The Art of the Barista San Diego Coffee Culture

The Art of Being an Expert Barista

You’ve probably been to a cocktail bar and been served by one of those incredibly skilled bartenders — the people who can simultaneously mix great drinks and put on a performance. But did you know that it’s not just bartenders who do this? Baristas, the artisans of the espresso machine, do the same, in little-known competitions called throwdowns. In fact, we have a Thursday Throwdown every week here in San Diego, where baristas from across the city display their well-honed abilities.

Achilles-Coffee-Roasters-San-Diego-1Barista Fundamentals

There’s one ability that ranks above all others: making a good espresso. As espresso shots form the basis of all your lattes, cappuccinos, and many other drinks, so it’s crucial to be able to get it right, every time. A good barista knows pressure to tamp the espresso grounds in the portafilter, the correct amount of water, temperature and time to pull the espresso shot.

The World Barista Championship

So if the espresso is the foundation that all baristas need to know, then what skills does it take to make it at the top level? Well, competitors at the World Barista Championship, now in its 17th year, are tasked with preparing four espressos, four milk drinks, and four original signature drinks, in a 15-minute performance set to music. These baristas are then judged on five criteria:

Technical skill
Overall presentation

This competition format allows baristas to demonstrate both their ability to flawlessly execute the fundamentals, but also their knowledge and innovation in creating new and unique coffee drinks. Berg Wu, the 2016 World Champion, created a drink with an orange and honey reduction, Earl Grey tea and espresso, before infusing it with mandarin essential oil through an aromatizer. It remains to be seen if anyone can top this at the 2017 World Championships this November in Seoul, Korea.

Latte Art

The most visible skill on display is the latte art. If you’ve ever been served your coffee, looked into your micro-foam and seen a heart, a rosette, or a tulip, then you’ve seen latte art.

These simple designs are known as Free Hand Pours, where the barista uses only their steady hand and trusty milk pitcher. In the World Latte Art Championships, however, things get more creative, as competitors are also judged on a Designer Pour, for which they are permitted to use a stylus and textured milk to draw with.

In the World Championships, these pours are judged on their symmetry, creativity, visual appeal, and difficulty. If that reminds you of olympic sports like gymnastics or ice-skating, then you’re exactly right — and like these athletes, latte artists are also judged on their professionalism, ability, and stage presence.

How Altitude Affects the Flavor of Coffee

Much like wine, beer, and tea, the way in which coffee beans are grown can drastically affect the flavor of the cup that you eventually drink. There are many factors that affect the quality of a coffee bean, but none more important than the altitude it’s grown at.

Altitude-Affects-Coffee-Flavor-High-Altitude-Achilles-Coffee-Roasters-San-Diego-Product-2To understand why altitude has such a large impact on the flavor of a coffee bean, we have to dig into a little bit of plant biology. As a general rule, the higher the altitude, the harder it is for a plant to thrive. While this seems like a bad thing on its face, it’s actually beneficial for the plants that survive. They produce coffee beans that are more dense and hard, packed with the sugars and flavors sought after by coffee buyers (and drinkers) around the world.

Higher Altitude Has Effects on Coffee Plants

Bean mature slower in the harsher climate, giving the sugars more time to develop
The angled growing surface of mountainous regions promotes runoff, meaning plants get less water and the coffee cherries are denser

Because most plants that we eat are grown at sea level, you might be wondering exactly what high altitude is when it comes to coffee. Generally, coffee grown over 4,000 feet above sea level (1200m) is considered “high altitude” coffee. However, coffee is grown at a range of altitudes around the world, each of which affect the flavor of the bean in different ways.

Coffee Grown at < 2,500ft

Coffee grown below 2,500 feet is less complex in flavor, mild, and often a bit bland. The coffee plant isn’t subjected to much stress at these altitudes and has an abundance of water, meaning the coffee cherries get nice and fat, which dilutes their flavor. The only exception at this altitude is the famed Hawaiian Kona coffee, which thrives at 2,000 feet.

Coffee Grown at 3,000ft (900m)

At 3,000 feet, coffee begins to take on both sweeter and smoother flavors. The climate is slightly harsher at this altitude and that begins to bear itself out in the flavor of the harvested beans.

