Coffee Education – Is the Certificate important?

Rocky RhodesBack in the day… (This is what old timers say when about to make a comparison to current changes in something) education in the coffee industry had only one flavor – free peer-to-peer / mentor-to-mentee. But times they are a-changin’!
Our industry is interesting in that we all want our colleagues, and competitors, to make good coffee so the industry is easily identifiable as something better than average. If the industry succeeds, then everybody can charge an artisanal price rather than a commercial one. Education was given away to assist this identity separation. “Is it working?” is a smart and insightful question to evaluate. To do so requires peeling back a few layers of this education onion.
The Evolution of Education
Back in the day, people were just feeling their way through things like sourcing, roasting, and pulling shots. We would pick up the phone to a friend in the industry and declare something like’ “I found that if I roasted a little slower and a little lighter I got some interesting flavors.” Or “I found that if a shot of espresso takes longer than seven seconds to produce it can actually taste complex and interesting.” The person on the other end would willingly share their experiences and that became a collaborative learning experience.
As the collaboration became wider, guilds formed. Now we had organized group collaboration for education. The guilds found that it would be easier for everyone if the information was organized into classes so curriculum was developed for that ‘level one’ type information. The information was still ‘free’ but you needed to join one of the guilds and go to a retreat to get it. It was still contained in the most passionate of the coffee enthusiasts who were willing to join, share, participate, and pay to be a member.
The word got out that there were organized classes for the industry. Demand became extremely high for not only the Level One classes, but for deeper knowledge for the early adopters who were looking to move up in their learning. Volunteers were still developing curriculum, but at some point it became clear that this service would be better served by the SCAA where some staff could be added to apply a structure to the classes and help develop the ‘look and feel.’ At the same time, the concept developed of making this education like that of other professions in that it could be a ‘certified credential’ stating your proficiency in the skills of that trade: Certified Barista, Certified Roaster etc. Also, other organizations started offering similar classes that were often based on the same materials so it was confusing as to who should be running the classes and where you could take them.
Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) developed the Q-Grader Certificate program utilizing some of the work of SCAA education development and tech standards. SCAE offered classes of their own that looked surprisingly like those of SCAA… private trainers jumped in, now there are lots of choices, several quality levels of the delivery of those classes, and different credentials and cost structures.
SCAA decided to rein this in and create certification programs for the different vocational groups of the industry. Now you can become a certified Roaster, Barista and Cupper and do it at different levels that represent your mastery of the skills. Volunteers continue to add technical input to the class materials but the information is controlled and sold by SCAA. We have come a long way from that peer-to-peer collaboration.
Are the Certificates Worth It?
This is an interesting conundrum for the coffee industry. The answer to the question in the U.S. is different than other countries. To answer we need to understand the value to the learner.
The coffee professional in the US is still a passionate craftsperson set on learning as much as possible. Their desire for a certification is only so they can ‘join the club’ rather than for professional advancement. The real goal of taking classes is knowledge and craft improvement.
The coffee professional in Asiatic consuming countries is motivated more by the piece of paper. With an additional certificate, there is proof of some specialized learning so there is more possibility to find a job or advance in a company. Often the certificate is being sought and paid for personally, so price is important, and return on investment is calculated. Further down the list is the quality of that education. This is why you see a huge array of coffee certifications in these countries.
In producing countries, they really have a focused goal; to sell their coffee and improve the quality so they can sell it for even more. A certificate is valuable in that it tells the potential buyer that there is an understanding of quality and opens a line of communication. Often it is the exporters that will take classes, as farmers generally cannot afford the classes now that they are fee based. The good news is that people in Coffee Corps will volunteer their time and expertise to deliver the classes free.
Dilution and Dishonesty
The danger of a certification is that the industry’s desire to make everyone better is being subverted by a small percentage of people that only want to claim that they know, and actually want to cut corners and cheat the consumer. They want to claim to be coffee specialists but then serve some crappy coffee that they can buy cheap. They have a disdain for the sophisticated coffee drinker as well as third wave coffee houses. They think those people are foolish and could not tell one cup of coffee from another. These are the folks our industry must somehow police against as they will dilute the Special out of Specialty and further confuse the consumer.
The solution to this problem is to hold a certificate program to extremely high standards. If you can get one for merely showing up for a class then the certificate has no value. Have informational classes available for those that just want to get started. Have certificate programs for those that want actual expertise. To the SCAA’s credit, there has been developed (as a part of the certification) a criteria a number of hours that you must document as developing your skills over a period of months. Bravo!
We have come a long way from ‘Back in the day.’ Us old timers should take some of these new-fangled certification courses. Maybe we can share some peer-to-peer knowledge during the class!
Rocky can be reached at

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