A great barista is a skilled technician: someone who understands the science of coffee-making, knows how to use multiple brewing devices and machines, and can use their coffee knowledge to make good recommendations to customers.
But what technical skills does a barista actually need? Let’s take a look.
A barista tamps coffee. Credit: Daniel Norris
1. Basic Coffee Knowledge
Okay, we admit it, we’re cheating – our first list item isn’t a skill. However, you need basic coffee knowledge in order to learn and apply many of the technical skills in this list.
Basic coffee knowledge can be split into a few categories:
Coffee Flavour Profiles
Production, Processing, & Roasting
What’s the difference between your washed coffee and your honey coffee? A single origin and a blend? A Guatemalan and an Ethiopian? Most importantly, how do all these points affect the consumer? We’re not saying you should be an expert on production, but you should know the basics.
Then there’s roasting. This impacts not just the coffee flavour but also how you should brew it. For example, darker roasts can be more degraded and more inclined to bitterness than lighter roasts, so they might need a lower brew temperature.
And what about decaf coffee: how is that made? What’s the difference between Swiss Water and Ethyl Acetate decaffeination?
Extraction & Brewing
In a specialty coffee shop, there’s much more to making coffee than pushing buttons. And so baristas need to understand the basics of extraction. This is the process by which coffee flavour compounds and aromas are extracted from the ground coffee by the water. Different compounds are extracted at different points in the brew, enabling baristas to control the flavour of the final cup of coffee.
The rate of extraction is affected by the grind size, ratio of coffee to water, water temperature, roast level, and more.
You should also understand the impact of other elements on the final cup profile: coffee freshness, filters, water quality…
A barista brews coffee with a Chemex. Credit: Quentin Café
Grinding is key to great coffee. First of all, it’s important to grind right before brewing, otherwise your coffee will go stale.
Secondly, you need to understand the importance of grind size for different brew methods and extraction. The finer the grind size, the faster the rate of extraction and the slower the flow of water. This is because the water has direct contact with more of the coffee’s surface, and also because there are smaller gaps between the grounds.
In other words, if your coffee is tasting a little bitter (i.e. over-extracted), you might want to try using a coarser ground to slow down extraction and speed up the brew time. On the other hand, if it’s sour (under-extracted), you might want to grind finer.
What’s more, you’ll need to learn how to calibrate your grinder for the espresso machine. The ideal grind settings will depend on the weather, age of the roasted coffee, and more. This means it can vary on a daily (or even hourly!) basis. Grinder calibration is an essential skill for a specialty barista.
Beans in a coffee grinder, waiting to be used. Credti: Shengjun Shi
Espresso-making also requires a range of technical skills. Tamping is an often-overlooked aspect, but it’s vital for good coffee. (Fortunately, once mastered, it’s a relatively simple skill.) There’s also a lot of debate over the role of coffee distribution before you tamp.
Of course, few people order an espresso (unless you’re in Italy). What people will order, however, is an espresso-based drink. You should be familiar with all the main ones, including the latte, cappuccino, long black, Americano, and flat white.
Oh, and then there’s machine maintenance. Espresso machines require daily, monthly, and annual maintenance – and a lot of that will be done by the coffee shop staff. Check out our step-by-step breakdown of what to do.
An espresso being extracted. Credit: rayandcoffee
4. Milk Steaming, Pouring, & Latte Art
Coffee and milk is a great combination, but steaming and pouring well takes a lot of practice. Your aim is to create great texture and also avoid scalding the milk. And everything from wand position to pour speed matters. What’s more, you’ll need to be careful with how much milk you use – if you steam too much milk, some will go to waste, and that’s not good for the coffee shop finances or the environment.
Bear in mind that there’s a science behind which milk is best. Alternative dairy products are notoriously more challenging for steaming and latte art.
You may also want to practise with different milk jugs, as spout shape and jug depth will affect your pour.
In most specialty coffee shops, latte art comes as standard. We have guides on some of the most basic pours, including hearts, tulips, and rosettas. Once you’ve become competent at latte art, however, the only limit is your imagination (and your customer’s patience).
A barista steams milk. Credit: Vigilante Coffee
5. Manual & Batch Brewing
What specialty coffee shop menu is complete without its filter coffee? Familiarise yourself with the main manual brewers, from the Kalita Wave to the AeroPress. Make sure you know the differences so you can not only brew them well, but also make recommendations to customers. Understand the importance of different kinds of filters, and learn how to manipulate filter recipes.
A lot of specialty coffee shops also offer batch brew – some even prefer it to manual brewers. Batch brew isn’t always as respected as manual brew, but when done well it creates a consistent, delicious coffee. Understanding how to operate a manual brewer, and how to change brew time and bed depth to get the desired coffee profile, is a valuable skill.
A coffee being brewed on a Kalita Wave. Credit: Justin Moore
6. Recipe Creation & Troubleshooting
There are two types of recipe creation that you might be asked to do. The first is espresso/filter recipe creation. This is where you decide the brew time, temperature, grind setting, and more of a new coffee.
You may also need to troubleshoot bad coffee. Why is the batch brew coming out so oily? Why is the espresso lacking body? (Oh, and if you’re thinking of troubleshooting espresso by the crema, forget that now – some coffees just won’t create crema.)
This type of recipe creation and troubleshooting requires a solid understanding of extraction, patience, and plenty of experience! But as you grow as a barista, you will find yourself becoming more and more confident in your abilities.
The second type of recipe creation is signature beverages/mocktails. Some specialty shops will only serve the traditional coffees: black, latte, cappuccino, etc. Others will experiment with syrups, spices, and flowers to create unique drinks that can attract more clients.
This requires an understanding of flavour combinations, aroma, texture, and more – and it’s something that usually only comes with experimentation and practice.
“Puff The Magic Dragon”, a signature beverage of Crique Coffee Roasters in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Credit: Crique Coffee Roasters
7. Cleaning & Hygiene
You may be surprised to hear cleaning described as a technical skill, but good hygiene is essential for any coffee shop – and cleaning is often undervalued and underestimated. Every day, you’ll have to thoroughly clean everything from espresso machines to fridges (and do it quickly, too). You’ll learn a whole new way to mop floors, systems for recording food dates, how to use industrial-level cleaners, and more.
And while this may be one of the least glamorous elements of barismo, it’s also one of the most important – especially in the customer’s (and the environmental health inspector’s) mind.
A busy morning at La Marzocco Cafe, Seattle. Credit: Ana Valencia
Of course, there’s much more to being a barista than these technical skills. Customer service, teamwork, dedication, flexibility, coping with high-pressure situations… Being a barista is a demanding (but also rewarding) job.
Master these skills, however, and you’re on your way to being an excellent barista.
Perfect Daily Grind
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