Tim Sturk: Championing training, skills and careers in coffee

SCA Licensed Trainer (AST), SCA Brewing Module lead creator, licensed Q Grader and international competition judge Tim Sturk explains why whether you’re brewing a prize-winning Panamanian geisha or a commercial blend, every cup of coffee is a cup worth serving well

Dale Harris, World Barista Champion 2017 (left) with Tim Sturk 

In the Japanese Buddhist tradition, satori refers to an awakening of the senses, a truecomprehension of one’s self on the road to enlightenment. When it comes to serving excellent coffee, training professional Tim Sturk has been helping individuals and businesses achieve enlightenment for well over a decade.

While specialty coffee has long championed the art of brewing espresso and filter coffee, today, pitch-perfect coffee service is increasingly the goal of non-specialist and commercial operators alike. From hotels, to restaurants, pubs and travel hubs, high-quality coffee is no longer the exception, but increasingly the rule for any successful food and beverage offer.

Yet this wasn’t always the case. We may be accustomed to specialty coffee shops and major branded chains extolling their brewing prowess, but acknowledgement of coffee craft in other hospitality segments, such as contract catering, has been hard won. As a longstanding champion of careers in coffee, Sturk says there’s still plenty of work to be done, but he is keen to highlight how far the industry has come.

"I had never seen anyone so skilled before, nor since. He’d mastered his craft, so that became my goal too"

“Hospitality is an industry not many people aspire to, but there are tremendous opportunities. I’ve worked to develop awareness that it is not a dead-end sector, so that people see the value in coffee training and can build rewarding careers. That is the big change I’ve seen compared to ten years ago – there are opportunities everywhere in coffee, not just serving coffee but within the whole coffee supply chain; it really is the coolest sector of hospitality!”

To date, Sturk has imparted coffee wisdom to over 5,000 coffee professionals and helped dozens of businesses, from grab-and-go concepts, roasteries to gourmet restaurants, to develop robust, high-quality and value-for-money coffee offers. And while he’s had a fair share of coffee eureka moments, an early experience watching an elderly barista in rural Italy proved especially formative.

“Achieving ristrettos and espressos on one machine means you have to adjust the grind between shots, nobody does this and this chap was doing just that. I had never seen anyone so skilled before, nor since. He’d mastered his craft, so that became my goal too.”

It is a goal that has propelled Sturk to classrooms and coffee shops around the world. It is also why whether working in London, Auckland, New York or Dubai, if you have ever poured over an SCA brewing guide, there’s one man you owe more than you know for being able to make that outstanding cup of coffee: Sturk played a leading role in the creation of the SCA Coffee Skills Programme – Brewing Module, the global system that is now the industry lynchpin for coffee education.

Baxterstorey and beyond

Back in 2007, when Sturk took on the role of Training Manager at independent hospitality provider, BaxterStorey, he was not just stepping into a new company but developing an unprecedented role in hospitality. In Sturk’s words, coffee was a happy training accident, which led to the beginning of his coffee journey in 2008 with the creation of the first contract catering barista academy. The role of Training Manager evolved into a Head of Coffee Training, a role that is now commonplace in the coffee industry.

In doing so, he began pushing clients to treat coffee quality on an equal footing with food. Whilst with BaxterStorey, Sturk was also the first contract caterer to regularly enter baristas into the UK Barista Championships, fielding finalists in five consecutive years. This culminated in the first contract catering barista competing for the title of World Barista Champion in 2018.

"As soon as you have staff who really care about the quality of the products they’re serving, half the battle is won and that is when the real success will come"

“I always heard the same story, contract catering coffee was cheap, therefore customers were willing to accept less quality. I came along and said; ‘what if it could be cheap and delicious?’ – That raised eyebrows.” When troubleshooting a coffee service there are myriad factors that can affect the final beverage. While every business has a unique set of challenges, Sturk generally approaches each new client with the simple questions: ‘Does your coffee taste good? If it doesn’t, why not?’

It is then possible to backtrack the process to find where it has gone wrong. It could be anything from incorrect grind, stale coffee, dirty equipment, incorrect recipe, poor barista skills leading to inconsistencies, or even water issues. “For every bad tasting coffee, there is a root cause that can be tracked and remedied,” he says.

Once material problems are identified, it ultimately falls to staff to implement and maintain solutions. Allegra research shows training and staff are consistently cited by industry leaders as crucial assets for any successful business. This certainly rings true for Sturk, who says building highly engaged, skilled and professional workforces forms the kernel of his teaching approach.

“As soon as you have staff who really care about the quality of the products they’re serving, half the battle is won and that is when the real success will come. But behind that is the support and investment staff get from managers,” says Sturk.

“An Operations Manager should be able to visit locations and quickly assess whether coffee is made well by simply tasting the coffee. If it is not, they should be able to offer advice and support to track and remedy any problems,” he adds.

Not only does this approach help to improve coffee, it helps to reduce costly staff turnover. One of Sturk’s key achievements at BaxterStorey was lowering staff turnover to 30%. “In the early days I felt slightly embarrassed to say that I worked in contract catering, as if it was a step down professionally, but I stuck with it because I was learning. That’s why I’m so passionate about education and training, it’s the foundation of everything,” he says.

Coffee Cherry Training 

After more than a decade championing and improving the coffee craft in hospitality, in April 2019 Sturk started his own venture, Cherry Coffee Training. Propelled by a vast contact base built over many years, today Sturk is an in-demand coffee trainer and consultant for coffee companies around the globe, currently working on projects with clients across Europe, the Middle East and USA. One of his most recent projects was collaborating with US cold brew equipment pioneers TODDY to launch the industry’s first cold brew cupping kit with cupping form and protocol.

Sturk’s coffee adventures have also taken him to Dubai and Saudi Arabia, two of the Middle East’s burgeoning coffee shop markets. Allegra research shows Saudi Arabia’s branded coffee chain market enjoyed 9.3% outlet growth in 2018, the fastest in the region, with market reforms bolstering a vibrant hospitality segment and strong consumer appetite for specialty coffee.

It’s been an enlightening experience for Sturk, who notes the burgeoning market’s thirst for coffee knowledge. “They want to do it the right way from the beginning and from a training perspective that’s incredibly exciting because you can see results much quicker,” he says.

One such success story has been a long-term collaboration with Jeddah’s Brew92. One of Saudi’s original specialty roastery cafés, today Brew92 is not only one of the country’s most successful and influential coffee businesses but has garnered an international reputation for excellence.

The relationship is indicative of Sturk’s methodology. “Offering a solution off-the-shelf is not how I train,” he says. In fact, it has taken nearly five years of intensive involvement to lay the bedrock for Brew92’s ascendance on the specialty coffee scene. Today the business is a major influencer in the Middle East and has achieved international acclaim.

“You need to have a programme and an idea of where you want to be in the next three to five years. If you do that correctly you can achieve great things,” he adds.

If all coffee has the potential to be sourced, brewed and served well, whether working in a petrol station forecourt, or at one of London’s esteemed specialty cafés, Sturk has some simple advice for baristas and business leaders alike:

“Know the difference between a well-made coffee and one that’s not. You’ve got to have relentless attention to quality and be tenacious with every cup served. If it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, something is wrong, so please – tell the person who made it.”

First published in Issue 2 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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