down to passion.

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Josiah McLain at the 15th Ave Victrola (Photo: Alex Garland)

“Honestly, I firmly believe that anyone can learn to make coffee — it’s actually fairly simple. However, in order to work at some of the more prestigious, product oriented shops, you must have a passion for learning and you must have a certain amount of people skills. After all, being a good barista requires you eventually learn your customers, your regulars, how to read people, and an amount of diplomacy.”

It may be easy for him to say, but for those interested in landing a coffee gig, McLain said it helps not to think of the job as a means to a paycheck. “To many of us it’s not ‘just a job,’ so we would like people applying to not treat it like that,” he said.

As the art of coffee becomes increasingly scientific, many baristas have taken a rigorous academic approach to their craft. Last month CHS spoke with Capitol Hill barista and coffee consultant Nik Virrey, who’s on a personal mission to elevate the coffee experience in Seattle.

Caffe Ladro barista Gabriel Hernandez said it’s that high-end craftsmanship that intrigues him the most. Hernandez had a unique path to becoming a barista at the 15th Ave Ladro. He was “bit with the coffee bug” after spending a summer at his uncle’s coffee garden in Puerto Rico.

“There’s a certain balance of science, art, and ingenuity that goes into making a great cup of coffee, and this balance takes years to understand,” he said.

The accumulated years of experience behind most Capitol Hill coffee bars can make even asking for an application fairly daunting (some baristas at Bauhaus have been with company for nearly two decades).

“The best part of coffee on the Hill is there is a lot of good coffee on the Hill. There is variety and quality within blocks of each other. The worse part is it feels like the scene gets a little pretentious,” said Kaladi Brothers Coffee barista/manager Jeremiah Skalisky.

But as a coffee neophyte, working among the best can also be a huge asset, especially if you wind up at a place like Caffe Vita.

Vita will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Capitol Hill this year — a coffee shop that may have done more than any other to raise the bar for Seattle baristas. Ross Beamish heads up Vita’s comprehensive training and development programs. He said the company likes to pair up new baristas, some with no coffee background, with the most experienced in Capitol Hill as a way to inspire a passion for the craft.

“We have the most longevity of baristas in Capitol Hill. It’s kind of an institution,” he said. “Managers will cherry pick employees from there, we encourage that. There’s no shortage of people willing to work in Capitol Hill.”

Erika Zumwalt came to work at the Capitol Hill Kaladi Brothers from the coffee shop’s home base in Alaska. She said making coffee in Capitol Hill is everything you might expect, with high expectations and the occasional absurdly specific demands.unnamed-1

“Latte art is huge here, and perfecting it has been something I either smile about as I hand that sexy latte over, or feel the weight on my heart as that Rosetta turns into an odd abstract painting no one would buy,” she said. “But the best part is when someone picks up that dry cappuccino and lifts the cup up so high because they were expecting it to be heavier… then them telling me I make a mean cappuccino. Compliments will never get old.”

Do you have a favorite Capitol Hill espresso slinger? Leave your loving comments, below.

17 thoughts on “Capitol Hill baristas pour over what it takes to join their ranks

  1. The quality of the coffee does matter as much as the service. I don’t care how great the service is. The service at Starbucks is terrific, but the coffee at Broadcast Coffee on Bellvue and Espresso Vivace on Broadway is far superior. The service would have to be exceptionally bad for me to give up great coffee for mediocre or bad coffee.

  2. Even though I don’t use syrup in my coffee, if a cafe has Torani syrup, I won’t even order a coffee there. It indicates a lack of care that will definitely transfer into the quality of espresso.

  3. The best espresso on the hill can be found at Analog. The best Americano on the hill can be found at Joe Bar. I can’t explain exactly why this is. Try them both.

  4. Pingback: Capitol Hill food+drink | Volunteer Park Cafe’s Burke at center of Liz Dunn’s next Pike/Pine marketplace | CHS Capitol Hill Seattle

  5. Pingback: Out of Paradiso emerged Caffe Vita — and decades of Capitol Hill coffee culture | CHS Capitol Hill Seattle

  6. Erika hasn’t ever made me a bad coffee…or made me smell the aroma of a bad attitude either. Being down to earth is always a bonus! I don’t take my coffee with synthetic sweeteners, and same goes for my baristas!

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