Espresso Con Panna will bow to my will
April 22, 2009 10:31 PM   Subscribe

Help me become a kick ass Barista.

I just got a job at an awesome coffee shop. I have a little Barista experience from working at a café in high school, I can steam milk, pull a shot, do your basic barista work, but what I really want is to be the best Barista on the face of the planet. Not because I want a promotion or need to impress anyone, I just love the business that I am going to be working for and I would love to be an asset to them.

So great people of MetaFilter please give me any tips, tricks, or resources pertaining to being the world’s greatest Barista; I am not interested in competing, and going to Seattle for training is out of the question. However I would be willing to travel to San Francisco if it was worth it to do so. I will read anything and everything pertaining to this subject. Also, if you are an avid coffee drinker and have a favorite Barista, what is it that makes them your favorite? I have the sweet smile and intellectual small talk; I need the chops to back it up.

Thanks in advance!

Also, the shop uses a 3 group Conti XEOS & Swift Grinders
posted by toni_jean to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I realize this is superficial, but a nice design of the cream on top of the coffee would let me know I wasn't dealing with the usual Barista - a former graduate of coffee college :-)
posted by xammerboy at 11:23 PM on April 22, 2009

Personally, I like knowledge. Not necessarily intellectual small talk (gah, I'm so awkward at that that it makes me uneasy no matter how smooth the other person is!) but interesting, pertinent information that might make my coffee experience all the better - why the coffee I just bought is worth the price, how I might want to try a such-and-such next time if I'm partial to so-and-so type flavors, how I ought to take note of the creamy head characteristic to this type of espresso bean or the oaky undertones of that type or what have you. Just the various brief tidbits that could enhance my experience as someone who likes coffee, doesn't necessarily know its ins and outs, but is always delighted to pick up a little information from someone who's really in the know (bonus points if it's something I can then pass along to my friends - who doesn't enjoy looking like they know something? ;)

I know that's probably not for everyone and it would certainly help to be able to gauge how well a customer is receiving it, but for my money a barista who could provide me that sort of information (in quick bites so as not to slow up the line, of course) would be one I would remember. Towards that end I'd suggest you really immerse yourself in knowledge of the products your shop serves - know those beans, know the intricacies of their brewing processes, know what you'd -like- for them to introduce if you had your druthers ... heck, is there such a thing as a 'coffee tasting class'? Be a wellspring of coffee info!
posted by DingoMutt at 11:47 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite] has everything you need, I think
posted by NekulturnY at 1:00 AM on April 23, 2009

Depends on what you look at. Here in Sweden, they want the cream design and a fast delivery, but the guy who really knocks the others off the table and wins the competitions simply makes an awesome coffee (with a simple leaf design in the cappuccino, nothing else): he must know exactly how hot his milk needs to be to taste best and so on. So one thing would be to actively keep tasting your own stuff and improving on it. That's so great about coffee, it always goes to make it even better.

Knowledge these days has ever more to do with fair trade and stuff like that...Be a little ahead of tendencies there, saves you the having to catch up. Some coffee customers don't tire wanting to hear about theory: oils, temperatures, machines, of your future conversation topics for sure.

Then there's one guy in Gothenburg who has styled his hair and beard into some retro Benedetti Michelangeli style (a classical pianist, you'll find pictures on Google) and who has a technique of maintaining high bourgeois chitchat with a sweet smile and a lofty tone of voice while doing his barista things. Not everyone's style perhaps, but he keeps a clear profile - his coffee isn't even the best. So perhaps there needs to be something that gives the whole process of serving coffee to folks a personal note.

Think this: some of your customers won't even know what a Barista really is. Those are the ones who need to experience something awesome that they never forget - and they will need the best coffee...
Small coffee shops sometimes feel like a closed circle to the casual visitor. The regular customers perhaps like that, but it is quite uncomfortable for everyone else. It is you who helps to invite the new ones in...
posted by Namlit at 1:27 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've spent a lot of time sitting in cafes, I spent a year working in an upmarket deli/cafe and I was a barista for a year.

If you're making good coffee you won't be talking much. The cafe will be busy and you will be behind the machine working while someone else takes the orders and you won't have the time to make any pretty decorations beyond hearts and ferns.

