Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

Baristas Debate: What Is A Specialty Barista’s Role?

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“Barista” is more than a word: it’s a profession. Working in a coffee shop can be a career filled with opportunities for progression, meaningful goals, and job satisfaction. But what’s the most important element of a barista’s work? What skills do most baristas need to acquire? And are baristas underrated?

I reached out to several baristas to ask them these questions. Read on to discover their thoughts.

SEE ALSO: Tamping to Timing: The Technical Skills Every Barista Needs

baristasBaristas make coffee for customers. Credit: Andrew Robles

The Core of a Barista’s Job

Is a barista’s job making coffee? Customer service? Spreading knowledge and operating as an ambassador for the industry?

Jason Burton, Founder of The LAB and Caffeine Crawl, Indianapolis, highly values customer service. “It’s easier to forget about how a drink tasted versus forgetting about how nice a barista was. So for me, having a good attitude, and outgoing personality that balances with the customer and the shop, is key”.

On the other hand, Zach Tarhini of Meta Coffee Roasting Co., Kansas tells me, “The first [priority] is showcasing the coffee and the second is being an educational resource to the consumer.”

Showcasing coffee and providing information can be a part of customer service. However, there’s a nuance between the two – in one, the customer is king. In the other, the coffee is. And for Zach, the role of the barista as an ambassador is key. “Baristas are the most accessible people in the coffee chain to the consumer, which means they are tasked with providing daily coffee 101 classes and regularly explaining brewing techniques.”

Polish Barista Champion Agnieszka Rojewska sits somewhere in the middle. She calls baristas “silent superheroes” in consumers’ lives, making them the coffee they desperately need in the morning. Yet she also says, “The coffee industry is growing fast and changing fast. Baristas are there to tell this to regular customers.”

Similarly, Marcelo Brussi from Minas Hill Coffee is unable to choose a primary role. “All of these are important,” he says.

In other words, a barista’s role is multifaceted. Baristas and café owners must negotiate these different responsibilities when deciding their priorities in service.

SEE ALSO: When “Have a Nice Day!” Is Bad Customer Service

baristaA barista brews coffee on a Kalita Wave. Credit: Angel Medina

Baristas vs Machines

Technology is evolving so fast; nowadays machines can prepare your coffee. Yet everyone I spoke to insists that baristas are irreplaceable.

Zayde Naquib from Bar Nine, Los Angeles tells me, “The product we serve is important, but how the guest feels as they receive the product is even more important. No matter if the extraction was done manually or a with a super-automatic espresso machine, we need to be there to connect with a guest.”

And for two-time Australian Barista Champion and Leader of Research and Development at Veneziano Coffee, Craig Simon, good coffee requires more than a machine. “Making an excellent coffee is still and will always be an artisanal craftsperson job,” he says. “The human element gives it its life and joy and brings magic to the cup.”

pour overA barista rinses a Kalita Wave filter before brewing coffee. Credit: Commodity Coffee

Key Barista Skills

There are so many skills that a barista needs, from the technical through to the customer service and workstyle ones. But I wanted to know which skills baristas would most benefit from mastering.

Agnieszka stresses the importance of understanding the theory rather than just the practice. “Baristas should never stop learning,” she says. “Reading will help baristas develop.”

Similarly, Marcelo tells me that it’s essential baristas know not just how to prepare coffee but about the coffee itself. “That’s why I believe baristas should attend cuppings to learn more about the product they are serving, to create bonds with the farmer and the coffee,” he explains.

baristaA barista steams milk. Credit: Wesley Andrews

Camila Khalife, Owner of Botanica Cafe in Quito, Ecuador, also values cuppings. Above all  else, she wants baristas to be able to understand what they’re drinking. What’s more, she believes practice is key for achieving this. “As Johnny Cash used to say, you try, try, try… if you don’t go for the good stuff, you will always think what you have is the best…” she says. “It’s about the barista’s obligation to educate their palate, and to be calibrated, so they can search for top-quality coffees and bring the best out of them.”

Zach, on the other hand, focuses on coffee-making skills. He says, “It varies from shop to shop, but if I had to pick something I would say consistency. It is still really common to have a pour over, iced coffee, or a latte made with the same coffee somehow turn out very differently from day to day.”

