Good coffee often benefits by association with craft beer and wine crowds, who are already attentive to flavor and creation methods. Yet it's trickier than alcohol. Wine has only a few-hundred flavor-causing compounds compared to more than 1,000 in coffee, according to Noelle Archibald, co-founder of Lamplighter Coffee Roasters.
Training for coffee professionals is equally as complex. It has to be — at least for folks who aspire to provide more than service station sludge. Years of apprenticing, formal certifications to rate and grade beans and technical workshops are common in many of Richmond's coffee shops.
"Our approach is to learn the science but also to focus on the human nature side of coffee as well," Archibald says. "You can apply all the science to coffee, but it really is art. No matter what the numbers say, it's won't dictate the experience. It's not something you can purely regiment."
But Archibald can run the numbers. She's certified by the Specialty Coffee Association to analyze brewed coffee to confirm proper extraction and dilution ratios. These days, she uses a refractometer and computer software, but she did the calculations by hand when she was training. Her goal is always to help others brew great cups of coffee. "Overextracted and overdiluted coffee is the worst," Archibald says.
Extraction refers to how much flavor gets pulled out of ground beans, and strength is a factor of how much water dilutes the brew. Extraction and strength together are what place a cup of brewed coffee on a spectrum of pleasing to cringeworthy.
Lamplighter also has two staffers who have put in hours of training and testing to become certified Q graders, which amounts to earning a terminal degree in coffee. Q graders are certified professionally to rate Arabica coffee beans for quality. They're in some ways the master sommeliers of coffee. The Coffee Quality Institute developed the program to ensure coffee rating standards around the world. Only about 5,000 people in the world are Q graders, and at least three of them call Richmond home.
Training for the front of the house is also rigorous. The Specialty Coffee Association has two levels of barista certification. "A critical element is to be able to identify basic information about equipment, the variables that a barista can control, and how that all goes into making a drink," Archibald explains.
The training includes things like proper cleaning and care of machines and making sure espresso tamping is done in an ergonomic way to avoid shredding tendons. A certified barista has to match the standards of all drinks in a short time with someone watching closely. At Lamplighter, there are two test monitors — one behind the counter to ensure proper machine use and cleaning, and one front-of-counter to make orders, grade on drink standards, jot notes on a clipboard, and also talk to the bustling barista. On a good day, it requires calm under pressure.
"It's not uncommon to have to take the test a couple of times," Archibald says. "It is nerve-racking, but our hope is that people will be able to feel confident and keep working through whatever is thrown at them."
The company also does extensive training for commercial accounts and workers designed to ensure businesses that serve Lamplighter coffee operate with quality and service. Lamplighter also invites front-line staff to the company's training lab at no additional cost.
For interested community members, Richmond offers a couple of opportunities to learn more about coffee. Each week Lamplighter and Blanchard's do free public cuppings for those who can drop by at the appointed times. These events, for the uninitiated, are akin to wine tasting for coffee. They're equal parts science and ritual ceremony. Slurping is encouraged to help get those aromas and flavors.
Blanchard's also holds free brewing classes, and Lamplighter classes ranging from a two-hour seminar on what's in a cup to barista essentials. At Ironclad, a new series encourages customers to come meet with the farmers who grow the beans that help coffee drinkers cut through the morning fog and keep them functional on the grayest and most overcast of days.