How BD Barista School in Ann Arbor is teaching the art of making a perfect cup of coffee
By Andy Reid
Photography by Erin Kirkland
Shelby Underwood remembers taking a small swig of the hot black coffee, letting it sit on her tongue to soak in the full flavor (which happened to taste exactly like a green pepper).
Underwood wasn’t just savoring her daily caffeine fix — this scene, which unfolded nearly two years ago, took place in an Ann Arbor cafe that Underwood was visiting on a taste-testing field trip with her classmates at the BD Barista School in Ann Arbor. Now 23, Underwood is a barista at an upscale coffee shop about an hour south of Ann Arbor; she credits the lessons she learned at BD for every cup she makes. “You don’t realize how much it takes to put together a really good cup of coffee,” she says.
Opened in July 2017, BD Barista School is the brainchild of Nicholas Ferris, the owner of Black Diesel Coffee in Ann Arbor. (The company also operates as a wholesale distributor for roastery products and café equipment.) When Ferris was building his café in 2015, he hired about 15 people six weeks before the grand opening for an in-depth training program to give his new employees all the tools they needed to create gourmet beverages. Other café owners around the area were surprised that Ferris would invest so much time and energy into his staff, especially because employee turnover rate at a coffee shop in a college town is traditionally incredibly high.
But Ferris, who stepped away from corporate consulting to strike out on his own in the coffee business, knew he wanted to develop a staff with an intense understanding of the product. “Most cafes operate without any real understanding of coffee,” he says. “I come from a world where training is everything. The old saying is, ‘What if we train them and they leave? Well, what happens if they stay and you don’t?’”
With his landlord’s blessing, Ferris constructed a makeshift drink lab in the conference room of his office space. He hung a sign that read, “The Baristas Are In!” on the door and gave away his new employees’ coffee creations to tenants in the building. People liked the pseudo-café so much, the landlord asked if Ferris wanted to construct a real one. Two years later, the BD Barista School debuted — and it’s quickly becoming known as one of the most comprehensive coffee educations in the country. (Schools like BD are more prevalent overseas, where specialized training is mandatory for baristas.)
The school’s original program is the professional barista certification course, offered twice a year for six all-day sessions on the weekend. The class usually has 6-10 students and features a different lesson every week, from taste-testing specialty coffee beans and tea leaves from around the world to creating the perfect espresso or macchiato to learning the business behind running your own shop.
BD also offers monthly Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) certification courses, which attract students from Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Ferris says it is common for an international student who is earning their graduate degree at a U.S. college to enroll at BD with the intent of going home and opening a coffee business. “In other countries, it is hard to be in this space without some credentials and certification,” he says.
But the school is not just for aspiring professionals. BD also offers one-off evening courses, which cover topics like making pour-over coffee or latte art. “It is a center for anybody,” says Ferris. “You don’t have to be going into the business or want to make this a career to learn and experience from us.”
During the pandemic, the school is hosting Zoom sessions for its one-off courses. The more intensive training takes place in person, with smaller groups to ensure everyone has their own work station at a safe distance.
Shelby Shenefelt, a nutritionist from Birmingham, finished the professional barista certification program last March. Her dream has always been to open a coffee shop and wellness studio, and she signed up after finding the school online. “I didn’t even have a coffee maker before I took the class,” she says. “Now, I have a great machine at home and make coffee for family and friends and, someday soon, for the community.”
Shenefelt said one of the school’s most impressive aspects was the staff’s willingness to go above and beyond for the students. “Nick really wants to help his students get to the next level and get what they want out of the class,” she says. Indeed, Ferris has helped graduates find coffee careers in New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and elsewhere across the country. He says about a quarter of BD Barista School students are there for “personal growth,” and 100% of those who are there for professional gain are now working in the coffee industry in some capacity. About 40% of those with entrepreneurial aspirations have already opened their own café — not bad for a three-year-old institution.
“To be able to help someone else fulfill their dreams, that’s really what it is all about,” says Ferris. “At the root of it, I am a teacher. There is a great fulfillment in that.”