As for Jason, he believes business skills shouldn’t be undervalued. “From my work and travels, I’d really like to see more support in basic business leadership, so those that want to own their own shop, or feel more comfortable moving to another shop, can do so easier,” he tells me.

coffee cuppingA team cups coffees together. Credit: Not Just Coffee

The Challenges Facing Baristas

In fact, Jason believes that one of the biggest challenges facing baristas is the lack of support they receive from companies. “This is confrontational,” he says, “but there’s not enough solid support from the top – meaning national organizations. Pay is almost always low. Training is generally focused on brewing better and getting certificates that don’t translate to more pay and security.”

He would like to see more support and training to “help with skills in speaking, confidence, business development, etc.”

Yet others among saw bigger challenges for baristas. Craig says, “I feel that the other challenges are working out how to engage the customer without coming across as pretentious or aloof or too preachy. Some customers are intrigued by the whole process. Some just want a cup of coffee. One-size-fits-all customer service doesn’t work.”

And Camila emphasizes the impact baristas can have – and the challenge of knowing how to best use their power as coffee ambassadors. “Maybe the biggest challenge for us today is to really know about the impact of the coffee industry at different levels, and come up with ways of getting involved. At this point of the industry’s development, the responsibility of working towards social, economic, and environmental sustainability should not only lay on producers and buyers, but on all of us in the coffee industry.”

Consistency and coffee knowledge may be skills baristas need to acquire – but the challenges baristas face can be far harder than acquiring skills. They also have to negotiate their relationship with their customers, their employers, and the power imbalances in the industry.

baristasBaristas behind the bar. Credit: Sonder Coffee & Tea

Baristas: An Underrated Professional?

With all these challenges, many argue that specialty baristas are an underrated coffee professional struggling for respect. Yet others see the barista as glorified coffee-maker who deserves less attention in comparison to the producer and roaster. So what did my interviewees think?

Jason tells me, “Underrated, for the most part. Again, pay and our appreciation as a customer is usually lacking. Overrated at times, due to the Instagram celebrity of barista life. But, I get it – it’s a way to build a following, and acts like a resume of work.”

Zach’s feelings are stronger: “Underrated, for sure,” he says. “As I mentioned, it’s up to the barista to present the final product to the consumer, and at the end of the day the average customer is most likely going to make a judgement on the roaster as well as the shop based on how well their drink was made.”

Regardless of how skilled you consider the barista to be, they are one of the biggest tools we have for spreading awareness of specialty coffee.

coffee shopA barista makes a customer’s order. Credit: Commonwealth Coffee

The Barista Champion: An Ideal Barista?

The World Barista Championship is one of the most famous representations of barismo – and the Champion is definitely not underrated.

But is the Barista Champion really the ideal barista?

“Absolutely,” says Marcelo. “I’ve been judging baristas in competitions and for me it shows how much improvement they can deliver and show year after year. The industry is evolving in large paces and this applies to our daily living.”

But the other people I spoke to weren’t so sure.

“Yes and no,” Craig tells me. “The Barista Championship highlights the serious level of skill and professionalism of the barista, making extremely high-quality coffee beverages. However, the pre-prepared nature of those drinks and the routine built around your message is probably not something that is utilised as much in the detail as it is on stage but the customer service skills and engagement with the judges is just the same as good customer service.”

And Zach Tarhinis completely disagrees. “It is a competition that rates baristas on a single performance with artificial variables,” he argues.

baristaSingapore Brewers Cup Championship 2017 Credit: Kyu Coffee Bar

There’s no easy description of a barista’s job. It’s part technical, part ambassadorship, part customer service, and part really hard work. A barista can help boost interest in great coffee and a more equitable supply chain, or take a stand to support people in their own community.

In many ways, a barista’s role is defined by how they balance these different priorities. They, or their employer, has the ability to decide what their job means within the context of their café.

And while baristas are certainly not more important than producers, perhaps it’s time to stop comparing them. Instead, let’s simply acknowledge that they are coffee ambassadors – and that without them, we’d be drinking a lot less great coffee and learning a lot less about the story behind the cup.

Written by Julio Guevara.

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