blog from the ceo & superbarista of phoenix coffee, home of the best baristas in cleveland, ohio

Friday, April 22, 2005

What makes for a Great Barista?

To use Kiley's lingo, I think you have to be a Renaissance Man (or Woman) to be a Great Barista. You have to have so many qualities, be so versatile, it takes an extraordinary person to be a great barista. People think that being a Barista is easy. It's not. It takes skill. It takes more than skill. Here's what I think it takes:

Sense of Humor
You gotta be funny. Even if, like me, you have to rely on bad jokes that you learn from your 8 year old. Humor is what pulls all of the other qualities listed below into a complete Barista package.

Speed and Physical Agility
When there is a line out the door you need to be able to move fast. People are cranky if their caffeine fix is delayed too long. So every motion counts. Filling the portafilter, tamping, fixing the portafilter in the brew basket, bending down to get the milk out of the cooler, each motion has be precise and rhythmic and correct, so you won't bump into your co-worker and so you won't spill the drink you just poured and so that you don't waste any time.

The Barista has to be able to sense the mood that the customer is in. What kind of small talk or joke would work? When Tina took the liberty of scratching the Starbucks logo off a customer's travel mug, it's a good thing her Barista sensitivity was working, because the customer thought it was hilarious. He could have just as easily been offended.

Also known as Common Sense. Often manifests as wit when combined with savvy and speed. A good barista just has to be smart. Otherwise the coffee just doesn't taste good. Also, you need to know math, and history, and chemistry and sociology and economics and physics and the reigning laws of the universe in order to be a Great Barista.

Shit happens. The power goes out. The water goes off or starts coming out of the tap looking brown. The cash register stops working. We run out of milk. Someone calls in sick. These things happen and a great barista has to think on his or her feet and solve problems quickly.

This quality overlaps with the above-listed Resourcefulness. But creativity is what is in action when a Barista creates a new drink. There are many ways to combine espresso, coffee, milk, spices, chai, flavor syrups, and the other myriad of flavors that are already in the cafe. Sometimes a Barista will come up with a drink that incorporates a new ingredient, maybe something unexpected. And then comes up with a good name for the new drink. Or comes up with a great idea for a new promotion or event for the cafe.

The ultimate test of the quality of the espresso shot you just pulled is how it tastes. So a Barista needs to be able to distinguish the qualities of body, astringency, bitterness, acidity, chew, fruitiness, overextracted or underextracted, the quality of the crema, the texture of the milk... tasting espresso and texturing milk requires keen sensory awareness.

Attention to Detail
The microlattice that forms the velvety foam that is necessary for making latte art requires extreme attention to detail. Was the pitcher cold to begin with? What was the temperature of milk? What is the position of the steam wand relative to the milk? What direction is the milk moving in the frothing pitcher? How rapidly is it moving? How big are the bubbles? Are they getting bigger or smaller? After frothing, did I wipe the steam wand? Did I empty the espresso puck out of the portafilter? Did I eject steam from the wand before and after using it? Was there a breeze near the machine when the espresso was extracting? Did I tamp harder this time than I did for the last shot? Which shot looked better? Which shot tasted better?

Ability to Work Under Pressure
Are you just as cheerful when there is a line out the door as when there is one customer in the store? Can you fill a large order quickly without making mistakes? Is your hand steady when you are pouring the milk? Do you get clumsy and messy when you get stressed or can you deal with the pressure? A Great Barista thrives under pressure and finds a way to engage the customers while they are standing in line. That way everyone has fun. A Great Barista doesn't snap at co-workers when under pressure, since that only makes things more difficult anyway.

Do you have what it takes?


Blogger Christine said...

being a good barista is a lot like being a good librarian. people think it's easy, but it isn't, and you have to be friendly despite your mood. only bad thing is - you can't accept tips!

ps- i used to be a barista in Montana. If i ever come back to Cleveland and want to give up librarianship, can i come work for you? :)

3:28 PM, April 23, 2005  
Blogger Liz said...

You forgot to mention that a good barista will know the exact quantity of caffeine that they can consume before it starts to interfere with the drink creation process! The great barista will know the precise combination of mochas, regular coffee, and espresso that their body can handle. Hazards of not knowing this quantity can vary and may include: spilling large containers of milk or mocha, burning oneself, overly shaky hands, bumping into coworkers, falling off of ladders and chairs, and of course the caffeine headache...(yes, I'm sounding like the end of a pharmaceutical commercial here but I guess that's appropriate to a certain extent...) Note: these side effects will greatly differ based on which side of the caffeine quantity scale the barista has found themselves: too little caffeine or too much caffeine, it's a very fine line to walk!

10:41 AM, April 29, 2005  
Blogger Jeff Hess said...

Shalom Sarah,

Under Great Barista: See Tina, duplicate as needed.



7:16 AM, May 07, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sarah ... hi . i found your little write up on " the art of being a great barista" great . im 21 i left school at 16 and went striaght for the coffee machine needless to say i have a few years of experience , im from new zealand and work in the busiest cafe in the land i was trained but a now good friend who at the time was the 8th best in the world " impressive " im really just writing this to commend you on your lovely little write up . good on you , salute

5:30 AM, July 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hello i am a young barista(age 16) and i beleive i own all these qualities. it feels good to have that reasurance.

3:06 AM, August 13, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you! I'm currently applying for a barista.. Your article's helping me a lot.. =)

11:18 PM, August 11, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, im also in NEw Zealand! I'm 17 and I recently had barista training. The guy who trained me is a real pro. I hope to be as good as him someday. Nice article. It helps.

11:47 PM, December 14, 2008  
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^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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3:00 AM, March 26, 2009  
Blogger nathan said...

Great Latte Art article!

I would like to share with you a great site,

Rate My Rosetta is a Latte Art community where members can upload, discuss, and rate latte art!

12:57 PM, May 12, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just want to say thank you for this article. I have recently applied to be a barista and I knew going in that it wasn't going to be easy. That is why I went to google, to get more info on the job, and your article has been THE MOST helpful of all. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

ED Latham

11:44 AM, December 01, 2010  

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