Charles Babinski always wanted to experience the world beyond Colorado Springs, so he moved to the city with the most opportunities, New York. This metropolis is where he fell for specialty coffee. He worked as a barista and a friend from Ninth Street Espresso referred him to Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea when Babinski relocated to Chicago. He worked at Intelligentsia’s Monadnock coffeebar while exploring an interest in Constitutional law as a court reporter, but ultimately chose coffee full-force. He earned a role as Educator and trainer at the company, made the finals of the 2010 U.S. Barista Championship, and transferred west to Intelligentsia Venice. We met at that location’s anything-goes “slow bar” on January 26, and Babinski shared personal and coffee insights.
Do you have a first coffee memory, good or bad?
I didn’t really like coffee for a long period of time. When I was a teenager, I started drinking coffee black, just for the affectation of it. For years, I just drank coffee, and I didn’t really care about the quality of it. I have to say, I didn’t really care about the quality of anything overall, but it wasn’t until I’d been working as a barista, probably for a little over a year – this is in New York – that I started going to a coffee shop in Lower Manhattan in Alphabet City called Ninth Street, which back in the day – that maybe six years ago, in New York, was the best in the city, and the only good shop anybody would ever tell me about. I started going there, and it was there that I really started enjoying espresso. I guess that would be my first coffee memory, in the way that I still look at coffee.
What brought you to New York?
I was 19 years old in a pretty culture-less, relatively conservative town in Colorado, and just wanted to move to the biggest city I could.
What was the town?
That’s a college town?
More Air Force and mega-church.
Was it a given that you’d work with coffee for a living, or did you consider other careers?
No, it wasn’t until three years ago that I decided I wanted to do coffee for a living. It was a very firm decision. At that point I was working in Chicago for Intelligentsia, at the Monadnock store, and I didn’t know – I dropped out of high school to be a cook – I never liked high school – and worked in coffee shops, but at a certain point, I was interested in taking classes and going back to school. I always had an interest in Constitutional law that was just sort of a side interest, so reading cases and things like that. I had a job in Chicago covering some of the courts, court reporting, and was sort of thinking I wanted to do that and figure out a way to get more and more into law, and more into learning more about it, whether it was in a law school way or not. I was scaling back my hours at Intelligentsia, and then a position of Educator came up, a trainer position, and then I sort of had the decision, “Do I want to do this thing that’s sort of respectable, and people keep telling me to do, or should I do the thing that I love and where – more than anything – I get to do really interesting things that nobody else gets to do?” I’d get to have access to something really special and interesting, and I chose the thing that I loved, that I’d get to do special and interesting kind of things. That was the best decision I ever made.
What was your first coffee related job?
I was a barista in New York.
It was a shop on the Upper East Side called Sicafe. It wasn’t your Third Wave coffee shop, but they had great people, and I learned latte art there, and the basics of pulling a shot, although I never changed a grind setting until I started working at Intelligentsia. More or less everything I’ve learned about coffee, I’ve learned here.
How did the opportunity with Intelligentsia come about?
When I was in New York, and I told the barista at Ninth Street that I was moving to Chicago, he told me to apply to Intelligentsia. I said, “What’s Intelligentsia?” He explained that it was “the best in Chicago,” is what he said. So I got there, and I think three months later, they called me back. I applied to two of the locations, and the Monadnock location called me back.
Who hired you?
It was the manager of Monadnock at the time. His name was Luke Rodricks. When I started at Intelligentsia was right when Mike Phillips started working in coffee bars from the production floor. The first time I went to the Broadway store, he pulled the shot of espresso, and I still remember talking with him about coffee, that first week of work.
How was that shot that he pulled?
It was good. I actually went in and I was in the habit of every barista who was pulling me an espresso to pull it a little bit short, which now I would – maybe not roll my eyes at – but I thought I was getting better espresso. Now I think it’s kind of silly. He said, “Oh, absolutely. Do you work in coffee?” We had a conversation there, but I remember the espresso was good.
Would you consider anybody a coffee mentor?
Mike, to a great degree. The cool thing about Intelligentsia, and if I could name one thing about working here that I like more than anything else, is there’s been a lot of people at this company that love to share knowledge and they share it indiscriminately. Anybody who’s interested, they’re willing to share everything that they have. Mike was a person like that.
Geoff Watts is very, very generous like that. I remember the first time I built up the nerve to send Geoff a coffee question e-mail. Within the hour, he responded with like three pages. That’s what working at Intelligentsia is like. So many people are willing to share their experiences and share their knowledge. Some people, I’ve learned a lot from. Working with Mike, working with Geoff, Kyle Glanville out here, and Stephen Morrissey in Chicago, and that’s been part of this marvelous experience.
What is it that continues to inspire you about coffee?
Coffee is now the vocabulary with which I talk to people. I don’t even know how to have a conversation outside of it. On a foundational level, what’s exciting about coffee is that it’s delicious, it’s absolutely marvelous. If you’re seeking out coffees and tasting everything, you’re consistently excited, surprised and shocked by the qualities and flavors that come from this plant. That is – to be totally honest – the thing that drives it. But everything else, the fun thing about taking coffee seriously is that you get to reap the benefits of it. So what inspires me? Take Venice, for instance. There hasn’t been any cap on what we’ve been able to do here. The only limitation – the ones that are caused by the people – nobody is saying, “You can’t do the slow bar.” Or, you can’t do this, or you can’t do that. If we’re doing something that makes the coffee taste better, that showcases the coffee in an interesting light, we can do it. Just having that opportunity, and having that chance, that’s inspiring. It’s electrifying. It’s like, “Oh shit, I can do anything!” I’ve got to take advantage of that.
How much do you think being a cook helps you in what you’re doing with coffee?
I think I was a decent line cook, but I’m not a very good chef. And if anything, the coffee is a lot more my style just because I want to be able to focus on a single thing. Cooking taught me all of the basic manual skills of working in a fast-paced environment. That’s the main thing that I got out of it. I have to say, it didn’t prep me as much. The things that have been the hardest to learn in coffee – specifically things like customer service – something you never would have to deal with in a kitchen – are the things that I find the most rewarding.
Why was it important for you to compete in barista competitions, and would you do it again?