Coffee Grown at 4,000ft (1200m)

At 4,000 feet, we are getting into the realm of some of the finest coffees in the world. This is the altitude at which the best arabica beans in the world are grown at. Another factor in the quality of beans at this altitude, especially arabica beans, is that they’re often grown in exceptionally nutrient-dense soil.

The flavor profiles of beans grown at this altitude are varied. You can pick up notes of citrus, nuts, vanilla, and chocolate.

High Altitude Coffee Grown at 5,000ft (1500m)

Coffee grown at around 5,000 feet (1500m) is known as very high altitude coffee. The flavors imparted in these beans are fruity, spicy, floral, and even reminiscent of wine.

Now that you’re aware of the drastic differences that altitude can have on the flavor of a coffee bean, you’ll know which beans to purchase when you head over to your local roaster. Understanding the fundamentals of what makes a bean taste a certain way is the first step in becoming a more discerning coffee drinker.

The Growth of Third Wave Coffee

3rd Wave Coffee Expansion

The growth of third wave coffee is an undeniably good thing, both for coffee lovers and coffee shop owners alike. Coffee’s place in our culinary landscape has been cemented as a legitimate culinary experience as opposed to a simple drink we consume in the morning. The 3rd wave created a market for coffee that entrepreneurs all around the country have tapped to make a living doing what they love — roasting, brewing and serving artisanal coffee.

Growth-Third-Wave-Coffee-Achilles-Coffee-Blog-San-DiegoAs the demand for specialty coffee continues to grow and expand, two companies with the biggest ambitions are Philz Coffee and Blue Bottle Coffee. Both hailing from the Bay Area, these two coffee companies started from humble beginnings, as single-location independent cafes.

The Institutionalization of Third Wave Coffee

The growth of third wave coffee has attracted venture capital investment, with Philz raising over $75mm and Blue Bottle raising over $100mm. This begs the question: what are they going to do with all of that money?

For both companies, the answer is simple: grow, grow grow.

Blue Bottle has already opened two cafes in Tokyo, with a third on the way. They’re planning to open cafes in most of the metropolitan areas of Asia, as they’ve been incredibly successful in Tokyo already.

Philz has built 34 locations in the last 15 years of their existence. They’re in San Diego now with a location in Encinitas, and a La Jolla location on the way. This new round of funding sees them trying to add 50 more locations in quick succession. That’s over double the number of locations they built in the last 15 years.

The growth of Third Wave Coffee and the cash infusion these companies received is a rapid accelerator of growth…but it comes at a cost. Many Blue Bottle employees have left the company to start their own independent cafes, citing the “corporate takeover” of the company.

The backlash makes sense — both Blue Bottle and Philz were once small, independent, single-location coffee shops. They attracted employees who loved the company for what it was. It’s no surprise some of them are fleeing after seeing the ambitious growth goals of both of these coffee companies.

Corporate Chains vs. Independent Locally Owned Coffee Shops

For coffee drinkers, there’s a different question to answer: will these companies lose what made them special in the first place?

Is there such a thing as growing “too big” to be taken seriously as a member of the 3rd wave movement? Are we seeing the 4th wave of coffee? At what point do Philz Coffee and Blue Bottle become so ubiquitous and their business processes become so systemized that they’re indistinguishable from the big players like Starbucks or Peet’s?

While you can’t fault a company for wanting to grow, at what point will coffee drinkers turn back to the small independently owned coffee shops to recapture some of the vibe that made Philz and Blue Bottle so popular in the first place? The answer remains to be seen, but with Philz and Blue Bottle locations popping up all over the place, we’ll see soon enough.

The History of the Espresso Machine – The Purest Form of Coffee

Coffee In Its Purest Form

For many coffee aficionados, espresso is coffee. They consider it the purest form of the coffee bean. But what is espresso and how did it become so popular today? Most people know of it due to the proliferation of artisanal coffee shops, but couldn’t define what espresso is if you put them on the spot. The history of the espresso machine and espresso dates back to 19th century Europe.

Espresso is a method of preparing coffee. Specifically, it is a method where highly pressurized hot water is forced over finely ground coffee. This produces a concentrated coffee drink with a distinctly strong flavor.History-of-the-espresso-Machine-Achilles-Coffee-San-Diego

Because good espresso is the product of a consistent and high-quality process, it required the invention of an entirely new machine to produce. The first espresso machines began to pop up in Italy in the 19th century.

