The Starbucks Black Apron: What is a Coffee Master?

A few days ago, I posted this photo of barista Kelton on my blog’s Facebook page: (Please “like” that page. Thanks!)

IMAG9062 Kelton gets a black apron - 30 Jan2014

Kelton only recently certified as a Starbucks Coffee Master, and so I wanted to congratulate him on his new black apron!  Congrats Kelton!  As I read through the comments on Facebook, I saw that there were a few customers who didn’t know what a Starbucks Coffee Master is and/or the significance of the black apron.  A barista cannot wear a black apron unless he or she has earned it:  There is a whole process involved in becoming certified to wear one.

If you are a customer, and you have a question about coffee, look for the Starbucks baristas in black aprons:  They can talk to you about the four fundamentals of great coffee (water, proportion, grind, freshness), or if you want a low acidity coffee, a black apron Starbucks barista might steer you in the direction of Italian Roast, or if you want to try something fun and new as an espresso shot, again the barista can help answer those questions.  (The new Yirgacheffe works beautifully as a shot of espresso!).

So now you know to look for someone in a black apron, just like the one that Kelton is wearing above.  But you might be asking yourself, what did that person do to earn a black apron?

Before a Starbucks barista can even start the certification, he or she has to be approved by his or her store manager.  The store manager is supposed to look for people with great qualities like a willingness and desire to share coffee stories, having completed a coffee passport within the past one year, is familiar with beverage quality standards and models excellent beverage quality, a positive attitude, good communication skills, and is respected by others.

Once a barista is approved to begin the Starbucks Coffee Master certification, then the work begins.  The baristas gets a journal that is full of coffee education about roasts, blending, how coffee is processed, and much more.  The journal looks like this:

DSC00475 Coffee Master BookIn the beginning of the journal, it says “you are chosen”:

DSC00476 You Have Been ChosenThe Starbucks barista works on contrasting and comparing many coffees to learn their flavor profiles, and generally increases his or her coffee knowledge.  He or she will have a coffee passport to fill out during this process as well.  Inside the coffee passport is a page for every core and regularly-appearing seasonal coffee (with information about that coffee) plus extra pages for Reserve coffee offerings.

One reader of the blog sent in this great photo which shows his past coffee passports, plus part of what the old coffee master program looked like, and you can see my passport too.  The Starbucks Coffee Master program has been through changes over the years, so some baristas who were certified in the past had to re-certify under the newer program:

IMAG9125 passport2Starbucks Coffee Master - Chase

Certification requires approval by both the store’s manager and district manager.  The partner should be working through the workbook, and at the end should comfortably be able to sit down and do a coffee tasting for his or her district manager and store manager, comparing at least two coffees.  The partner should be able to easily answer questions such as these:

  • What is the general taste profile for the 3 main growing regions?
  • How does coffee processing affect flavor?
  • What are Starbucks ethical-sourcing guidelines?
  • How does the roast profile affect the coffee?
  • What is the acidity body and flavor of each coffee?

Based upon my experience (and I mean both in my experience in going to coffee seminars as well simply watching the kinds of questions that coffee masters get thrown at by customers) a good coffee master should really be ready to easily answer any of the following questions:

  • Why do we “compare and contrast” coffees to learn about them?
  • How does the brew method affect the flavors of the coffee?  Can you describe three or four brew methods and talk about why each coffee might be suited for a different brew method?  Why is it important to pre-wet the paper filter when doing a pour over?
  • What does it mean when people talk about the “bloom” of a coffee during some brew methods?  What is a coffee bloom?
  • What can you learn about the coffee by trying it at least two or three different temperatures?
  • Customers will ask things like, ‘Why doesn’t my coffee at home taste like yours in the store?’  How do I store coffee?
  • What is a “cupping” as opposed to a traditional coffee tasting?  What is the purpose of a coffee cupping?
  • Why do we learn about food pairings? What are the pros and cons of learning about coffee with food or without food?
  • What is the history of this coffee for Starbucks?  (For example, I have an article on Breakfast Blend history here and a very old article mentioning some of Verona’s history here.)
  • And of course, baristas should very easily be able to talk about the four fundamentals of a great cup of coffee.
  • What is an aged coffee?  How many Starbucks blends use aged beans in them?  (Anniversary Blend, Christmas Blend, and Tribute Blend).
  • How is coffee like any other farm product? Can you make a good analogy to how coffee changes flavor with crops the same way that apples and oranges may have good crops and bad crops?
  • What is a varietal?  What is a peaberry? What is a bourbon coffee?

