Humility in the quest for perfection

Monday, 28 January, 2013
All words by Wayne Oberholzer

This past Saturday I celebrated my 2nd year in Cape Town and my 5th year in the coffee industry. I got to thinking how much things have changed in the last 5 years. It blew my mind.

My 5 years is a small milestone compared to that of the likes of Origin and Bean There. The Seattle Coffee Company and Vida e caffes have been implementing mainstream espresso for even longer. A lot has happened in a pretty short amount of time.

I think people lose sight of just how far we’ve come through passion and constantly striving to know more, when they deal with the day to day chaos that is the coffee industry; none more so than the humble Barista.

But that begs the question, is he so humble these days?

I was talking to a good friend of mine the other day (by talking I mean bitching and moaning, as one does after a long day) about a barista I was trying to work with. My friend told me something to top my rant. He told me a barista had pointe blank told him (a coffee professional who has been in the industry longer than I, competed far more and worked almost every job in this industry) that he could not be taught anymore, because said Barista already knew everything there was to know about making coffee.

Now if I said I was shocked, that would be a vast understatement. I don't mind people who don't know something, people who ask a million questions, people who try but get it wrong, but people who think they know it all, who refuse to learn and try something new and different, they kill me.

When I won the 2012 National barista competition, I was understandably over the moon. I didn’t see it coming and was extremely humbled by the title. I went up against some of the best in the country and on that day, and I was deemed the best at what I did in a competition format.

Do you know how I trained for the World Barista Champs in Vienna? I went back to almost every single one of those people I had competed against and asked for help. I went to Kyle Fraser and got help with my speech. I worked with Ishan Natalie on my coffee prep. I sent samples to Cuth Bland for tasting and crit. Zane Mattisson coached me. I practiced with Lovejoy Chirambasukwa, Wayne Burrows, Craig Charity, David Coleman, Willem Pienaar, Travis Scott. Gerald Charles even sent samples of my coffee to Union in the UK. All of these people and more had a hand in helping me prep for the Worlds. I asked for help and advice from these fantastic baristas and coffee people, as well as many more that I haven’t listed here. Why? Because I don't know nearly enough. None of us do! We are constantly searching, researching, tasting, talking, testing. Keeping our minds open to new ideas and rethinking and reworking old ideas.

Don't let yourself fall into the trap of arrogance and thinking you know everything. Once you get to a level that you can talk with confidence on a subject, learn to listen before you speak. That goes for people who work in the industry, people who patronize the industry and people who make coffee in their own homes. Treat information from people of caliber as invaluable, take the information with two hands; who knows what wonders await!

This is my promise as a barista and a person working in this fantastic coffee industry to be humble, keep an open mind and constantly search for that perfection in the cup. It was so aptly described in the latest video from Stumptown one of the leading roasters in the US. "I take a sip and it's like the world stops turning on its axis." That’s what coffee should be.


STUMPTOWN from Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Vimeo.


Right on Wayne. One of my favourite quotes in that vid is from the roaster at Stumptown, “I think a good roaster needs to have humility”. Let’s build the SA coffee community in the spirit of learning and humility.

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