Interview with a Barista Trainer: Bilbo Steyn

Monday, 2 July, 2018

Bilbo Steyn on coffee, baristas and saving the world 

We recently chatted with the brilliant barista, Bilbo Steyn, about her work as a barista trainer and all things coffee…

When and how did you get involved in coffee? And tell us about the road leading up to where you are now?

“My journey in coffee started when I got a job as a Sales Rep for an Italian food and wine importing company. One of my products was an Italian coffee and I quickly took on the ‘duty’ of making coffee for my colleagues in the morning. I also learned that I needed to offer my clients training so that their end-product was better, therefore ensuring me the return business. And so, slowly but surely, I started teaching myself and competing. It wasn’t long before I was offered a position to be a barista trainer…needless to say, I never looked back. Now my days are spent in training. And I recently relocated to Gauteng to take up a new position.”

What do you think it takes to be a good barista?

“Without a doubt, discipline! There is an insane amount to learn and you can only be successful at it if you practise absolute discipline. Then there’s the one nobody tells you about: heart! If you don’t love what you do, your coffee will always be average.”

What is the most important lesson you need to learn to become a great barista?

“As a barista, we must always remember that coffee is the boss. As baristas, we have such a massive role to play in the circle of coffee. We are the last stop before the consumer – if we don’t do a good job, we’re letting everybody in the chain before us down, and that is a very serious matter. We must respect the coffee and always pay homage to those that came before us.”

What advice do you give to aspiring baristas?

“Run for the hills! You’ll never get out alive! … Just kidding! Get involved in the industry. Compete, volunteer, polish machines, clean grinders, study anything you can get your hands on! Give your time – you cannot imagine what you will learn backstage when you’re just quietly observing and helping. And then approach anybody in the industry with your questions, who will be all too happy to hook another coffee lover into the industry!”

What qualities do you look for in a barista?

“Anthony Bourdain said, ‘Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don’t.’”

When you watch a coffee being made, what type of things are you watching for?

“You don’t need to watch; just by listening you can pick up a lot. But in general, I look for fluid and calculated movement, procedures being executed accurately and consistently, and excellent customer connection.”

How important is the machinery and equipment you use in making a great cup of coffee?

“It is so incredibly important!!! Working on the best equipment is sometimes a luxury most of us cannot afford, but working on painstakingly clean equipment that’s well maintained and understood, is a good starting point. And that applies to smalls, water filtration, counter surfaces, etc. Working in an ergonomically sound space is so important to the wellbeing of the barista and your business.”

What has been your most memorable experience in your career as a barista trainer?

“There really is a lot that comes to mind. But I would have to say that the best moment was probably one day at a restaurant with my mom. A man approached us and proceeded to thank me for the time and energy I had invested in him when he was a young man struggling to make a living. He said that my training allowed him to grow in his role at work and allowed him to be successful. I think the moment was more profound to my mother; for me I was just humbled that I could do that for somebody who really wanted it.”

How do you think coffee culture has changed over the years?

“It has changed drastically. 8 years ago, you couldn’t find baristas. Now people apply for barista jobs with experience and skill! It’s a skillset everybody sees value in and one that supports many families. One can also easily get frustrated by how slowly things are moving along in South Africa, but I truly think we’re doing so well. The world is watching us, the more we share what we do and love, the more people we can reach.”

What is your favourite way to enjoy a cup of coffee?

“Honestly, just being with my loved ones is a great start. But with friends, somewhere in the hills of the Overberg brewing and drinking chemex. With my family at home, plunger. With my sister at home…a small domestic filter machine with a Kees van der Westen sticker on!”

How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day? 

“Back in my competition days we would taste anything around 30 cups? I think my body would hate me now – my sensitivity for caffeine has come with age! I would probably on average drink about 3-4 cups a day. The better the coffee, the harder it is to resist.”

Besides the taste of coffee, what is it about it that fascinates you?

“I am truly fascinated by the complexity of molecular structure. I also love how we can apply all kinds of variables to manipulate the coffee. The science behind it is incredible, and yet we have so much more to learn.”

What are some of the latest trends that you’re seeing that we’ll see more of in the future?

“I have noticed that coffee shops and consumers are becoming progressively more aware of the environmental impact our waste has. I hope we can abolish single use plastic items. Using a reusable cup for your coffee has such a massive impact on our waste footprint, but also in most cases will get you a discount! Be rewarded for your savviness and owning the problem. Save the earth! It’s the only planet with coffee!”

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