Define Barista.


First off, introductions:

Hi, I’m Sam.  I make coffee for a living.  You can find me here, or on twitter as @coffeeandbikes.

OK. On to the good stuff:

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes a great café, and about what cafes mean to our industry. In doing so, I keep coming back to the role of the barista.  Baristas are the front line of specialty coffee, and the core of how coffee drinkers perceive both what they’re drinking and where they’re drinking it. So, I keep asking myself the question: what exactly is a barista?

Let me rephrase: what is a professional barista? What is it that distinguishes those at the forefront of the field? What is it that makes you want to stay, to watch someone’s technique, to wile away the afternoon leaning on the counter and talking coffee? What is it that makes you come back? In what roles should a professional barista excel? I think I’ve got some rough answers:


The first role is easy to agree on: a professional barista should be a master technician. This means two things: first, he or she should have an expert grasp of coffee preparation technique—not just espresso, but all brewing methods. Second, he or she should understand how and why all of their tools work, and how to perform basic maintenance and repairs.

In addition, a barista is every bit as much a culinary artist as a professional chef.  A major part of the barista’s role is carefully constructing a sensory experience for the customer.  This means an intimate knowledge of ingredients and their sources, flavors and properties.  It also means careful attention to presentation: an artful pour is every bit as important to a customer’s enjoyment as artful plating.

The barista is also the host: the first and last social interaction a customer has in a café.  If a customer is going to feel welcome, it is up to the barista to make them so.  If a customer is going to want to engage— to want to ask questions, to want to get involved, to want to learn— it is up to the barista to make them so.

Once a customer has engaged, the barista needs to be able to satisfy their curiosity.  This requires at least a passing knowledge of all aspects of the coffee industry: growing, processing, trade, roasting, brewing and maybe a little history. It also requires the ability and the care to communicate these things without condescension.

A professional barista should also seldom rest. Great work and great advances in coffee are happening all the time—a barista needs to continually study and continually learn in order to keep up, never mind to break new ground. An open mind and an eagerness to learn are essential.

Finally, a professional barista needs to actually care about coffee.  In order for all of these roles to fall into place, “barista” needs to be more than a job. One can’t possibly expect all of that work out of someone who’s only in it for the paycheck.  This also means caring about coffee, as opposed to caring only about one’s own career or company.  Coffee, in the long term, gains nothing from secretiveness, backbiting or predation.

So, where does this all lead? More and more, I think we’re seeing professional baristas emerge as a class independent of specific roasters or cafes.  A barista can’t pursue great coffee to the utmost, can’t share and synthesize technique and knowledge, can’t keep an open mind and continue to learn while simultaneously remaining blindly devoted to one shop or one roaster.  Again: there’s too much great work being done in too many places in the world for that.

This doesn’t mean not working for a café or a roaster—far from it.  But it does mean staying open, communicating, and fostering community.  And it means understanding that it’s not about you or your company—it’s about coffee and the people drinking it.

More soon.

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Categories: Grind, Obsessive Quest

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5 Comments on “Define Barista.”

  1. Jonathan Bonchak
    11/18/2009 at 6:23 am #

    Wow, that was terrific.
    I don’t have anything to add to the list but would like to see that level of craft applied by people also being paid appropriately to hone those skills and build on that passion. When hiring part time staff for a shop in a college town or city it’s a needle in a haystack to find those special, devoted people—who will do it all for $8 an hour. But how do you strike that balance? I’d love to see the price per cup go up for the sake of the farmer and the barista.

    There’s a long road ahead and I think it’s going to take an army of folks as you’ve described.

    I’d also like to see a deeper connection between roastmaster and barista. Shared information will continue to lead to deeper and more appreciative understandings of how coffee works.

  2. Scott Davis
    11/18/2009 at 10:06 am #

    Hey Sam! Very well written! Thank you for putting some standards up there. I would have to admit I’m not meeting them at this time in my life. quite a good challenge.
    I’m going to challenge back (for the good of coffee):
    This statement, “What is it that makes you want to stay, to watch someone’s technique, to wile away the afternoon leaning on the counter and talking coffee?”
    This statement tweaked me a bit because it sounded like you were designing and defining to satisfying specialty coffee people primarily. I think this is a mistake, because specialty coffee folks are the purveyors, the roasters, the adventurers, and the baristas, but not always the customers. I don’t think a good cafe will be defined by whether someone is leaning over the counter watching your technique and talking coffee for hours. We always will need to keep in mind what the average joe sippin joe will want. How else will we get past the trepidation of trying our expensive lattes over a drink with not so much TLC. At some point plate preparation, precisions, or involved sensory experiences can start to be a detriment – an act more for the barista’s pleasure than the customer. We want to serve good coffee, but we want to serve it to folks who don’t know its good coffee yet. I don’t want this to be forgotten.

    Anyways, thanks for letting me jump all over that one line. Im sure I mis-judged it to a certain extent and just took that opportunity to blab blab blab. Thanks for listening, but most of all, you put together a very nice article here. I’m going start holding myself to these challenges.

    also…
    Jonathan Bonchak – good thought on roast master – barista relationships. I highly agree. I’m currently trying to learn what my roaster wants through others who have chat with him. It would be so relieving to just serve him a shot.
    On that same note, I think Stumptown’s practice of training their account baristas is quite commendable.

  3. )on
    11/18/2009 at 11:33 am #

    Agreed – this is a valuable (and endless) conversation and this seems to be an appropriate place to contribute to it. Good stuff.

    My hang-up line was ‘A professional barista should also seldom rest.’ I would offer: a professional barista should often rest.

    … not in a lazy, lackadaisical way, but in a way that rejuvenates and makes him/her a better barista. We need to be wary of unrealistic expectations to keep up that the internet seems to create. We need to find a ‘fourth place’ like Alex wrote on.

    I look forward to how the conversation continues.

  4. Sam Lewontin
    11/18/2009 at 12:46 pm #

    Jonathan B: Great points! I think there’s another post forthcoming about how all this relates to pricing models, barista compensation, and the like. Also: I feel you on the difficulty of hiring and retaining passionate, committed baristas. To a certain extent, it’s a barista trainer or manager’s responsibility to foster and nurture this kind of commitment. It’s certainly not easy, though!

    Scott: I absolutely agree. Thank you for calling me on that. It’s all too easy to focus on the appreciation of people who are already “in the know”, at the expense of reaching out to new people and sharing great coffee with the rest of thew world.

    Jon: Definitely, and thank you for the clarification. The “seldom rest” comment was intended to mean not resting on one’s laurels– I suppose a better way of putting it would be: “never stop striving to improve your technique and knowledge.” Finding time to rest and rejuvenate from the work of learning, improving, making great coffee is super important. It’s all too easy to overextend and burn out!

  5. 12/22/2009 at 5:59 pm #

    Great article, and also great comments everyone. Very nice to see some like minded professionals, or those striving to be. It would be nice to see the barista as a acceptable profession, not just a side job or something to get you through college until you get a “real” job.

    Thank you all.

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