Even back then, coffee was big business. In Europe, cafes were spreading all across the continent. However, brewing coffee was still a slow process. It would sometimes take 5-10 minutes for a fresh cup! Being the impatient creatures that we are, inventors thought to create a steam machine to reduce the time it took to brew a cup.

The Invention of the Espresso Machine

The person who invented the espresso machine was Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy. He received a patent for it in 1884, but it didn’t become popular due to the fact that it was only used for the Turin General Exposition and wasn’t widely available. Aside from the fact that he held the first patent for an espresso machine, Moriondo doesn’t have much to do with the history of espresso.

That honor is reserved for two men: Luigi Bezzerra and Desiderio Pavoni.

Luigi was a liquor producer and the inventor of the single-shot espresso in the early 20th century. He took Moriondo’s machine and made multiple innovations to it, most of which are still present on modern-day espresso machines. Two of these include multiple brewheads and a portafilter.

Pavoni’s contribution to the espresso machine begins when he purchased Bezzerra’s patents in 1903. After purchasing the patents, he added to the design, including a pressure release valve. This innovation was more for the baristas than it was for the customers, as it prevented them from being splashed with hot coffee.

Espresso is Born

This is where the word “espresso” came to prominence. Pavoni decided to market this new process for coffee as espresso, meaning “made on the spur of the moment.” As the Pavoni machine became more popular, copycats began to pop up throughout Italy. It’s no surprise – these machines were able to produce at least 100 cups of coffee every single hour. That is a massive speed increase compared to old methods.

Espresso machines would go on to be improved upon in major ways more than a few times. In 1961, a motorized pump was added so the machine no longer had to rely on the strength of the barista. Espresso machines continued to become smaller, more efficient, and more affordable, leading to their expansion out of Italy and into other parts of Europe and America.

The history of the espresso machine is long and storied, but what it did for coffee is the exact opposite. It allowed for the quick production of a concentrated, delicious cup of coffee.

Fair and Direct Trade Coffee – Cooperative Coffees

Coop Coffees is an interesting player in the 3rd wave coffee movement. What they do is simple: they import green coffee from smaller-scale farmers and their exporting cooperatives all around the world. That’s not so unique, is it? After all, the fair trade coffee movement has been around for quite some time. What makes Cooperative Coffees different?Buy-Green-Coffee-Beans-Online-Achilles-Coffee-Roasters-San-Diego-California


What Cooperative Coffees is doing differently is evolving the definition of “fair trade.” They already adhere to the “Nine Basic Principles” of fair trade:


  1. Create Opportunities for Economically and Socially Marginalized Producers
  2. Develop Transparent and Accountable Relationships
  3. Build Capacity
  4. Promote Fair Trade
  5. Pay Promptly and Fairly
  6. Support Safe and Empowering Working Conditions
  7. Ensure the Rights of Children
  8. Cultivate Environmental Stewardship
  9. Respect Cultural Identity


What they’ve done is take these nine principles and update them to the present day.


When the fair trade movement first started, the goal was to build a unified and transparent network between coffee growers, purchasers, and roasters. However, it has instead created a tangled web of different purchasing networks and companies. All of these players are operating by different sets of rules. This means that the definition of “fair trade” is much murkier than it once was.


In fact, this murkiness is part of the reason we’ve seen a push towards direct trade coffee, where roasters deal directly with a particular farm, often making site visits and building a person-to-person relationship with the farmer. Direct trade is often hailed as the gold standard of trade practices, but it’s a one-to-one relationship. What about smaller roasters that don’t have the capacity to directly visit farmers?


By updating the Nine Basic Principles and adding the cooperative aspect to their business, Coop Coffees is creating a more transparent and fair market between small-scale coffee growers and small-scale coffee roasters. By creating a collective of roasters that all commit to purchasing under these fair and direct trade coffee principles, they are giving farmers and their communities much more than just income. They’re giving them stability.


As if this wasn’t already enough, Coop Coffees is expanding all across the United States and Canada, with a new location coming to Los Angeles soon. They have dozens of exporting relationships with cooperatives in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. On the demand side, they have over 20 member roasters in the cooperative.


Will we see a Coop Coffees member roaster make an entrance in San Diego? Or perhaps another cooperative will dip its toes in the water down here. Either way, this evolution of the fair trade movement is a good sign for artisanal roasters around the country.