Knowledge is good, but since you hope to be too busy to share it with anyone, consistency is the king. You have to be able to bang out consistently good coffee cup after cup, hour after hour, day after day. When the waitstaff deliver four lattes to a table they all have to be the same colour (crema and body) and have the same levels of froth.

I was an okay barista. I could make a coffee that looked good and tasted good. The guy down the road, however, was an award winning coffee making machine. Supposedly a stoned, award winning coffee making machine, but the kind of focus that gave him probably helped in what is basically a nuanced mechanical process.

The primary key to that mechanical process is milk management. That is where you are going to lose time and/or throw away money. Froth what you need for the set. Take some time to work out how much milk you really need for different combinations and how much frothing it will need. If you have the space, keep a small jug for the cretins who demand you heat the milk past the point where it denatures (80C IIRC) and tastes like cardboard.

The second key is the pour. This is the hardest part of what is not a particularly difficult process. It just takes practice - pour a latte/cap/flat white, taste it. If it tastes like milk, you did it wrong. I've worked with people who never got past this step. You don't need a spoon - the difference between a cappucino, a latte and a flat white is how fast you pour. Faster carries more froth. If you're making a long black put hot water in the bottom of the cup FIRST, add enough cold water to bring it below 90C so it doesn't burn the crema, then run the coffee.

The third key is packing the coffee. Easier than pouring, but still requires some finesse. Pay attention to the crema colour and adjust accordingly.

That's the major stuff. Also keep your groups clean and remember what your regulars drink. Run water through an empty portafilter into a latte glass occasionally to make sure it looks clean and smells okay. Leave it to cool and make sure it still smells good and tastes okay because clean water is the foundation of good coffee. Mark on a calendar when your water filter is going to expire. You do have a water filter going into the machine, don't you? If your cafe can afford it get a grinder that will do a shot at a time for you rather than having a mass of grounds sitting there baking and oxidising next to the machine (and a good one will save you time). Wipe out the bean hopper of the grinder before you refill it. In the morning you taste the first coffee that comes out of each group, even if you were the one who cleaned it the night before. You don't have to drink the whole coffee in order to taste it. If you start to lose it from too much caffeine eat sweet things until you level out (baklava is particularly good). If it's been more than ten minutes since you used a group, let it run for a moment before you put the portafilter in. Keep the steam wand clean.

Oh, and the photo on the Wikipedia page for latte is an abomination, for want of a stronger word - the crema is too pale and has come away from the edge, there is no froth and the body is way too dark, plus it has been spilled and soaked into that decorative serviette twist.
posted by hifimofo at 1:45 AM on April 23, 2009 [13 favorites]

My favourite Barista (at a busy coffee shop) smiles when she sees me, asks how I am, comes over to my table to say hi when she has a minute, and gets the order right - you would be amazed how many people are so rushed that they're not paying attention and end up giving me the wrong thing. (Then get annoyed when I point it out.)
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:20 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pulling great coffee from an espresso machine is a skill and not a trick like hifimofo illustrates. Be prepared for a longer learning curve than expected. Check out the competition and keep your eyes open while ordering. And read Jeffrey Steingarten's piece on espresso. Not to learn how to make espresso, but to deal with the disappointment when you fail perfection. "One false move and you'll never taste the jasmin". This is my mantra whenever I grind, pack and pull.
posted by ouke at 3:36 AM on April 23, 2009

I prefer tea, so please forgive me if this is wrong. I only know what I have heard, which is that some baristas (a lot of them? enough to make it worth commenting on?) can be condescending to customers, as if working behind the counter at a coffee shop and knowing how to slosh coffee drinks together could make someone very, very superior.

Well, assuming for the moment that such baristas aren't mythical, just don't be one of them. Be as friendly and helpful and respectful to someone who wants "a large coffee" as you would to someone who orders your fanciest concoction. Your first duty is to be good to people.
posted by pracowity at 3:51 AM on April 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

I usually just get regular drip coffee at a coffee shop and my favorites generally have a couple of different varieties available. I really like it if the barista can succinctly characterize the beans and roasts to help me decide which I want.
posted by maurice at 4:14 AM on April 23, 2009

From a customer's perspective, don't be lazy. I really dislike seeing a barista start pouring milk then discover they don't have quite enough, but just dumping the residual foam on top and leaving it at that. Or worse, filling up 1/4 of the cup with whipped cream. Or not checking the milk before pouring to see if it's gone cold. I guess it goes back to milk management and consistency like himofo says.
posted by cabingirl at 4:16 AM on April 23, 2009

My favourite coffee shop would see me shuffle in, bleary-eyed and dishevelled, at the obscene hour I was required to be up for work, and by the time I had finished mumbling out my order and fishing out my money, the Coffee Gods of Adelaide St would have my specially formulated off-menu (doppio-based cappacino type thing) prepped and ready. Sometimes it would be done before I'd even worked out whether it was the Blueberry muffin or the Apple muffin that day.

