Kansas City, Missouri is a small beacon in the world of specialty coffee, now capturing attention from employees in adjacent sectors in town. Tristan Smith exemplifies this in his story, from working in Retail to moving across to Hospitality. Alongside his barista work at PH Coffee, Tristan also takes stunning photographs - his Instagram (footer) is a trove for anyone looking to explore the architecture of Paris of the Plains. In this interview, Tristan outlines the specialty coffee scene in Kansas City, also highlighting approaches and resources for those looking to become baristas in their town.
When did you start your career in coffee and how did you come across the industry?
I started my career in coffee back in the fall of 2018 at The Roasterie, a local coffee company here in Kansas City. At the time I had just left a job at Costco and my then-girlfriend had started working at The Roasterie and recommended that I apply. As someone who didn’t even like coffee at the time, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was blown away by how unique the job and coffee industry were compared to my previous jobs. The different brew methods, coffee origins and the flavors they produced, the people I met and worked with. Everything was new and fascinating. This is where my love of coffee began.
What's the status of specialty coffee in Kansas City?
Specialty coffee in Kansas City is well established and still growing, you just have to know where to look. Baristas in local cafes can usually tell you about one or two new coffee shops that have opened in Kansas City that you should go see. On top of new cafes opening every year, you have some amazing coffee roasters like Blip Roasters, Parisi Coffee, Monarch Coffee, and Oddly Correct to name a few. The roasters pair up with these new cafes to provide fresh coffee that is locally roasted and sustainable. However, the specialty scene in Kansas City can still improve. Personally, I would like to see the local roasters offer more opportunities for people to learn through cuppings and brewing classes that are open to the public.
What types of people are suited to working in coffee?
To work in coffee, you need to be adaptable, fast-paced, and have a thick skin. Being a barista behind the bar can be chaos and knowing how to handle it is key and a skill that is learned over time. The same goes for learning drink recipes as well as learning the bar flow. However, there are other jobs in coffee besides being a barista. If you want to dive into the more technical side of coffee, you might be more suited towards roasting, importing coffee, or an espresso machine technician and the positions those different jobs offer. Regardless of the job type, you choose you also must have a desire to learn. The job may seem simple on the surface but there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes.
If someone is new to coffee and looking to start out, what would you recommend they start with?
The best two places to start are in a local café and in your kitchen at home. Go in to your café and talk to the baristas to figure out what coffees you do and don’t like. You can also ask them how they brew at home or what their preferred coffee origins or roasts are as well. It’s also good to ask if they know of any other local cafes that are hiring if you're looking to get into a shop.
At home you can try using different brew methods and try different coffees. Try making a French press and see how that compares to something like a pour over using the same coffee. In addition to trying different brew methods try different coffee origins and coffee roasters. Not every shop carries the same coffee and you could find a coffee you really enjoy. Lastly, go online and try finding different coffee resources. There are plenty of blogs and YouTube channels that have tons of reviews and information.
Are there some central blog posts or websites that you go to gain more knowledge, develop further skills?
The main place I started to learn more about coffee was YouTube. I followed people like James Hoffman, Sprometheus, Lance Hendrix, and Kyle Rowsell. These people are a wealth of information and willing to share their thoughts and experiences. You can also read books like The World Atlas of Coffee by James Hoffman or Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast. The World Atlas of Coffee covers everything to get you started on the basics of coffee. Uncommon Grounds gives you a history of coffee and how it has shaped our world today. Also try to find Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) classes to go to or local cuppings to attend. The best way to learn more about coffee is by trying different coffees and being around people who have the knowledge and ability to share in person.
What's next for your career? What's on the horizon and what goals do you have for the coming three years?
Currently, I am trying to continue to learn more about coffee while going to school to pursue a business degree. The goal is to finish my degree in the next two years then dedicate as much of my time as I can to learn more about coffee. After college, I plan to take SCA classes and get a Q-graders license in Arabica coffee. My long-term goal is to open my own café. I want to create an environment that encourages growth and learning opportunities for people that want to learn more about coffee; but still be approachable so that anyone can come off the street and relax in the café. Coffee should be something that is for everyone and that is what I hope to achieve.
Follow Tristan on Instagram via @t.smith_photography