ABC's new online coffee school

The digital delivery of higher education is making knowledge more accessible to more people than ever before. Increasingly, people are turning to the internet to provide their schooling, and it is now possible to get a complete degree (even graduate science degrees) from some of the best universities in the world, without ever setting foot on campus.

Both students and universities benefit from these changes. Students benefit because they can watch lectures and do the coursework on their own time, giving them the flexibility to work more while going to class. Online education can save the students money too, since they can avoid the cost and disruption of moving to a far-away location.

The universities benefit because the marginal cost of delivering a set of courses online is not much different for ten people than it is for five hundred people, and by putting classes online, universities can make them instantly available to people all around the world, significantly broadening their customer bases and spreading their ideas farther than in the past. Societal acceptance of online degrees is coming around too, and every day there is less stigma associated with them.

Naturally, the movement of education online is not limited to university education. Recently, the American Barista and Coffee School (ABC) announced it was opening a new online school,, that offers courses for baristas, café owners, and other coffee people who want to learn about barista training and/or the business of coffee. 

A first look at ABC's new online school

The nature of the new course also makes it easy to take in the ABC curriculum in smaller bites too. Instead of a five-day marathon that could lead some people to experience coffee overload, allows the user to digest information in smaller increments on their own schedule. Accordingly, the up-front cost will be lower, with subscriptions starting at $14.95/month.

I reached out to Matt Milletto, VP of ABC, and Phil Schlieder, ABC’s Director of Business Development, with a few questions about the new online school.

CPDX: Will the courses include the full ABC curriculum? If not, what will be missing?

MM: The online barista training platform is not meant to be a substitute to our hands on business and barista training classes, but more of an ongoing resource for coffee bar owners and baristas. We will be focusing more on how to maintain and grow your existing business thru a linear training methodology for your entire staff, and business guidance on how to succeed in this ever changing industry. 

CPDX: Are you worried the online school will compete with your on-site courses?

MM: No, again we are broadening our reach globally and providing an incredibly valuable service to primarily existing coffee bar owners. Our on-site classes represent a full immersion learning environment for those looking to open a new business, and nothing can replace the over 50 hours of comprehensive hands on training our primary class offers. 

CPDX: What are the biggest benefits for the enrollees?

MM: As a coffee bar owner, your monthly subscription gives you a resource to establish a consistent training program and education to your staff. You are able to assess your employees progress, and follow along as they move thru the courses. Also, you are constantly updated with new content to help you succeed, and have a true resource for guidance, tips, interactive live webinars, and more. 

PS: The cafe shop owner that enrolls in our product is able to not only offer a consistent training platform for their employees, but they are also able to use our management tools as well. Right now online barista training offers a business owner the ability to track his employees progress with their training, but we are looking to expand in the future into such things as scheduling and social interaction between everyone at the coffee business. This tool is especially great for businesses with multiple locations and a large staff as they are able to have a centralized location for all things coffee.

CPDX: What makes ABC’s online courses different from other online coffee classes? 

MM: We have not only taken our training methodology to an online format, but have developed a way to ensure assessment and progress that can act as the foundation for a coffee bars training platform. Our course are meant to provide the education, to then take to the espresso machine and practice, practice, practice. We also have eliminated the common large $500+ upfront cost to many other online courses, allowing a business owner to include a small monthly budget dedicated towards training and ongoing education. We have developed a platform that not only includes hours of HD video, but also written curriculum, articles, checklists, live webinars, and more, to promote engagement. 

CPDX: What is the cost of attending the new school, and what can students expect to get for that?

MM: The online platform we have developed starts at just $14.95/month depending on if you are a single barista looking to hone your skills, or a shop owner with 10 employees. 

CPDX: Do the courses include any interaction with live humans?

MM: We plan to offer live interactive Q&A and webinar type education monthly, and as the site grows, we will be offering more and more ways for our members to interact with our trainers and advisors. 

CPDX: How will the courses be laid out?

MM: The barista training methodology is divided into multiple modules, with internal courses and an exam at the end of each. This way everyone will be able to rely on the same training, promoting consistency. There will be additional content added for your staff regularly. A coffee bar owner also has a full dashboard with the ability to add employees and monitor their progress and will have full access to the business and operations content available, as well as the many features we've discussed above. 

PS: Our courses layout is in the form of modules and individual lessons. The main barista training platform includes 7 modules each with between 5-10 lessons. At the end of each module there is a comprehensive exam that the employee is able to test their knowledge. At the end of the barista training course there is a final exam with a diploma awarded when a passing score is reached. Our business courses are geared more for the business owner themselves. These are also delivered in a similar format. For both the barista training and business courses, there will be consistently added content for an evolving platform.

The new school should be accepting signups by the end of this week.

The new school should be accepting signups by the end of this week.

Done right, online coursework can be as rigorous as with a traditional classroom (though you do lose some of the social benefits of the traditional model—i.e., it is much harder to go out for drinks with your online professors after class). But the inherent flexibility and the ability to access the best training in a particular field, no matter where you are, will make online education continue to grow in the future. In the case of coffee training, while nothing can substitute for actual hands-on work with an espresso machine or grinder, an online course can give new café owners a strong knowledge base to work with. Equipped with more information, they are less likely to make costly mistakes and more likely to be successful with their ventures. 

Coffee school – Two days at ABCS

Many coffee people have told me that being a barista is difficult. Whenever they say that, I am always skeptical. How hard could it be?