Be as unto a god to tired and sad people.
posted by Jilder at 5:01 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. Two or three seconds of air into the milk you are steaming (that horrible screeching sound - the tip of the steam wand should be half in) then push it all the way down into the milk.

2. Make the milk spin, you'll have to try different methods of holding it, but that is how you will whip it into a consistent froth.

3. Espresso shots should take approx. 27 seconds to pour to one ounce (a shot glass' worth). The less time they sit the better.

4. Add any extras (syrups, chocolates, powders) before the espresso goes in.

5. Once everything is in there, pour the milk slowly but steadily down the inside of the cup. This will keep the crema on the coffee, much like pouring beer.

6. Latte art is hard enough to teach in person, let alone over the internet. You might find some decent videos on YouTube or CoffeeGeek.

7. Clean everything regularly. Beyond the health/aesthetic implications, you want to keep your grinders, groupheads, portafilters etc. free of coffee oils for fresher taste.

I'll see if I can think of anything else. I used to train baristas but it's been awhile. Others have already addressed the social aspects but I'd just suggest trying to get all of this down first, and if possible separately. Learning to make small talk and smile with your customers while making perfect coffee is an art in itself.

The most important lesson I ever had to learn (and this depends on your caffe's customer policy) was to smile when you have a complainer. Took me a long time to adopt the philosophy that I was getting paid hourly regardless, and the worst thing I could do was let some whiner's bad mood infect my own.
posted by mannequito at 5:10 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

The single most important part of the coffee making process (at least, for me) is the cream. Most places completely overestimate how long their cream will stay fresh. If it's left out in a thermos (self-serve-style) it's already ruined.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:46 AM on April 23, 2009

Practice, practice, practice. And I totally agree with the comment about not turning into one of those baristas--the snooty better-than-thous. Learn a lot about coffee and be willing to share it in a friendly manner. Respect people who don't like coffee, and learn to make some tasty, interesting drinks for them, too.

Have fun with it!
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:12 AM on April 23, 2009

People have already given you a lot of info about the expresso and social part. Let me suggest further knowledge on making the other drinks that are not as impressive but still a part of the menu on many a cafe:

* chai -- consider having a wider tasting experience in chai beverages than what comes out of the box, literally;

* steamers (flavored milks) -- not exciting but the milk issue of quality, temperature and foam are crucial here too.

* sweetened coffee drinks such as, mochas and other variations of candy -- pay attention to the taste of these products. Some are just not mixed right and you have a layered effect of expresso, milk and syrups in an awful brew which does no service to good coffee.

* smoothies -- man, that is a whole conversation all on its own. If it looks bad, tastes bad and no one is interested please reassess the product and its serving;

* teas -- learn teas. If you are going to be able to talk about coffee in depth then be prepared to answer tea questions. Also, learn, really learn, the proper temperatures for various teas so the tea experience is not bad for your customer. I have been appalled at how crazy hot water has been for pots of tea which can make a seriously bitter brew
posted by jadepearl at 6:36 AM on April 23, 2009

Oooh, I was a barista for years and I loved it. And I like to think my customers liked me, too. Think of yourself as a bartender of the morning. Depending on the shop you're working in you may or may not find these tips helpful. Here's what I always liked to do...

Be happy to see them. Don't be that barista who thinks that they're better than the non-coffee enlightened. But, do realize that you've probably got a lot more knowledge than the average patron - let them know about the coffee, if there's time (usually this is only for straight cups of coffee, but you know what I mean). Where does today's coffee come from? Is there a story behind it? If this is someone you know as a new patron, tell them about the shop - why you only use fair trade organic coffee, or the history of the shop or something. Make them feel like they got more than just a cup of coffee - they can get that at the 7-11. This includes tea!

