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A Day In The Life Of A Blue Bottle Barista

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Here now, another episode of A Day in the Life, wherein Eater goes undercover with a professional in San Francisco's food scene.

[Photos: Eva Frye]

Today we follow barista and cupping-lead Bennett Cross around the Blue Bottle Roastery in Oakland. This is what Bennett did on Sunday, June 24th:

9:30 a.m.: Bennett arrives at the roastery at Webster and 3rd in Oakland. Sunday is a special day in Bennett's schedule, since he gets to play with roasts and lead a cupping, or a coffee tasting. Right when he gets in, he collects samples from Friday's roast. Now, two days later, it has had an appropriate amount of time to cool and settle into its flavor. He starts to weigh out samples and blend coffees — right now his favorite blend is Three Africans: a three-bean blend of equal proportions Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Ethiopian Sidamo, and Papua New Guinea.

10 a.m.: Bennett grinds the roasts for a production cupping. It's important for the roasters to smell and taste the final product so they see how what they do affects the flavor. In a cupping, the first step is a dry smell, where you smell fresh grounds. Here, you pick out aromas that tell you a lot about the processing. Heavy fruit notes tell you purveyors used a "dry process," wherein the coffee cherry is left around the bean to dry. In so doing, the bean absorbs those fruit flavors. In "wet" processing, the fruit is washed away from the bean, left to dry sans cherry. These beans tend to be less fruit-forward.
10:15 a.m.: The wet smell comes after the dry smell. Pour hot water into the cup of grinds and see how this changes the aroma from the dry smell. This tends to mask the fruit notes and pulls out more earthy, savory smells, like chocolate and nuts.

10:20 a.m.: Bennett's favorite part of the cupping: breaking the crust. After steeping for a few minutes, Bennett takes a spoon and sweeps into the floating grinds to smell the fully-developed and delicious gasses that were trapped underneath the thick blanket of coffee grinds. Once he smells the mature aroma, he skims the grinds off the top and disposes of them, leaving behind a brewed cup of coffee.

10:30 a.m.: Now that the brewed coffee has cooled to an optimum temperature, it's time to taste. "Although a piping hot cup of coffee is what most people like, you actually want to taste it when it's cooled down just a little," he explains. "Our bodies just can't perceive flavor very well when what we are eating or drinking is too hot. Plus coffee is such a dynamic drink that as it cools it will open up and change to some degree." Bennett and his roasters, Mike and Rodolfo, discuss their likes and dislikes so they know how to tweak future roasts.

11 a.m.: Next, he enters his findings on each roast, noting aroma, acidity, mouthfeel, flavor, and aftertaste onto the company website so everyone can know what to expect to see. This day, he's especially fond of an Amaro Gayo washed coffee. Bennett smells it, and notes that the fragrance is floral and fruity. When he tastes it, the acidity that hits him is mild, nippy, and sweet. It has a smooth, rich mouthfeel and sweet flavor — deep red fruit to start, a touch of citrus — and cools and opens up into a more floral delicate cup. It finishes with a clean, sweet, citrus aftertaste.

11:30 a.m.: For the next hour and a half, Bennett rotates between hopping behind the espresso bar if they're really busy in the cafe and pulling single origin tastings for the roasters. Again, this is all to maintain high roasting standards, and of course to refine their palates.

1 p.m.: Lunch break. It's tamale day! Every Friday, the company buys lunch for everyone working over the weekend from an employee's aunt who makes a mean tamale. Bennett is super excited about his pork and chicken tamales, and squirts them with a swirl of crema and salsa.

1:30 p.m.: Belly full, Bennett heads to the cupping room to set up for the Sunday public cupping. A self-proclaimed "coffee geek," he loves talking all-things-coffee to anyone interested. His passion for coffee, and eagerness to share its details, comes across within minutes of meeting him. And it's not pretentious; it's genuine excitement to share information that he thinks you'll find interesting too. From farming and processing methods to roasting, blending, and different ways to brew, coffee is a topic with a lot to learn about.

"It's all about sharing," he says. "I think coffee snobbery is just baristas not wanting to share what they know with an interested person. Coffee for me is one way to talk to people . . . I'd love nothing more than to geek out with customers. But you also need to know who is interested in all the minutia about the coffee, or who just wants to get a cappuccino and be on their way. Sometimes a barista can't fulfill an order to the exact specifications they've been asked to. They can just tell the customer, 'No, we don't do that,' or they can give a little background on why they can't. Maybe they don't have all of the ingredients . . . But to deny without explanation comes off as snobbery and as if they just don't want to do what they've been asked. At the end of the day it's all about providing good customer service and putting forward a delicious drink that I am proud to present."

2-3 p.m.: Let the knowledge-sharing begin! Bennett goes through dry smell, wet smell, breaking the crust, and tasting with a captive audience. They pick his brain and he asks them thought provoking questions along the way, guiding them in the right direction with their new-found coffee knowledge.

"This one smells really strongly of berries," one woman says.

"So what processing method do you think it went through?" Bennett probes.

"Dry process?" she asks.

"You got it. The cherries were left to dry on the bean so now it smells very fruit-forward."

3:30 p.m.: Clean up and get out! Time to get back to the city to prepare for siphoning, a Japanese brewing technique, and pulling single origin espresso at the Mint location on Monday.

A big thanks to the friendly Blue Bottlers for playing along. And remember folks, tip your baristas — that milk doesn't foam itself.

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