It seemed obvious enough how to find the Intelligentsia New York Training Lab as I entered 594 Broadway, a nondescript, but otherwise obvious building in the lower portion of Manhattan. “Suite 909A” was posted on the directory in the lobby and opposite the elevator door as I exited on the 9th floor. But that slow, flickery, claustrophobia-inducing “elevator” ride had me reconsidering the trip. Once out, the nine turns down a windowless hallway of what must have been a former tenement building had me feeling more like Don Adams on his way to the epicenter of CONTROL, than a coffee guy in search of a training facility.
Before getting nearly lost, I had looked forward to this class more than most. I’d seen photos of Intelligentsia’s New York lab elsewhere on the web and was excited to see the design of this space in person. I was also interested in what I could learn from the training facility staff of one of the most reputable roasters in the country. The fact that this course costs $200 also had me something more than curious about what improvements to my skills it could impart.
The red wings at the end of that winding hallway were a welcome sight. So was the crisp, white interior of the training room, whose coolness ever so slightly helped to offset the stifling June heat and humidity. The lab, itself, is a tiny space. It’s just two rooms if you count the three quarter wall divider. Up front is the kitchen and wonderful array of training equipment. The back half serves as an office and cupping room, which centers around the beautifully designed, albeit semi-wobbly and hard-on-the-knees cupping table.
My instructor for the day was Daniel Humphries, who I’ve communicated with in the past. It was nice to finally meet this organizer of the New York Coffee Society and learn some of his espresso tips and tricks. As I stepped in the door, he offered me a cup of Kenya coffee brewed via Chemex, which I enjoyed quite a bit, even though a morning of espresso tasting doesn’t usually require a caffeine warm-up.
Intelligentsia’s espresso training, couldn’t have been more different from the tasting course at Barefoot Coffee. This training was on brewing techniques, and more specifically on espresso, one of the hardest brewing methods to master. The Barefoot course, on the other hand, was purely about tasting. I was the only participant in this course (although the espresso classes sometimes have a few attendees) whereas the Barefoot class was crowded. And, Intelligentsia is a much larger and more professional type of coffee company with a different approach coffee (both have high standards, but they embody different business models and aesthetic choices).
The course itself was largely hands-on although it involved a lot of Daniel and I simply discussing all things coffee. Daniel started with an overview of espresso and then moved into a demo of what works and what doesn’t with espresso. He pulled me some over- and under-extracted shots to help me bookend my tasting of bad espressos and filled shot glasses at different segments of a shot’s 30 second pull so that I could taste how the flavors of espresso change over that interval. After a quick equipment tutorial. I was ready to begin.
I have to say that pulling repeated shots on a La Marzocco GB/5 was quite a treat. It’s hard for a home barista like me to get time on professional equipment and doing so was a great way to measure my skill against what I usually judge from a shop. Furthermore, I got to work with two different Black Cat formulas since the recipe had changed right before my class began and some of the older beans were still left. I think the biggest thing I gained from my repeated pulls with constant feedback was a better “feel” for the process from grinding to extracting, gaining more confidence in my intuition and in the margins for error. Ultimately, I feel I learned to rely less on instrumentation and more on visual and tactile cues.
I also spent considerable time on milk steaming and latte art, which I almost never do at home and for which my theoretical knowledge far outshines my practical skill. Again, the equipment was a treat; steaming on a GB/5 takes a tiny fraction of the time that it does on my stove top steamer at home. While I don’t steam much, I now feel confident that I can. I won’t be winning any contests with my latte art that more closely resembles road kill than rosettas, but it’s nice to think that I can create a quality cappuccino in a pinch.
I guess the $200 question is whether I’d recommend this course for the price. To that question, I’d say that it probably depends on your skill level. While I’m glad I took this course, I tend to think that any improvements to my espresso-making skills were fairly incremental and somewhat minor (of course, I leave it to my instructor to fully put me in my place here). Knowing what I know now, I may have opted instead for a milk steaming course, which is where I made my biggest strides. For a more novice home barista, however, this course would no doubt be huge boon to your armchair profession increasing your skills and knowledge exponentially. I think Intelligentsia might do better by developing a beginner and an intermediate course to give customers a more customized experience. But all in all, I’m happy that I took this course and I’ve got the coffee-stained hands to prove it. And at least for $200, I got some coffee to take home and Daniel did the dishes.