Past shows off a tall, frothy glass of Nitro Coffee.
Dan Pabst is not your stereotypical barista. He’s not going to spell your name wrong on your cup or gripe about your special order. When Pabst hands you a cup of coffee, it’s going to be, well, pretty close to perfect. He’s not just a barista; he’s a coffee sensei.
Pabst, 32, has been working under the official title of Director of Retail Operations at St. Louis’ Ronnoco Coffee
since late 2015, but earned the unofficial title of coffee sensei due to coffee knowledge and execution expertise.
And his expertise isn't just something that's been confirmed anecdotally. Pabst is one out of only 200 people in the United States with a Level Two barista certification from the Barista Guild of America (BGA), which is a subset of the larger Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), the industry’s trade group. (The only other Level Two certification in St. Louis belongs to David Fasman at Kaldi's.)
“What the certification represents is a foundation of coffee knowledge and skill,” says Pabst. “I have an understanding of the proper techniques of preparing an espresso and the knowledge of the science behind the proper techniques for brewing a cup of coffee.”
The SCAA offers four different education pathways, which include certifications for coffee buyers, roasters, tasters and baristas.
The barista pathway
currently has two levels, which each require 18 hours of classes and subsequent written and practical exams. Classes range from preventative espresso machine maintenance to latte art. By the time baristas complete Level Two, Pabst says, they should be ninjas behind the coffee counter.
Pabst’s own professional coffee career began at a crossroads. Growing up in northern Virginia, Pabst liked coffee, but that interest intensified after his family moved to Vienna during his high school years and he fell in love with European café culture. The real turning point, though, came after moving to Charlottesville, Virginia to work as a freelance writer for the town’s newspaper. To supplement his income, he took on a job as a barista at a local coffee shop, the Mud House.
On the same day Pabst interviewed for a promotion at the coffee house, he was offered an editor position at the paper. He told the person offering him the job that he was conflicted because really enjoyed serving coffee. “Come on, Dan," she responded. "You can’t make coffee your whole life, can you?” He didn’t exactly know how, but he thought he might as well try. He turned down the newspaper job and took the coffee house promotion.
“About a year to a year and a half later, I was retail operations manager overseeing all five locations,” he says. He worked at the Mud House for nine years before accepting the job at Ronnoco.
His role at the coffee roaster and distributor is split into two parts: education and innovation. He teaches employees and customers in 34 states how to correctly brew their coffee. On the innovation side, Pabst and Ronnoco are working to change the way you experience iced coffee. It’s called Nitro Coffee, and it’s delicious.
“What we’re doing is brewing up coffee and putting it into kegs. So there are a couple of things that make that awesome,” says Pabst. First is the mouth feel of the coffee—rather than a viscosity that’s more like water or skim milk, the nitrogen from the tap creates a frothy and creamy feel, similar to half and half or cream. Next, Pabst and Ronnoco are straying from the cold brew technique, which has become a buzzword in coffee houses across the U.S.—Ronnoco is brewing it hot.
“The temperature at which you brew coffee determines what flavors you extract from the coffee,” says Pabst. So, to achieve those flavors, Ronnoco is brewing its coffee at 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit and then instantly cooling it down. “So because we’re able to chill it down very rapidly we don’t see any decrease in quality and we trap all of those good flavors that you expect out of a hot cup of coffee,” he adds.
You can check out Ronnoco's iced coffee on tap at Kingside Diner
in the Central West End. The chess-themed diner is also using the Nitro Coffee in one of its boozy shakes, which also includes chocolate ice cream and Kahlua. Soon, Ronnoco hopes to roll out these iced coffee kegs to other restaurants, and even bars, in the St. Louis market.
Through innovative offerings like this, Pabst hopes he can persuade more people to pick up a cup of coffee for their caffeine fix.
“I like to think that if you’re already drinking coffee, whether it’s Ronocco or something else, we’re friends. You’re a coffee drinker, we share that,” says Pabst. “What I’m trying to do is for those customers who reach for a Diet Coke or an energy drink in the morning, that’s who I want to convert over to coffee.”