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Monday, October 24, 2011

Ben Kaminsky of Ritual Coffee Dreams of Life After Latte

Posted By on Mon, Oct 24, 2011 at 2:30 PM

SFoodie is on a mission to sit down with the city's most intelligent, influential, and experienced coffee folk to pick their brain about what makes our city such a hot bed of coffee trends.Today we speak with Ben Kaminsky, Ritual Coffee's quality control expert and three-time winner of the National Cupping Championships.

SFoodie: What continues to fascinate you about coffee?

Kaminsky: There's still so much that isn't known about coffee. I don't think anyone has a firm grasp on the roasting process. I want to figure out roasting to the point where we have a mathematical equation: For this given density, for this bean size, for this amount of coffee, how much energy in joules are we going to need to get this coffee roasted.

I'm obsessed with engaging the average consumer so they become capable of understanding what we do. I believe most people don't taste. They eat and they drink, but they don't taste what they are putting in their mouths. They consume food and their body takes in that information, but no cognitive ability is dedicated to really analyzing and critiquing flavor.

How do you get the average consumer to that place?

It's a battle with perception. A friend of mine always says that people have terrible taste memories. Someone gets a cup of coffee at Starbucks in the morning and Ritual in the afternoon and don't register any difference.

Expectation is a huge factor as well. Starbucks and Ritual are very different, but our menus aren't that different. We both have lattes and mochas, and drip coffee -- it's a very similar experience, and we expect the same things from both of them. Breaking down and moving away from the current paradigm of the coffee bar is going to be a big step in the right direction.

What does your coffee bar look like?

I want customers to come in and sit down at bar seating with one or two or three baristas serving them tea-service style, answering questions, letting them know what's on the menu, and how they're preparing it. Customers should be involved in the process. I don't want customers to expect to be in and out in three minutes.

How do you see people drinking coffee?

I have no problem with people who drink mochas or lattes, it's just not why I'm in coffee. People in the specialty coffee industry don't drink lattes, but we all have them on our menus. It's a disservice to what we're trying to do.

Lattes are the most ordered drinks at any cafe, so people's metric for how good a coffee is based on the barista's ability to steam milk, not pull shots. Since we all serve it, customers believe we recommend it. We are propogating the myth that milk-based espresso drinks are a part of what we do. It's not the customer's fault, they're just taking our lead.

The money [lattes] bring in makes it difficult to imagine a menu without them on it. But everyone who's ever changed the game has had to make major steps like this. We're just not dreaming big enough.

Where would you like to see coffee in 5 years?

It's all about the paradigm shift. That change in cafes is very close, and we'll have to get there through cafe design and context. When you walk in to Sightglass, the roaster's right there, the green beans are right in front of you -- you stand up and take notice. A lot of people have said they're confused by the space, but it's the better kind of confusion. It doesn't look like Starbucks or Peet's, and at the register they hand you a little menu with six things on it, basically stating, this is what we do. And that's it.

Hopefully, the next step after Sightglass is the cafe without a latte on the menu. A place that sets up a consumer to have a different experience and makes that experience amazing.

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