Creating a Toolbox of Knowledge: The Coffee Technicians Guild


By Jill Fountain, Macchinisti, LLC

I can’t tell you how many times I have been leaning over a machine with a wrench in my hand when one of the baristas from the cafe comes up to me and asks, “How did you learn how to do that?”, often followed by “where can I learn?”. Unfortunately, the answer you would get from me and most other technicians is that we were self taught, or—if we were lucky—we found an apprenticeship, or maybe we just blew up a lot of machines. Surprisingly, up until this point, there has been no formal training for technicians. No certification program exists. No one has come forth to set a standard. This is why the Coffee Technicians Guild (CTG) is so important, and I believe the contribution we make will touch every part of the industry.

I have seen so many advancements in my decade in the coffee industry, from sourcing coffee to roasting, to crafting the final cup. Much of this is due to the education resources, training, and guild development provided by the SCAA. These resources are available to industry professionals such as roasters, green coffee buyers, and baristas. Until now, technicians have been overlooked. It has become apparent, though, that the development of the technical branch is crucial for the industry as a whole.

The creation of the Coffee Technicians Guild will not only benefit technicians, it will reach every aspect of the industry from those who own the coffee houses to baristas, and even roasters. As a seasoned barista, I am painfully aware of what its like to have a machine break down and the stress it causes the owners and employees. Having a machine inoperable for an afternoon creates a financial impact, while ongoing technical problems can even hurt a business’s reputation. I also know the joy of working with a newly rebuilt steam wand and how a well-maintained machine has greater potential to deliver a product that the roaster would be proud to offer.

The truth is, there are just so many ways to ruin coffee, and especially espresso. Roasters take the time to source quality beans. They devote their careers to procuring the knowledge and skill it takes to bring out the optimal flavor from each crop, so when they place their product into the hands of a barista, they hope that they will be represented with care. Poorly-maintained or incorrectly adjusted equipment distorts their product. To make a great cup, you first start with a well-maintained machine—and for this we must have well-trained and knowledgeable technicians.

A well-trained coffee technician has a complex and sophisticated toolbox of knowledge: plumbing, electricity, electronics, boilers, mechanics, local codes, the quirks of specific equipment brands, knowledge of coffee brewing, and the ability to adjust equipment to taste. He/she must know all this and also be comfortable doing service work in what is often a high pressure environment. The industry need more people with this skill set.

One of the aims of the CTG is to create a career pathway for technicians. The motion has been set in place to create standards, certification, and educational courses. Whether someone is new to the trade or they have been developing their skills for years this will allow clear feedback as to where someone stands and provide the right tools to help them develop further.

As passionate as I am about coffee, what makes this industry so unique and special is the people who are drawn to it and the sense of community that surrounds it. The CTG has created a forum for technicians across the country to communicate, allowing us to support each other, problem solve and collaborate. I’m proud to be a part of it and excited to see where we go and what opportunities this will create for the next generation of technicians.

A bit about my background...

I grew up going to coffee houses with my dad. Before I ever began drinking coffee, I understood the value of coffee shop culture and the importance of the space they create for a community. I always looked up to the workers as they tended to be the kind of people who were well-informed and connected within their town.

In 2006, I started in the coffee industry as a barista. The name of the coffee house was The Laughing Goat. To this day, it remains one of the most popular coffee houses in Boulder, CO and it holds a special place in my heart.

Within a couple of years I became the lead barista and starting doing technical work on the machines as well.

I have always had an affinity for taking things apart and knowing how they work. When I was younger I considered becoming an auto mechanic and in the meantime found myself working in coffee. So, naturally, when things broke on the espresso machine I would take it upon myself to learn how to fix the problem. This began as a necessity and grew into a passion.

Eventually, the shop that I worked for opened two more locations and put me in charge of all of the machine maintenance. At this time I began doing freelance work as well.

After about 4 years I decided I needed a way to learn more. I knew I couldn't learn everything I needed to know in a 3-day course form a manufacturer; I needed a teacher. That's when one of the owners of The Laughing Goat introduced me to Michael Wilkins. Michael had worked in coffee industry for over 30 years. Also a machinist, a woodworker, an auto mechanic, and an antique tool enthusiast, he has a deep knowledge and understanding of mechanics that allows him to understand almost any type of machine.

Michael and I found quickly that we work well together and he took me on as his apprentice. After a short period of time he started trusting me to finish projects for him. We also found that we had complimenting skills.

Years later, we found ourselves both in Austin working alongside each other in our own business, Macchinisti, LLC. The name comes from an Italian world meaning mechanic, engineer, and barista.

In my spare time I like to work on my truck and learn about the art of machining metal. Someday I hope to use the skills I am learning now to build custom machines.

I also have to note that I owe a lot of my success in this path to John Jenkins and Charlie Paris, the owners of The Laughing Goat Coffee House. They recognized my talent and passion and supported and nurtured it.