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Interview with Ben Szobody - The Independent Brighton & Hove Coffee Guide

Interview with Ben Szobody

He’s covered presidential campaigns in America, helped create the World Atlas of Coffee, and now he is developing the next generation of highly-skilled baristas in Brighton, meet Ben Szobody.

Who is Ben Szobody?
I’m a former journalist with a drawl — an American who jumped the pond and found a way to turn some of my favourite things, like coffee, into a job that helps people. I used to cover presidential campaigns in the “Dirty South” but now I develop social projects for One Church Brighton. Kind of strange!

What are the Pro Barista Courses?
Well, Pro Baristas fundamentally exists to solve two major problems. On the one hand, the speciality coffee sector faces a real shortage of skilled staff, and it’s only getting worse. On the other hand, there are tons of unemployed young people in particular who would kill for one of these jobs. So we offer everything from very lightweight drop-in sessions where you can literally play and develop confidence on our range of coffee machines, all the way up to year-long apprenticeships that come with five certificates from the Specialty Coffee Association. Our most popular course is “Barista Foundations Plus” — it’s the standard Foundations certificate course spread over four sessions, with lots of practice time, mentorship and live bar experience added on.

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What do you see as the future for the Pro Barista courses?
Wow, the potential for this thing is a bit breathtaking. The goal is to nurture well-rounded people so they can find satisfying careers in coffee. We’ve worked with more than 200 people in the past year. But we still have more cafes asking for baristas than we have baristas. The potential is huge to (a) really change the way coffee companies employ people, (b) substantially alleviate youth unemployment across the city, and (c) improve the quality of coffee across the board, simply by adding trained talent to the labour pool. ‘Cause we all know there are plenty of shops with sweet machines and good beans serving dodgy drinks, right?

Why hold courses at the One Church?
Well, One Church Brighton is the umbrella charity over this project. It’s a real church (there’s a spiritual community that meets together) but it’s also a charity that operates a range of social projects aimed at marginalised people in Brighton, from night shelters for the homeless to meals for low-income families. I’ve never worked in a more inclusive, energetic place — there’s no sneaky religious thing under the surface, and not everyone here is religious. We have this building that I manage in central Brighton where tons of this stuff happens. When I took it on several years ago, I was just looking up into the vaulted ceilings thinking, “Whoa, what a place to drink coffee.” So I invited my friend Andrew Tolley, who owns Taylor St Baristas, to see it and we hatched a plan to start Pro Baristas. It’s an amazing space in which to do any kind of learning, but especially coffee stuff. Al and Laura from Small Batch have also been crucial in helping us get it off the ground, and all our collaborators are doing it for the broader health of the industry.

What are your opinions of the current Brighton coffee scene?
Haha! Is this where I walk on eggshells with a demi in my hand? I hope not. Surely we can appraise coffee honestly! (I’d welcome criticism at my usual espresso cart at Florence Road Market on Saturdays.) In general: Brighton coffee is easygoing and chilled, but companies don’t collaborate like London companies do. There’s a lot of mistrust and weird, isolated thinking. As for the roasting, I feel like there’s a big divide — either you’re on the darker side of things (tasty but roasty!) or trying to roast light because it’s trendy but really ending up with grassy, herbaceous results. Sweetness and solubility remain somewhat elusive, for me anyway. As for cafes, there’s just a staggering range there. It’s hard to summarise. But I think that we still have lots of room for a company that can nail killer food, great coffee at high speeds AND brilliant customer service, all three.

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Do coffee shops, roasters and other coffee companies have a social responsibility and do you feel they are living up to their responsibilities in
Brighton and why?
Well, this could be an entire article. I obviously think that YES they have a social responsibility, but this isn’t always an obvious point to make. Look, cafes are blamed for gentrification, for the hipsterisation of everything, for stratifying consumers into elite tiers, for being pretty bad at racial and gender sensitivity, etc. etc. So what’s a quality-focussed business to do? I’d argue we need to look out our front doors at the people needing work, and do things differently. It makes no sense to hire your customers — middle-class coffee drinkers tend to view these jobs as placeholders, and they top out quickly. But if you hire someone who wouldn’t normally get the chance, then what you tend to get is a motivated, long-lasting, satisfied, durable employee who sees coffee work as a career. It’s worth some up-front investment, it makes business sense AND it meets a need in the city. And with a social project like Pro Baristas kicking around, it’s crazy not to think about this.

How can people find out more about the Pro Barista Courses?
Our website — www.ProBaristas.com — or honestly just pop in to our drop-ins. It sounds too good to be true, but the front doors are wide open at One Church on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, 12 to 3. Total beginners and seasoned pros can be found taking apart grinders, practicing latte art and reading about water chemistry. Anyone can cruise in and have a chat.