This is the first in a series of short interviews with people active in fields where peer and collaborative learning plays an important role in the distribution of knowledge and the development of the skills required in their hobby, sport or job. We ask the same questions of everyone to find and highlight the common practices as well as the unique methods from each field.
The next two interviews will be with a kung fu instructor and a modern quilter. We then plan on interviewing people from fields as diverse as surfing, skateboarding, music, martial arts, cooking, rock climbing, yoga, wine making, chocolate making and mushroom picking (email us with recommendations!). It should be fun.
The idea for this series came from a collection of spontaneous interactions with baristas. I found that I really enjoyed learning about their opinions on coffee tastings and their apprenticeship experiences in some of the best cafés before starting their own. I am very happy that this first interview is with Chris Capell, an inspiring progressive coffee enthusiast.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m currently co-owner of the Montreal coffee Academy and former owner of Le couteau. Nowadays most of my time is spent on the Academy where I teach classes, to the general public, mostly. I also do corporate consulting and training.
Tell us about your field, what it’s about and what got you interested in spending the time to master the skills needed.
About 10 years ago, I got into coffee because it was sort of a hobby, I just kind of fell into it wanting to upgrade to a better espresso machine at home. I started reading online forums and realized there was this whole new movement starting that I like to call progressive coffee.
So I was just doing that and looking to get out of my career, which at the time was in visual effects, and thought I’d like a little more control over my work life. I couldn’t picture myself starting a visual effects company—a much larger investment and much more stress than I was working toward.
I thought well, running a cafe… I can reasonably picture the scope of that. So between that, the beginning of this new movement coming along and the fact that there were only one or two cafes at the time in Montreal, I just thought well, you know, let’s give that a try! It was the combination of both something that I liked a lot and the prospect of gaining more control over my work life which brought me to do that.
What do you think about the idea of peer and collaborative learning and how do you see it manifested in your field?
Well, particularly because the idea of progressive coffee is still relatively new, we have mostly gotten ahead by sharing our information. Also, it came along during a period in which we had internet, so, that information was shared a lot, and more easily. Even something like coffee, which isn’t necessarily easy to teach over the internet, you could still share a lot of information.
Independently of the internet, this industry being as young as it is in general, we’re mostly learning by passing around information, sharing what we do. A lot of the things that we do in the industry are done with our peers. When you first start in a cafe you’re trained by someone with more experience than you. But once you’re really into coffee and tasting, you often start attending ‘cuppings’ where we taste together and talk with each other. We learn not only about the coffees that we have in front of us but how to taste and things like that.
At my level in coffee, having owned a cafe, I’ll get together with other cafe owners, or anybody at events really, and we all tend to pass a lot of information back and forth. For two main reasons, I think: a) the progressive coffee scene is really big on being humble and enjoys sharing information. b) The scene is new and it’s not an industry that people are going to make a lot of money in right now, so people tend to be mostly in it because they’re passionate above anything else. As a result, they like to talk and share, as opposed to maybe older, more established industries where people are more protective of their information.
Can you share a personal example of how that form of learning and collaboration has helped you along?
Well, for instance, to this day I still know I can email Scott Rao—whom I worked for at Myriade—and he’ll share any information that he’s learned. Right now, there’s a whole lot going on about water chemistry. We ask, how can we formulate custom water for making coffee so that everyone in the world can have perfect and consistent water for brewing? It’s something that we struggle against in areas of the world people have different water chemistries. We’re simply sharing techniques we found by taking relatively common chemical ingredients like epsom salts and baking soda, looking for ways to easily dissolve them in distilled water. That way, I can have the exact same water that someone in England has. One of the things that’s been preventing us from brewing for delicious coffee is that we’ve got different systems. We can remove certain amounts of materials from the city water but we have no consistency in the proportions of other things. People tasting the coffee in one city find it tastes totally different from what people described in another city. So, we’re trying to get that figured out and standardized. There’s a lot of sharing of information in that process.
This series is greatly inspired by the excellent The Setup.
Also published on Medium.