So, if you’re a customer, now you know to go find a black apron barista and talk to him or her about coffee!

By the way, clearly, I am not a coffee master.  I don’t work for Starbucks.  However, I have fielded questions in emails (and in person) from both partners and customers about coffee education.  All I’ve really done in this article is tried to give you some discussion topics when it comes to coffee education.  This article is only getting the conversation started between customers and partners, and partner to partner.  It’s okay by me if you think that being a black apron barista has other significance.  This is a customer perspective on the black apron, and as I already said, I’m not a coffee master.  But I will gladly talk coffee anytime you like!

About two years ago I wrote an article on tips on how to put on a coffee seminar.  There are aspects to that old article that are now out of date, but I still think there are some good points in it:  Top 10 coffee tasting tips.

Finally, I see a black apron Coffee Master as one who has an ongoing commitment to coffee education.  It’s not a one time certification test, rather a daily experience in sharing coffee passion with both customers and other partners.

What does the black apron mean to you? And customers, have you ever stopped to talk to a black apron Starbucks coffee master?

 

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34 Comments

  • Monica Dillow

    Melody, Thank You so much for writing this article. I had no idea the company had a program like this for baristas. This just solidifies Starbucks as a leader in the coffee market for me. I feel if more public education about the company were out there people wouldn’t be so quick to complain about the price. But then again I always stop people in their tracks when they say a “cup of coffee” at Starbucks cost $4 because that is not true. A handcrafted drink may have that price range but a cup of coffee is very competitive with other companies that offer coffee. I am very intrigued to see if or how the company may begin to incorporate tea in the mix of things in the coffee shops. Or they may bring Teavana into a restaurant style beverage center, who knows?!

  • Becky E

    Nice article, Melody. Very informative and gosh, you sure know a lot of stuff about coffee! I love Kelton’s bowtie! My dad wears one of his many bowties to every occasion and it’s just a special thing to see.

  • Shuston Smith

    I look forward to reading your Starbucks blogs wheseen never I can. I am curious, I have seen baristas wearing the usual green aprons as well as some red ones. Is there a difference here as well? I LOVE Starbucks. I go daily when I have the money! Lol. Thanks for all the information!

  • Shuston Smith

    *whenever I can

  • Melody

    @ShustonSmith – The only two standard aprons are green and black. Some times baristas where a different color apron during a promotion – Red aprons are generally worn during the Christmas holiday season. There have been pink aprons to promote the La Boulange food items. Back in 2009, there was a nice orange apron for the initial launch of Via Ready Brew. There were yellow aprons when the smoothies were new.

    I think I do an article just on apron history! 😉 Good question.

  • Launce Bugbee

    I am so ready for my passport! But there’s one huge problem: I’m not a Partner and no matter how many times I have applied for work at any Starbucks, I haven’t gotten 1 interview. My love of coffee extends eons beyond just a morning necessity to wake me up. Melody, I believe you witnessed this with my excitement to learn how to make a proper cup with the Aero Press… I love learning and crave to be immersed in it, while earning a paycheck with such a great company!! And many thanks once again for another great blog.

  • DadCooks

    Congratulations Kelton!

    @Melody, thanks for highlighting the Coffee Masters. In my “remote” area they have become almost as rare as jackalopes 😉 . There was a time here when you could count on there being at least one Coffee Master in any of our stores at any time of day. Back then I do not recall knowing any of the Store Managers who were not Coffee Masters.

    IMHO this is definitely a program that all Baristas should aspire too. And if they don’t, I have to wonder what they are doing at Starbucks.

    @Melody, IIRC Teavanna has a similar Tea Master, is that true?

  • Chase Jaynes

    Love your article Melody! I am going to get my black apron back in a few weeks and I am excited to be a coffee master again. I feel a little silly, as a store manager, going for coffee master again but darnit – I love coffee and I love being able to show off the passion!

  • Claire

    Great great great article!!! I’m proud to wear the black apron! I got certified back in October and I keep trying to inspire others to learn about our coffees. The hard part for me is trying to find the time to have great coffee conversations. It’s not an easy task when you usually work during peak!

