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Espresso in the making at the Brew Bar located inside of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, West 8th Street, New York

6 Top Baristas On How—And Why—To Make A Great Cup Of Coffee

A love of music helps. Here, other secrets of the (fair) trade.

Photos by Celine Grouard and Joel Arbaje for Fast Company

Confession: I’m not really much of a coffee drinker. My normal drink of choice is a Starbucks Vanilla Frappuccino--yes, with whipped cream (I know). I grew up in a small town, which only recently saw its first Starbucks open there. For most of us, “specialty coffee” came into our lives with the debut of the McCafe.

But I’m in New York now! Working for a magazine, surrounded by writers who live off this stuff--and these people know coffee. What I thought was a coffee machine in our office turned out to just make, as one coworker put it, “hot brown water.” So for our #CoffeeWeek, I wanted to learn what made a good cup of joe, what different processes were used and why, and what I could do to make all of our coffee better. I interviewed six baristas at six specialty coffee shops in New York City--here are the roasted beans they spilled.

Michael Burke, Blue Bottle CoffeePhotos by Celine Grouard for Fast Company

1. Get a (good) grinder

“The first step to getting better coffee is to get a grinder. The second step is to get a good grinder.” - Michael Burke, Blue Bottle Coffee in Chelsea.

Emily Dullea, Toby's EstatePhotos by Celine Grouard for Fast Company

2. Give back

“We raised about $5,000 by selling a Honduran coffee called “La Escuela” in the fall and winter, so we went [to Honduras] to present them with the money. We helped them paint the schools, and there was way more money left than we thought, so we did more than paint the schools. We had the roof repaired and used the extra money left over to buy supplies. We met all the kids at these two schools in a very poor town in the mountains of Honduras that is basically amongst all the coffee leaves. So yeah, we did that and we’re still working directly with the farm. We’re going to do scholarship programs and backpack drives through Toby’s. It was my first time out of the country too, so it totally blew my mind.” - Emily Dullea, Toby's Estate

Beth Edwards, Brooklyn Roasting CompanyPhotos by Celine Grouard for Fast Company

3. It's more than just coffee

"We want to create a good cup of coffee. You know, do everything right, dial it in--looks good, tastes good. Instead of being so picky about serving this artisanal cup of coffee, we focus more on the community-based parts of being a coffeehouse.” - Beth Edwards, Brooklyn Roasting Company

JB, Whole Foods Market, BrooklynPhotos by Celine Grouard for Fast Company

4. Get technical

"Imagine a siphon style and a French press getting it on--this would be their baby. [Ed. note: see above.] Really what it lets you do is dial into specific roasts, flavor profiles, and characteristics that you’re trying to achieve. It lets you determine how rich the coffee comes out, how light it comes out--really focus on specific details, temperature-wise. If you want it to be 198.3 degrees, it will do that.” - JB, Whole Foods Market, Brooklyn

Alejandro Ceballos, Barista at Little CollinsPhotos by Joel Arbaje for Fast Company

5. Make it like sweet music

"I'm a classical musician--I play clarinet. The subtle nuances in coffee are only really appreciated by people that know what to look for and also share the same enthusiasm for it. That's pretty much what it's like in music. Most people are going to be happy with 'America's Top 40' the same way most people are happy with a cup of Starbucks coffee, but it's the ones who really take the time to find out what else is out there that help us grow and help us educate the greater public." -- Alejandro Ceballos, Little Collins

Nick Herman, Stumptown CoffeePhotos by Joel Arbaje for Fast Company

6. Trust your palate

"We weigh everything, we use a total dissolved solids refractometer, but one of our core philosophies is trust your mouth and your stomach. There's so many variables, whether it's the humidity in the room, how many people, the door has been open this long, percentage of beans in the blend that are from a certain region isn't always constant. There's very few constants in coffee so you can have generalizations when you're dialing-in, but there's no hard and fast rules, it's a really fluid thing. At the end of the day, trust your palate." - Nick Herman, Stumptown Coffee

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