To find out, I took a two-day barista course at the American Barista and Coffee School last week. The class, led by ABCS’s Tom Pikaart and Sara Ziniewicz, was designed to give students a hands-on introduction to pulling espresso shots, steaming milk, pouring latte art, and maintaining equipment. Eight students took the class, at ABCS’s headquarters on Water Avenue. Some of the students had their own cafés, and others worked for roasters, supporting wholesale accounts. Most had at least some prior coffee knowledge or training.

In his opening remarks, Pikaart made it clear that the purpose of the course was not to perfect our technique. Rather, it was to teach us how to approach learning the craft of being a barista. No one can become an espresso expert in two days, he told us, but you can learn what you need to know to get started. If you have the right mindset, competence will follow. These were the five things he said we needed to focus on:

  • Cleanliness
  • Self-betterment (self-improvement)
  • Passion
  • Self-discipline
  • Consistency

Dialing, pulling, steaming, pouring

After an introduction to the principles and procedures of making espresso, we moved over to the machines and got to work. One of the coolest things about ABCS is the number of different grinders and espresso machines students can try during the class. Our group spread itself out between four different espresso machines, and there were an additional three or four more we did not use.

The first activity was to dial in the grinders. To do this, we adjusted the distance between the grinder’s burrs, which changes the fineness of the grounds. Every day, as conditions in the café change (temperature, humidity, etc.), baristas must make small adjustments to the grind so the espresso tastes good. Knowing how to do this is a critical skill for a barista.

Once we had the grinders where we wanted them, it was time to make some espresso. The first shot I pulled was comically slow, and, as I had to stop and think about each step in the process. As we pulled more and more shots, my technique became more fluid. I would like to think my espressos got better over time, too.

After lunch, we moved on to milk. Steaming milk was less intimidating. Having steamed a lot of milk as a Starbucks barista, I had some idea of what to watch and listen for. It was fairly easy to adapt the techniques Tom and Sara told us about to what I already knew.

Tom Pikaart teaching latte art theory

Pouring latte art, on the other hand, was completely new. Latte art, a common sight in Portland cafés, does not necessarily make the drink better, but it does indicate how serious the baristas in a café take their craft. This is an example of what we were aiming for:

A soft heart, poured by our instructor

I found that pouring beautiful latte art is not easy, especially when you are starting out. (You can see a couple of my early tries below).

Not going to win any competitions, but not bad for a beginner

Getting better...

Teaching others

One of our exercises the second day was to teach a partner how to make a (caffè) latte. We had to write down (from memory) all the steps, then our partner was supposed to follow them exactly, no matter how many things we left out. I had thirty steps on my list, and I still forgot a couple. The lesson helped me understand why some café owners train their employees for a month before allowing them to make drinks for a customer. It takes time to make all these steps automatic.

Another important takeaway from the class was how important cleanliness is to the quality of the products. Both Tom and Sara emphasized how important it is to clean the machine regularly and thoroughly. Roasted coffee is full of oils that can creep into the hidden nooks and crannies on grinders and espresso machines. These oils degrade as they contact the air, and produce some funky flavors and odors if left long enough. For practice, we pulled our espresso machine apart and cleaned all the parts that come into contact with the coffee.

One thing that surprised me about the course was its emphasis on using our five senses to monitor the quality of our drinks. I had expected we would rely more on scales, stopwatches and thermometers, and while Pikaart advocated using these devices to check a barista’s consistency, he said we need to be able to use our senses. Measuring everything, every time, is too time-consuming to use in a café setting. and with practice and attention to detail, a barista can learn to be very accurate and consistent using just the five senses.

Lesson learned

After taking the class, I understand why people say being a barista is hard. With so many minute details that factor into making great drinks, you need to practice for a long time to become good. It takes time to master the skills of the craft.

“Being a professional is an attitude. It is not a skill set,” Pikaart told us, as he closed out the class. We might not start out as experts, but we will get there if we keep learning.

A good lesson not just for being a barista, but for life as well.


Espresso quality control

Here’s a demonstration of the variation in quality between cafés. Compare the two pictures below. In both cases, I ordered a double espresso.

Small and flavorful Too big for an espresso

As you can see, there is a significant difference in the size of the drink (the quarter in the picture gives you a sense of the how big each one was). The difference in quality was even greater.

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A PDX Coffee Adventure-Part 2

Sam and I left Public Domain and headed south for Pioneer Square. As we reached the square, a newsman from Channel 8 asked if we wanted to be on the news. I hesitated for a second and then thought sure, why not? It never hurts to get some practice time in front of the camera. The station was looking for “on the street” responses to President Obama’s compromise on the tax cuts. I shared my opinions and we moved on. It had already been a more interesting day than I had planned.

We walked through downtown over to the riverfront area, crossing the Hawthorne Bridge and dropping down to Water Avenue (It would have been quicker to take the Morrison Bridge, but I only realized this after we reached the café). We arrived just as the rain started to fall. Inside, the barista warmly greeted us, and he described his espressos with ease. We ordered, and while we waited, I glanced around for the roaster that was supposed to be in the café. It was behind the wall just behind the front counter, but it was not in use at the time.

Attention: fresh-roasted coffee nearby

Sam and I sat down by the window and looked around. I took a couple of pictures and when I did, Matt Milletto, the owner, came over to talk to us. He was just making sure we weren’t up to anything sinister (I don’t blame him—we probably looked suspicious). Sam introduced himself as a co-worker to someone who Matt knew. Matt quickly recognized the name and offered us a tour if we could wait a couple minutes. Sure, we replied.

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