    Re: aprons

    The license store I transferred from had a really old light blue Frappuccino apron. I’ve seen the orange VIA ones too. Personally, I’ve worn the green, red (holiday), and black aprons. We had that light tan VIA a couple of weeks ago for the new VIAs.

    My fellow black aprons and I joke that there needs to be a gold holiday apron for Coffee Masters. Maybe even a special apron for those go-to partners for holiday shopping needs! :)

  • DadCooks

    @Chase Jaynes – that is the kind of spunk and dedication that will not only serve you well at Starbucks, but all your endeavors.

  • Devin

    As always, fantastic article Melody! I am quite proud to wear an apron, no matter what color it may be. BTW, having coffee tastings with other coffee masters is quite fun. It really makes you up your game so to speak, and I generally try a pairing the would highlight an often overlooked attribute of a coffee or pull out something unexpected. However, the most rewarding part of the title is being able to confidently share both knowledge and passion of the bean to both customers and partners alike.

  • Amanda

    Thanks for doing an article on this! I wear my black apron almost every day, yet most customers don’t know what it means so they ask anyone for help. I loved the coffee master journey. It was challenging and so informative and FUN! Learning the history of coffee as well as the technicalities of brewing a perfect cup really helped to step up my coffee selling game!

  • Andrea

    Of course if you are in evening store, we all wear black aprons. So many times people assumed we were ALL coffee masters. Sorry charlie, but I can tell you about our great wines and clover brewed coffees!
    Also, does anyone know if Coffee Masters, under the new program, need to be re-certified every 6 months? Last I heard, that was the case and deterred a few great partners from pursuing the program.

  • Devin

    @Andrea From what I understand, we have to be recertified every year.

  • Andrea

    Thanks Devin!

  • Back2starbucks

    Great blog melody,
    Haven’t commented in a while, by I am reading your blogs!
    I hope I will someday become a black apron barista! That would bee so cool :)
    Thank you for the post and info :)

  • AJAX

    Do you know why becoming a coffee master is so special ? Let me tell you. Becoming a coffee master is special and difficult only because it is hard to find the time for an employee to become one. Most of the time there are so many tasks that you are unable to explore these kinds of things as a barista. I speak from first hand experience. I wanted to become a coffee master and I was told “We don’t have time to fit that into the day” and then pretty much to go scrub a floor. I love Starbucks and working there was great at one time. Things changed though as time went on and the company started making cuts and taking away the joy of working there.

  • Melody

    @Ajax – I would guess you’re not alone in your thinking. When I posted on Facebook that I was going to write on this topic, one of the things that came up in the comments was simply a number of partners who said that they can’t squeeze in the time for this.

    It kind of looks to me like partners in huge, high volume stars are at an advantage because there’s more labor to go around than a small, slower store. It would be interesting to know if there are more partners who think that lack of time is one of the biggest hurdles to becoming a coffee master?

  • Andrea

    @Ajax and @melody
    I completely agree, there just isn’t enough time. But Melody, I see it as opposite. High volume stores seem to have less time IMO (but would be really interested if you saw a difference in comments that you received). Even going as far as being unable to hire new partners, shifts and ASMs because there wasn’t time to train them. Being a coffee master isn’t a priority when qasa is coming, 2 new coffees are being launched, and the promo needs set up. Oh, and 2 closers called out. A lot of partners take the time on their own to explore coffee on their own, and coffee master or not, customers and partners turn to those knowledgeable partners to guide them in their purchases. That should be rewarded! I know partners don’t become coffee masters for the pay, but I think ignoring that factor is silly. When I was a partner, we lost many fantastic veterans (who should have been coffee masters) because they were being paid less than new hires. Had they had a comfortable income, or even a competitive wage, many would have been happy to take on becoming a coffee master on their own time. Instead they worked second jobs. Not enough time, not enough money.

  • Kathy

    Good article! Thanks for that. I was really excited to get my black apron a few months ago. I do believe that Starbucks Baristas should be able to answer most of those questions whether they are coffee masters or not; but of course high employee fluctuation in Stores (at least here in Vienna) doesn’t always make it easy. Typically, we train newbies’ skills before we get started on their (coffee) knowledge.

    I guess I’d say that for “MY” black apron, the things that are most important are the Passion, that many people forget about when you can’t see the end of the queue of customers for hours and hours and hours and hours. And it’s about life-long learning. Being a coffee master gives me the privilege but also the responsibility of making sure myself and the partners in my store know WHY we make a difference, HOW the last teen feet are in our hands, and quite simply that IT IS AWESOME!

