- With a humble beginning of only three coffee machines, the school has everything one needs to become a skilled barista.
- Students are taken through the process of preparing the cherries, sorting and grading the beans, roasting, quality control where they taste for consistency (cupping) and finally to the packaging section.
- Three courses are offered that range between one and four weeks with the curriculum updated to reflect evolving trends.
As a first-year pursuing a degree in General Hotel Management, a YouTube video caught Faith Cynthia Odinga’s attention.
“It was an episode of the World Barista Championships. What was most interesting was seeing a Kenyan compete. That clip opened up a whole new world for me as far as coffee was concerned and I decided that I was going to be on that stage too, ”Ms. Odinga says.
Five years later, Ms. Odinga is making good her promise at the Nairobi School of Coffee. She’s here to learn the art and science of coffee making.
Sitting on an expansive space, with a healthy garden, filled with ornamental grasses and flowering bushes, the Nairobi School of Coffee (NSoC) is East Africa’s Premier Barista Training School. Established in 2002, the school offers professional barista skills training.
“We groom student baristas into skilled artisans of coffee brewing,” Kevin Wanjohi says of the institution whose founder, Dormans Coffee Limited specializes in roasting, blending and exporting Kenyan coffee.
Initially, the goal behind the training facility was that the company wanted to promote the coffee drinking culture in Kenya. At the time, being a barista was unheard of as a career path.
“The perception was that coffee was for the export market. To create our own local market, we decided to change the narrative by promoting coffee as a beverage that can be enjoyed by Kenyans too, ”he says.
In fact, the market for the very first sets of trainees was Dorman’s coffee shops set up in Nairobi to advance this cause. Eventually, the school became a source of expert coffee brewers for the mushrooming coffee shops driven by the increasing acceptance of coffee and the country’s higher purchasing power.
With a humble beginning of only three coffee machines, the school has everything one needs to become a skilled barista. Their training meets international standards. From having the classes in a certified coffee roasting facility with up-to-date espresso and brewing technology and techniques to engaging with passionate, knowledgeable trainers.
Mr. Wanjohi studied counseling and psychology with Business Management as a minor. After failing to secure meaningful employment, he joined the institution in 2015 as a sales representative. During one marketing gig, he was challenged to brew an espresso.
“The positive reception to that espresso altered my career path. I was trained by Dorman’s barista Edward Njoroge, and then practiced as an in-house barista for three years, ”the alumni says.
It’s with the same dedication he received that he trains those coming through his doors. I see it in the way he handles the students in his current class and how he talks about coffee – the product, the drink, the stories since coffee is an easy social lubricant.
“Coffee is a journey from the cherry to the cup. When a student walks into the training center, we take them through it all, ”the barista training manager says.
Lessons begin on the farm where they are taught about the care for the crop. Afterward, students are taken through the process of preparing the cherries, sorting and grading the beans, roasting, quality control where they taste for consistency (cupping) and finally to the packaging section.
Before coming to joining the school, the 23-year-old Ms. Odinga had never seen a coffee plant.
“I thought its height was like that of a mango tree. I also did not know one branch could carry so many cherries nor the various ways of harvesting them, ”she shares. “It’s a tangible experience as I get to see, smell, feel, and taste the coffee. Hence one of the main reasons I chose to come here. ”
Once the raw coffee lessons are done, the main barista training begins. Trainees are walked through the coffee making machine and equipment, taught how to prepare coffee using an espresso machine, a brewer and any other coffee-making apparatus, coffee storage to keep the quality in tip-top shape, and lastly coffee art techniques and designs that produce edible, foamy tulips, hearts and ferns on your hearty brew.
The students also benefit from the years of experience of various coffee experts at Dormans.
Halfway through the interview, I’m treated to a cup.
Three courses are offered that range between one and four weeks with the curriculum updated to reflect evolving trends. The training is done in an informal environment that allows a student to relax, engage and express themselves through their coffees, and students get tested through theoretical and practical exams.
There’s one main instructor based at the school and an in-house senior barista who offers refresher training for practicing alumni baristas working in establishments where Dormans supplies coffee. This is to ensure the customer served has a wonderful experience with coffee.
“A good cup of coffee speaks to all your senses. It should be visually appealing, with the right mouthfeel, aroma and a bittersweet taste that will refresh you, ”he shares.
“This is what we do at the Nairobi School of Coffee: we turn baristas into coffee connoisseurs.”
They have students from as face as the US and Europe. Currently, it’s the only Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) certified Barista training center in Africa.
This led to the institution pioneering the Kenya National Barista Championships. Through this event, they raise awareness of baristas as professional coffee makers. Winners take part in the World Barista Championships.
However, many are still hesitant about a career as a barista. But according to Mr Wanjohi, the art of coffee-making is a life skill with endless opportunities. Coffee in Kenya and across Africa is a developing industry presenting more prospects to baristas – whether it’s starting their coffee shops, working in other institutions as baristas or trainers of baristas, or being employees in coffee manufacturing plants.
“I want to pursue a career as a barista. To me, coffee is more than presenting a cup. It’s sharing knowledge about something I find interesting and which I’m passionate about, ”the hospitality graduate shares. “I’ve set my heart on also competing in the World Barista Championships.”
Consequently, thousands have passed through the school. If you take a quick survey of the baristas in local coffee shops today, many are its alumni. Furthermore, the global coffee world recognizes the NSoC Certificate making Kenyan baristas globally competitive. Being coffee distributors, once in a while, their partners will ask for prospective candidates for employment or internships.
“One of the biggest international markets for Kenyan baristas is the UAE whose coffee culture is rapidly developing and therefore needs more specialists,” he says, adding that the upcoming World Cup has led to an even greater demand for experts.
The school’s recent success: Martin Shabaya, a student of the school, recently made history in 2021, as the first African barista to reach the finals of the World Barista Championships. This is the person Ms. Odinga saw onscreen back in 2017.
“I love his coffee descriptions. What he says he’ll make is what he delivers. He’s also a good timekeeper, ”the soon-to-be barista reveals.
Apart from the required training, one has to have passion to succeed as a barista.
“A good barista is someone who understands their trade and has a passion for what they do. With these two attributes, you’ll always make a good cup of coffee that will please your customers. This will keep your business growing. Moreover, you must keep up with the trends given how dynamic the coffee industry is. Passion will help you pay the cost required to reach the top and stay there, ”Mr Wanjohi says.
“Who, dead or alive, would like to brew and share a coffee with,” I ask. After an extra-long break, the barista says:
“My parents. I’m fully aware that this journey has not been easy for them. I mean, Counseling and Psychology and coffee making are worlds apart. Yet they’ve been patient through it all. It would be a coffee cup full of thanksgiving, flavor and assurance that I’m doing well. There’s a place where my counseling degree and barista training meet. There’s so much healing that can happen over a cup of good coffee, and I’m working towards this. ”