Even the staunchest coffee geek caves at the airport and springs for Dunkin' Donuts or whatever else is available. Why? It's usually all you got. But several airports around North America are ramping up their coffee service to include single origin brews, specially trained baristas and pastries made by local chefs.

Food and beverage operator OTG has partnered with several local craft roasters, including Irving Farm in New York, Dogwood Coffee in Minneapolis and Sense Appeal in Toronto, as well as with Caffé Vita nationally to offer travelers a better pre-flight caffeinating experience.

“At first, I was not interested in working with OTG,” says director of coffee Chad Freilino, who is known for starting a non-profit barista program for homeless young people in Portland. “I had never worked for a company this size. I was not interested in the idea of scaling specialty coffee… I think it’s easy to be not interested in airport food.”

Freilino did end up signing on to develop the coffee program for OTG, which works with several airports, including two in New York City (JFK and LaGuardia) along with Minneapolis — St. Paul and Toronto — with D.C. coming on board later this year. In Minneapolis, for example, travelers can get Dogwood’s Neon Espresso, as well as several seasonal hand-poured microlot coffees. In Toronto, Freilino is excited to work with Sense Appeal, whose master roaster was a sommelier for 20 years and brings a wine world perspective and palate to his craft.

In addition to local coffee roasters and pastry chefs, Freilino helps seek out local dairies to provide milk, orchards for apple ciders and other produce for the raw juice bars that accompany the coffee concept. As the program expands to include more airports, he’s looking for independent local roasters that work directly with coffee farmers and can provide coffees that will excite geeks without necessarily intimidating novices.

Espresso drinks at participating airport locations are made using American-made Synesso machines; the coffee bars are also equipped with Mägerle grinders, Clever drippers and AeroPress brew systems. The key, as with any great café, is to hire skilled baristas to put all these tools to good use.

“I’ll be honest: the best baristas don’t want to work at the airport,” says Freilino. “So, when it comes to finding people, we oftentimes start from scratch.”

The in-depth training program is open to those who express an interest in hospitality or the culinary arts. It takes up to four weeks for a trainee to even touch the espresso machine. After they are certified, they can continue their education, learning everything from different milk textures to extraction techniques and participating in cuppings through an externship program that sends them to work in local partners’ coffee bars. Exams in each specialty are offered once per quarter; the more qualifications a barista earns, the more money he or she can make. Freilino has even sent a handful of his baristas to regional competitions.

Could the next U.S. Barista Champ hail from an airport coffee bar? You never know. Freilino is coming up with a competitive roster of composed drinks that make use of unusual ingredients, like locally produced bitters and gourmet finishing salts. In the summer, expect cold brew drinks and tea cocktails.

“Whether they’re a Dunkin’ Donuts person or a Starbucks person or they know their local roaster,” he says, “I want customers to walk away from the experience thinking that was the best latte, espresso or whatever they ever had.”

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