What is a Barista?

Baristas are employees in coffee houses, coffee bars, coffee shops or sometimes bookstores, who prepare and serve espresso style coffee drinks. Although in recent years, the term has somewhat evolved to include employees who also serve and prepare regular coffee, say Americano style.

While their job might sound straightforward enough, it isn’t. Unlike the espresso maker you have at home, coffee places use commercial espresso machines, which demand a certain level of skill, training, and adaptability if you want to brew coffee with them. A barista has to take a number of factors into account for every batch they prepare, including but not limited to their customer’s preference and even the prevailing weather conditions.

The etymology of the word

Interestingly enough, “Barista” comes from the Italian word, ‘baristi’ or ‘bariste’ which means a bartender — someone who serves alcoholic beverages. In Italy, the word actually means someone who specializes in both alcohol and coffee based drinks. But as I explained above, in most countries, barista usually means someone who’s skilled in preparing and serving coffee.  

What does a Barista do?

Making espresso in a commercial machine ranges in difficulty from super-automatic to manual.

Super-automatic espresso machines just require a load of coffee beans and then just the touch of a button.

Manual espresso brewers require a fair bit of finesse to operate them right. And usually, baristas work on these highly-intricate machines manual machines. Before placing the wire basket in the espresso machine, they add a well-measured scoop of powder and tamp it. To brew the perfect espresso, which is not too watery and weak or too strong, a barista needs to learn the right amount and time, the hot water should be allowed to force through the machine.

Aside from brewing, baristas also use frothed, foamed and steamed milk and techniques like the French press, drip and pour over to prepare a number of other espresso style drinks, say the Cortado or flat-white. On top of that, baristas often need to let the coffee form the right amount of crema which is essentially just a dark top layer on well-prepared espresso.

They also prepare more stylized, creative and specialized variants of coffee. Using garnishing methods, they can create latte art and different signature designs.

Baristas have to pour the steamed milk just right so it rises to form any particular design. They also use stir sticks and cream to get the images just right. It takes a long time even for skilled baristas to learn to create the heart or leaf or other complicated designs you often see on the top of your coffee.

Their skills aren’t just limited to preparing coffee though. An important part of their job is serving their customers right. They are often required to interact with them and answer any coffee-related questions they might have. To answer those questions right they need to have an in-depth working knowledge of their way around an espresso machine, gourmet coffee blends, roasting times and different grinder settings, for instance.

What skills and traits make a good barista?

As you can probably tell by now, a barista’s job isn’t that easy or straightforward. More often than not, it goes beyond preparing and serving coffee. They’re often asked to run the till, keep track of the inventory of the food items and even take orders in some small scale coffee shops where the person taking your order is probably going to prepare it too. Since they interact with their customers closely, they often build a rapport and remember their regulars’ orders.

While there are no special educational qualifications you need to be a barista, there is a certain skill set and qualities this position requires. First off, if you want to make it as a barista, you absolutely need to love coffee. Secondly, you need to love people. If you’re not too fond of interacting with people, especially when they’re a bit testy in the morning, this job might not be the right fit for you.

Seeing a pleasant face and getting the perfect cup of Joe in the morning can go a long way in brightening up their customer’s day. And if that happens, you can expect them to return, which is important because local dining businesses make the bulk of their income from returning patrons.

In order to get the coffee right for every single customer, they need to be meticulous and detail-oriented. They also have to learn to work under stress because they are often racing against time, since coffee places can get awfully busy at times.

Speaking of stress, baristas are often asked to work irregular hours, some considerably long. Some baristas even have to work weekends, so they have to make sure their work hours are flexible and they can be relied upon. Their shifts usually start early in the morning, so you can probably imagine they can’t hang out with friends till late at night. But on the flip side, they get to enjoy the sunrise and the morning breeze which is a trade-off they’re willing to make.

As crucial as knowledge, meticulousness, skill and a flair of creativity are, they are of little use if a barista doesn’t show consistency in their work. Consistency in work isn’t limited to just preparing coffee, it also means they cultivate a habit of being efficient, following the rules and protocols, and keeping their training in their mind.

How do they learn?

Even if you don’t have any experience under your belt, you don’t have to worry because most baristas learn from the in-depth the training programs the workplace offers. Besides, they’re also asked to learn from job shadowing more experienced and long-standing baristas.

Barista Competitions

Same as for any craft that is beloved and respected, there are also local and international barista competitions where baristas show off the skills I mentioned above. They are asked to prepare original, milk-based and espresso-style drinks in a limited amount of time. The very first of these competitions were held in Norway but the World Barista Championships are held in a different country every year.

A lot of skill, attention to detail, hard work, and love for the craft goes into preparing a flavorful and strong cup of espresso that you’ll love and reading this post might have helped you appreciate your barista more.