Dan Shannon gave up a career in education to become an expert barista. Alison Goulding reports
To me, it’s a very nice filter coffee. To Dan Shannon it’s 18 grams of Pumphrey’s Special Blend in 300ml of water brewed at 92 degrees. With a dash of milk.
The former St Aidan’s pupil only became a barista last October but has already become one of the North East’s best thanks to his eye for detail.
In May he competed against 80 hopefuls from around the UK at The London Coffee Festival – finishing in the top 20.
Dan, who is shop manager for Pumphrey’s in the Grainger Market, Newcastle, said: “To represent the company and the region was really kind of exciting for me. It was stressful but really worthwhile.
“It was the first time I’d taken part in the UK Barista Championships (UKBC). I thought it would be a good experience and would help to improve my service skills.”
Dan, who came third in the qualifier Scottish heats, added: “I prepared as much as I could. It went much better than I could’ve hoped and making the top 20 completely blew my mind.”
Each competitor had an hour to prepare their beans and grinder and 15 minutes to impress a team of judges by serving up espressos, cappuccinos and their own signature espresso coffee.
Dan, 29, from Pallion, Sunderland, said: “The technical side is a given but I found I need to develop the sensory side – recognising tastes and flavours. It’s one thing to say something tastes good but another thing to say why it tastes good.”
Dan used to be a disability advisor at Newcastle College and went on to qualify as an adult literacy teacher. But last year he decided to try a new career.
He said: “I wanted to work at something really creative that I had a passion for. Being a barista is a good way to express yourself in an industry where you have the potential to be really good. Pumphrey’s has been really great to me. They’ve seen I’m really passionate about it and they’ve nurtured that. It’s really great to feel valued.”
Now he is honing his skills with the support of Stuart Lee Archer, whose family owns the business. Stuart has entered the UKBC four times and is passing on his knowledge to Dan.
Dan said: “It’s a constant learning experience. A good barista has to be an all-rounder. You can make good coffee but have terrible customer skills!
“You can learn to make good coffee quickly, it’s keeping up with industry developments that’s ongoing. I feel I’m just scratching the surface but I definitely have the interest.
“It’s multi-faceted and there’s a lot to look out for because we do it all by eye and by hand using antique equipment at our roasting rooms.“
Dan also trains others to make the perfect cup of coffee at the company’s showroom in Blaydon. He thinks small businesses that offer something extra are the way forward for the region.
And he could be right – while the rest of the high street suffers, good coffee shops have never done a brisker trade.
He said: “We like to produce a consistently good cup of coffee and we spend a lot of time every day getting it all right, so it’s more than just a hot drink.
“We know when our coffee’s been roasted and where it comes from. We can track it to its origins and talk about the differences.
“The Grainger Market has a lot of traditional shops in it that are starting to thrive again. People are realising they can get better quality produce and it’s becoming cool to shop here again. ”
Making real coffee is a fine art and Dan says it’s a steep learning curve. When he describes how to make a drink it sounds more like a complicated science experiment than a brew.
But the job requires more than technical knowledge – having good craic with the customers is a must.
Dan said: “I love the service side of things and making tasty drinks for people and raising their expectations.
“We want to give them something much more than they’d get on the high street and raise their knowledge about it in an inclusive way. If you start a debate or a discussion you can raise the profile of good coffee. It’s an environment where people are happy to sit and chat.”
Dan’s top tips
1. Grind your beans fresh.
2. Buy beans from somewhere you have confidence in.
3. Store your beans in a cool, dry place but not the fridge or freezer