The Rise of the DIY Barista

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Courtesy of La Marzocco

Below low-hanging LED lights, two professionals — possibly bearded and, on a good day, decked out in plaid or denim — toil within a U-shaped, white oak-encased bar. They are flanked by at least three high-grade Mazzer grinders and a La Marzocco Strada, bags from Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, and probably a few other local roasters on the retail shelves just outside of the bar. Dozens of pour-over stations, complete with scales and timers, stand ready to be used for made-to-order coffees. It is probably one of the best-equipped cafes in all of San Francisco, and it's in the offices of Square.

"That's definitely the trend out there," said Scott Callender, director of famed espresso machine producer La Marzocco's home division, referring to the glamorous offices of the tech world. "I visited the office of a guy who bought a GS3, and he said to me — he literally said — 'Buying the GS3 was the best thing he’d ever done.'" The benefit, he said, was beyond the fact that he and his employees could now make great espresso: they also had a new kind of water cooler, a place where employees could come together, unplanned, and discuss whatever it is they wouldn't normally think to discuss on Gchat.

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Square isn't alone in offering this stuff, of course. It’s well known by now that thriving businesses are putting restaurant-grade kitchens (and chefs) into their offices, but most places are doing the same thing with their coffee program, too. There are boutique delivery services like Joyride and Blue Tiger Coffee, sure, but then there’s something further, which is the employees' decidedly hands-on approach.

There's the engineer at Foursquare who modified his FETCO (drip) machine to feed information (when fresh coffee was brewed, how often it’s brewed) to a Slack channel and spreadsheet. There's Tumblr, which doesn’t have a café quality Marzocco, but instead each kitchen of each of four floors has a Total Lite, which is basically a gourmand's rest area coffee bar. "You can basically do whatever you want with it," said Megan Leet, Tumblr's Head of Office Experience and Events. "It's definitely a place where we all gather spontaneously." And then there’s Callender's anecdote, which proves that all of that expensive equipment isn’t just being used to facilitate work — it's also being used to encourage the competitive spirit of the employees who work at these high-earning businesses.

"All of the employees at this place were fighting to see who could make the best drinks," Callender added. "They had latte art throwdowns. It became this whole subculture within the company." The same thing happened, too, at the offices of Two Sigma, a nondescript AI company. A designer who worked on their recent SoHo renovation told me, "We brought these beautiful La Marzoccos in, and they brought in people to train the employees. They all fancy themselves real baristas, and they put together their own blends to see who can make the best drink." Square, too, has a so-called internship program, wherein members of the Square staff are taken in by the office’s baristas and taught coffee basics, such as pulling shots, steaming milk, and pouring latte art. And yes: At the end of every internship quarter, the interns participate in a latte art competition. 

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The specialty coffee invasion isn’t stopping at the workplace, either. Callender's whole coffee career began only in 2008 when he bought one of the first GS3s and started serving free drinks out of the window of his Napa Valley kitchen. But it's gone beyond just the obsessive home experimenters. Callender’s Home division of La Marzocco is new, and launched in November of 2014 along with a revamped, customizable GS3. In February of this year, Shannon Leto — Jared Leto's brother, and a member of the band 30 Seconds to Mars — posted a thumbs-up Instagram of him and his new, custom GS3, along with champion barista Charles Babinski, who was training Leto to use the thing. Few people have the money (or the connections) to have a champion barista train them on a machine that costs upwards of $8,000, which is why in March La Marzocco launched the Linea Mini, a $4,500 machine that is, essentially, the smallest, cheapest café-grade machine any home enthusiast could hope for. (They also offer free online classes for those of us who can’t afford our own personal coffee trainer.) 

This demand for better-than-Folgers coffee is pretty much on par with the continuous growth of specialty coffee in major metropolitan areas. It only makes sense that, as more and more people get a taste for the carefully prepared, medium roast brews they taste at specialty places like Stumptown, Blue Bottle, and Intelligentsia, they'd want that same taste in the office. The home is, as it often is with the finer things, the final frontier when it comes to specialty coffee. A well-made (read: non-Nespresso) latte used to require a dedicated water line and modified cabinets. That’s no longer the case, but it will still cost you about as much as nearly four years' worth of New York City lattes. Though, when you look at it that way, it’s not quite so bad.

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