The Enigma that is the Barista

Written by Adam Metelmann on . Posted in drink

The Enigma that is the Barista

The ‘Barista’, (from the Italian for ‘bartender) is a person, usually a coffee house employee who prepares and serves coffee based drinks.In addition to this above description, it should also be noted that the term ‘Barista’ is also one of the most overused and underestimated job titles known to man.

I might be able to slice a piece of meat, and even look like I know what I’m doing.  But I wouldn’t dare call myself a Butcher.

As mentioned in my last piece, after 20 years+ working with coffee, even now I’m still slightly uneasy about referring to myself as a professional ‘Barista’.  I am learning every second of everyday, with every cup brewed and every bean ground.  Just when you think you have something mastered, it goes and changes on you, and again your knowledge changes daily so the ability to adapt must also be part of the Barista’s arsenal.

Seeing as I work with coffee on the highest spectrum of quality and grade (which I feel honoured, lucky and privileged to use)  I recently had a lady wearing a uniform from a commercial chain of coffee shops come to my counter and ask for a coffee.

They asked me for a simple latte, and whilst I started the drink prep I asked if this person was a ‘Barista’, to which she replied “yes”.

Awesome!

Here was an opportunity (knowing how I feel about the term ‘Barista’) to maybe get an insight as to what this person thought about their chosen trade and job title, and also a chance to get her excited about what she was about to experience.

I very gently explained the coffee we had on offer: one blend of beans and a single origin.  I told them the location of the farms and mentioned that it was ‘direct sourced’ (meaning we know exactly where and under what circumstances it has been processed, purchased and the grade).  I also explained where the milk came from and talked about the roast profile and what we are trying to achieve in terms of exposing the beans’ natural sweetness, profile and smooth nature.

I understand that there is a fine art and massive amount of retail psychology of being able to work out whether or not a customer (from the 5 seconds of interaction one has with them whilst they order) will accept more conversation,  upselling or even just plain old information about what it is they purchased.  I got the signs that this person would be accepting of my words, so I let her have it in the gentle way that many people say I have a good grasp of delivering.

This person stood there looking like I’d just spoken in a foreign language to them.

They then took my finished latte straight to the station where we have napkins and dumped 3 (yes 3) sugars into it before even tasting and walked off.

No further discussion or even a sign of ‘I like/I hate it/you’re an idiot’.  Nothing.I understand that not everybody feels like I do about coffee, but even for a so called ‘Barista’ to dump sugar into coffee before tasting…

That’s a MAJOR and professional no-no.

I’m proud of my knowledge of the product I serve, and for someone who spends their hard earned money on me and the job you are paying me to perform, wouldn’t you want me to know all this?

When you buy a car, don’t you ask every question under the sun to make sure you are getting your money’s worth and knowledge to make you feel at least a little reassured you are making the right decision?

What about those who spend money on a house? Computers? Expensive high end anything? Why should it be any different with coffee or the person you have chosen to serve it? There is no doubt I care about what I do.  A lot.  Probably too much.

Here’s why:

The reality is that my role is probably THE most important, being that I am the last in line of many people you have never met (farmers, processors, brokers, roasters, machinery engineers, dairy farmers, etc.) that will have a hand in trying to showcase a product that you the customer has chosen to spend your ‘luxury’ money on.  You will not only pass judgement on me, but if I do not perform my role to the best of my ability my actions will also cause you to pass judgement on all these people before me.  The responsibility weight is heavy, hence why I arm myself with as much knowledge as I can cram into my puny little brain.

The unfortunate side to this is there is no formal qualification for the title of ‘Barista’.  Pretty much anyone that works a bar/coffee counter/machine can call themself this.  There are a few dodgy courses that after paying a lot of money (years of work and experience somehow crammed into a day or two course) will print you a certificate, and also a small number of professional courses that if passed will allow you to add cool titles to your name.  However many worldwide occupational bodies still do not recognise the experiential qualifications of the ‘Barista’.

So you can imagine I get very angry and/or disappointed when I am put into the same category as a ‘Barista’ from franchises, or even small businesses that claim things they do not have.  I even choose to wear a uniform that gives the perception that I am more than just a counter hand.  There are days I would love to wear jeans and a t-shirt to work but the reality is I do not want the perception to be that I am a part timer, or ‘Hey man, it’s cool, I’ll chuck on a coffee for you’.

My visual appearance is meant to scream ‘I am a professional and I take great pride in what I do.’

Do chefs wear t-shirts and thongs?  No. I’m not saying every ‘Barista’ should wear formal clothing but in this day and age where perception and branding sell more products than sheer knowledge; I have to do something against the big multinationals.  So I choose to at least look the part of a professional (and skinny hipster jeans are not for me unfortunately).

Getting back to the story.

If your so-called ‘Barista’ cannot answer the most basic of coffee knowledge questions then why should they be allowed to call themselves something that they are not?  Why would you spend your money on a ‘service provided’ when the reality is they are not what or who they say they are?

Can they tell you which region the beans are from?  How it was processed?  What varietal is it?  What roast profile was achieved, and why?  What is the brew temperature and pre-infusion parameters?  What are they dosing, in what size baskets and what’s the yield out and why?  Which area does the milk come from?  What’s a bloom?  What’s the difference between conical and flat burrs?  Why are you not using a tamper?  If you are, why doesn’t it even fit your baskets?  Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera… And also AAAARRRGGGHHHH!

I don’t expect these people to be able to answer everything.  I also do not expect you the reader to know what I’m talking about, or even know the answers to these simple questions.

I myself am still learning every day.  But (and it’s a massive but) if any person wants to call themselves a ‘Barista’, then they should  be able to answer at least a few of these questions.  Confidently.

Coffee is subjective, which makes it an amazingly diverse world to work in. I direct this next statement to those who choose to flaunt this job description in such a blasé way: Please stop using this term unless you are very sure you or your staff can walk the walk.

Now, having said all that I certainly am not trying to be negative on people who hold jobs where they prepare coffee or coffee related drinks, irrespective of the quality of product they serve (not everybody is lucky enough to choose the jobs they want, or the product they use).

There are many people in this industry doing good things. They are the ones who can proudly call themselves ‘Barista’, and are willing to do what it takes to qualify for this mostly unrecognised title. They are the ones who will jump at the chance to talk anything coffee, jump at the chance to make you a coffee, showcase their skills, product and tools.

They are everywhere, from the little corner stores, to the specialty cafes and the big companies.  They really do exist.  You just have to find them, or let them find you.

So all I ask is that you consider these things the next time you go to spend your hard earned money on this luxury thing that inspires so much admiration, passion, conversation, love and way of life.

Does the person you choose daily to make an item which you will put into your body qualify to call themselves a ‘Barista’?  If they don’t then ask around, search out ‘specialty’ coffee houses, scour the intergoggles but do not stop until you find someone who is worthy of your hard earned cash.

I promise it will be totally worth your while.

But then again, it’s just a cup of coffee, right? Would love to hear your thoughts below…

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Adam Metelmann

Adam Metelmann

Adam lives in Brisbane, Australia and has over 20 years experience in the coffee world. He has competed in the Regional and Australian Barista Championships, is a self-confessed caffeine addict and loves nothing more than brewing, drinking and talking shop. Also known to have a serious sneaker addiction.
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Comments (2)

  • Anna

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    Love it!

    Reply

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