  • Rebecca

    I love my black apron, but the actual physical apron strings don’t stay tied on me – I know it’s really petty, but the strings always loosen and they drive me nuts, lol.

    For me, I love all the information about coffee – I’m such a nerd :) so I looove all the little tidbits about different blends, and stories about the history of coffee. It’s helped me up my game when I hire new partners – I’ve changed the questions I’m asking them, and how I talk about coffee in our first impressions conversation.

    I love that I can go downtown, pick up a half pound of reserve coffee, and my partners appreciate its value, and are excited to try it. And most of that excitement has come from myself and my other Coffee master sharing knowledge and pairings etc.

    Hmmm, now I have this sudden urge for a press :)

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    • Rebecca

      Haha – oh, you have a new one already? Colour me jealous 😛 I only have one because I went to an origins seminar and they gave us one as a takeaway. Here in Canada, we’re behind the times 😛 If you’re willing to settle for an older one (the green one), I can probably send you one. I have a brand new package of 15 I’m trying to get into good hands :)

    • Melody

      @Rebecca – I think about last October/November they started passing the new ones out to stores here in Seattle. It wasn’t that long ago, and I got one pretty early, as I recall. I am deep debt to a downtown Seattle Starbucks store manager!

    • Allen

      Dumb-guy question here: Where would one go to get the answers to these questions? I’d love to learn all of it!

    • Nabilla

      I agree with Ajax. I hardly find time for my Coffee Master Program. There are only 3 of us baristas that are required to work shiftly in the store 5 days a week from 7am to 9pm. I am jealous to see others who already wear Black Apron.

      But, even in Green Apron, I believe that I can successfully answer most customers need to know about coffee.. I ensure I made coffee, whether from the Espresso Machine, French Press, or the brewer, using the right porpotion, time, and methods, including doing things right at the first time.

      I believe all Black Apron certified should empower all the Green Apron fundamentals, all the beverage making and serving basics, cleanliness, kindness, extra miles services, friendliness, good attitude,….. because I found out some barista getting the Black Apron just because Green Apron is just for the ordinary (boasting), because the store requires, …..

      Eventhough I am not certified as a Store Coffee Master, I proudly wear the green one with the utmost dedication. Don’t forget to look upon us, the Green Apron baristas. We are the people who enliven most of your days.

    • Diele

      Thank you for this article! I will be sharing not only with my store, but my district. As the coffee master lead, I am hoping to inspire and ignite the coffee passion within our district this fiscal year. Coffee is our middle name – Starbucks Coffee Company. I aspire to create the culture of coffee in all eleven stores in my district.

    • Dony Amanda

      Thanks for sharing, Melody. I’m Dony from Sbux Indonesia, I really loved all article here.

    • Becca

      Here’s a sad fact: I rarely wear my black apron because I have to wash and iron it myself. In my store the green aprons come in through a laundry service so I am more likely to choose them unless its a special occasion.

      Here’s a happy fact: I love sharing presses and new coffee experiences with my team and customers. We run a featured espresso that can be requested by anyone (right now it’s Gold Coast) and have tried some really amazing things like Hawaiian Kao or sundried Ethiopian as espresso in lattes and for comparisons. I’m partial to African and Guatemalan coffees in lattes but I also know that taste is very subjective.

      The tip I feel can help people learn more about coffee is: always have at least two to try so that you can compare/contrast and then chose a favorite. In store I reccomend that partners always compare with brewed Pike when having a single press because it’s a standard that we always have. Knowing Pike Place Roast well can help increase the highs and lows of what they are tasting it against.

    • Becca

      I just thought it would be nice to have a coffee master sticker for our name badge for those days when we don’t have a fresh black apron.

    • Ron

      Thanks Melody! You were very informative and taught me alot while getting me prepared for my Coffee Master course as me myself is currently a Barista doing my usual routines in Starbucks, with that information you gave, I really have a broader perspective of being a Coffee Master.
      Thanks!
      And God Bless! 😉

    • Nia

      sorry but, what is a partner?

    • Chessnie

      I love this!! I have my final “test” in the morning, and couldn’t fall asleep because I was sooooooo worried about the possibility of failing epically! But I can answer all of the questions you posed up there.. and should be able to fall asleep now! Thank you so much for writing about the Coffee Master program, it’s a beautiful thing!

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