For expert barista Anthony Christensen, caffeination is king.
Rich, creamy milk neatly cascades from its pitcher into a cup. As pearly dairy mixes with dark French roast, Anthony Christensen gives his wrist a series of twitches until the image of a leaf nestles neatly on top. He sets the drink on the counter in front of him, calling for the customer to claim his masterpiece. Christensen tosses his espresso tamper in the air as he moves on to the next drink, his confidence and contentment evident from the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eyes.
Dive into Christensen’s mind and discover an encyclopedia of coffee knowledge that has taken the past decade to put together. After countless hours of research and a few tests along the way, he has learned volumes, all in the name of honing his craft as an artisan barista. He is eager to share his knowledge with all who will listen — his calm, collected demeanor while behind the bar encourages people to ask about his craft. In return, he presents them with a cup of coffee that is not only beautiful to look at, but arouses all the senses. Merely taking an espresso shot with Christensen is an experience of its own.
“Life is too short for bad coffee,” he says. It’s a motto he lives by. As master and commander of Common Grounds Café at the University of Oregon, Christensen focuses on making each drink the best it can be — despite having to use what he considers to be sub-par coffee beans. However, working at Common Grounds comes with a bittersweet note: Christensen knows that he’s reaching the end of this caffeinated chapter in his life.
“This is going to be my last coffee job,” he says. “I’ve loved every part of it.” Come fall, he will start taking classes to renew his previously expired certification as paramedic while continuing his training in scuba diving. He has his eyes set on being a scuba paramedic. But for now, he is sticking to his coffee roots, steaming lattes and pouring cold brew at 16 Tons for the summer with his former boss from the University of Oregon and friend, Benjamin Wilkinson. Once fall term starts up, he will return to Common Grounds.
Christensen got his first whiff of the different variety of coffee while working the Starbucks beat in California. Though, he did not embark on the path of becoming a true artisan until he moved to Sacramento. He moved there believing it would be temporary. His father needed help transitioning after a divorce. But then something inconceivable happened: he broke his leg.
The broken leg put Christensen in a catch-22 where he needed work, but was unable to find it. “I got stuck,” he says. He was able to find a company that was having a job fair for an area he had some experience in. He applied, conveniently leaving out his injury.
Cassie Wanner and her manager, Tim, sat at a job fair that Wanner helped set up. She was working as a lead shift manager at a downtown Sacramento location of the caffeine mecca, Peet’s Coffee. The two were looking for entry-level baristas who had some experience.
“Anthony walks in the door in his plaid shirt and I’m like ‘Oh man, Tim, not another bro!’” Wanner says. “Honestly, I could not have been more wrong.” She and her boss started having a conversation with Christensen. They were just three people, geeking over coffee. They gave Christensen the job.
His first day at Peet’s was “overwhelming.” While Wanner trained him on running the store, he learned all 30 types of coffees and teas that Peet’s offered and was soon promoted to coffee and tea specialist. He took classes where he learned about the process of coffee from plant to cup. He also demonstrated new brewing methods and products for customers to enjoy.
As he continued to hone his craft at Peet’s, Christensen attracted a small fan base. Customers would come in and specifically request he make their coffee. But he didn’t consider himself a true barista until he participated twice in the company-wide barista competitions. The first year he advanced to the district level. He didn’t duplicate that achievement the second year he competed, but he received a high compliment from one of the judges.
“One of the store managers tried one of my espresso shots and said it was the best espresso shot she’d had in the district,” Christensen says. “It was about that time that I realized that I’m pretty good at this.”
After a few years at Peet’s, it was time for him to move on and add another volume to his encyclopedia. He applied for a job at the best coffee shop in Sacramento: Temple Coffee. To work at Temple, he had to complete a written test showing his coffee knowledge as well as a demonstration on bar. “I failed the first time,” he says. “But he [Temple’s owner] lets you have a second chance, and I passed the second time.” When he moved to Temple, some of his fans moved with him.
His time at Temple ran its course and Christensen and Wanner — now his girlfriend — migrated up to Eugene. Christensen was setting down roots and establishing a sense of home, something he wanted during all the years he spent moving around for his work. Eugene was a natural fit since Christensen was not only familiar with the town, but had family here as well.
Both Christensen and Wanner were hired to work in Dining Services at the University of Oregon. At the time they were hired, there was an initiative to change the way students drink coffee in the dorms. Quality over quantity was the game with the dynamic duo. They trained student workers to develop the same passion for good coffee as well as a useful skill. Christensen also likes to make sure his students stay well caffeinated, asking around to see which of his workers want to take a shot of espresso with him.
Hamilton dining Student Shift Leader Justin Bercherer noted the difference between Christensen and the previous manager. “Anthony is really reliable,” he says. “When I come into work, I don’t have to worry about running the place.”
Christensen is passing the torch on to the next generation of baristas. When fall term starts up, he, Wanner, and a couple other dining services baristas will be pioneering a coffee summit where both students and managerial staff can develop the same passion for coffee that Christensen has. “I have a lot to teach about not just the process, but the knowledge [of coffee],” he says. “If it’s something that I’m passionate about, it makes it easier to teach at that point.”
Despite being leaders in a school-wide coffee revolution, Wanner likes to occasionally slip into Common Grounds to see Christensen teach a student. “The Padawan has definitely become the Master,” she says.