All additions - syrups, sugars, powders, chocolates - go in the cup first. Then your espresso, then your milk/water/soy. This limits the amount of stirring you have to do (if any) to evenly distribute the additions, so you don't muddle the crema on the top.

If you have regulars, remember their drink. If you're really good, you'll remember their name, too.

I don't think Starbucks baristas have to do this, but if you have a setup where you grind and calibrate your own espresso shots (which is how it should be done, IMO), don't settle for calibrating it once for the entire day. Your calibration that morning might be vastly different than that afternoon. I preferred to check, and adjust if necessary, every three hours or so. It varies by machine, but each shot should take approximately 25-28 seconds.

Keep everything clean. Nothing is grosser than taking a look at the steaming wand and seeing layers and layers of old milk buildup on it. Clean the grinder, the machine, everything, even if you didn't touch it that day. This includes the tamper you use to pack the espresso!

Temperature is key. You could pull the best shot of espresso of your life, but if you let it sit too long, or if the milk is too hot or too cold, it's crap. Make sure you get that swirl with the milk to avoid burning it.

On preview, what everyone else has been saying too.
posted by sephira at 6:47 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love my baristas at the place where I am a regular (3-4 days a week). They are my favorites because they smile and are sincere when they ask me how I am and they look like they like each other and the other customers. They are the first people I talk to in the morning and they set the tone for my day so their attitude seals the deal for me.
The coffee shop I quit going to? One day I sinned by ordering a coffee with steamed milk. I got a condescending: Oh. You mean a misto. That's what it's called here. I decided I didn't need the stress of remembering to use the right phrase at the right joint.

You are going to be great! Good luck!
posted by pointystick at 8:13 AM on April 23, 2009

Phoenix Coffee, one of our local roasters, has a great blog:
posted by at 8:43 AM on April 23, 2009

Response by poster: Ok, so to summarize

Dont be lame.
Learn Tea
Learn Milk
Learn everything there is to know about coffee
Be nice.

hifimofo thank you for all of that information.

jadepearl- I am a big tea/yerba mate drinker myself, I love this shop because they serve 18 varieties of tea. Also, our Chia is mixed by a girl named Natalie, she created the brew herself, it's incredible and made fresh every week.

More specificly I am looking for books I can read about Espresso or Coffee history, chemestry, ect.

Thanks for all of these great answers.
posted by toni_jean at 8:45 AM on April 23, 2009

One thing people loved when I worked as a barista were kind of fun facts...where the names come from, what they're called in other countries, little stuff like that...thats not trying to make you look like you know everything and you're trying to impress them with knowledge but just tidbits that might come up. (bad example but, look for the origin of the croissant and you can find some interesting historical stories about the shape representing a shape on the Turkish flag). A lot of people who come in for coffee don't know anything about coffee culture but seemed to want to learn something, or would ask questions to make conversation, etc.. .
posted by nzydarkxj at 9:17 AM on April 23, 2009

I went to post this last night but couldn't for some reason.

To accentuate hifimofo's points, I'm chiming in as an ex-Barista and someone that really appreciates a delicious coffee. If you really want to do well by your coffee drinkers, I would suggest...

Learn how to make decent coffee, and I don't mean any of that mamby-pamby fancy stuff! Focus on three things.
1 - Learn how to clean your machine, and fastidiously (sp?) keep it that way.

2 - Learn how the grind / coffee volume & tamp / water pressure triangle affects your coffee extraction and make sure it's flowing correctly - on the flowing like a river to dripping very slowly scale, you want it just flowing. And don't ever over-extract your coffee; pay attention for a colour change in the coffee and that'll be you.

3 - Become excellent at steaming milk. Don't be like those people that just fucking stick the steaming wand in the bottom of the jug till the milk boils - you should be able to drink a milky coffee, not sip it. If the jug is too hot for you to hold it with your hand, you went too hot. Also, You want a nice smooth texture, not something that resembles white water, so aerate the milk (but don't get stupid - you don't a cappuccino that looks like it has an iceberg in it).

Also, some other tips. Only grind beans as you need them. Keep your cups warm. Get your coffee to the customer quickly.

You might be 10x more charming than that Arnold off Green Acres, but if you can't make decent coffee - sorry, I'm not coming back.
posted by MatJ at 1:25 PM on April 23, 2009

Best answer: Ah, just noticed your request for books. Besides the major references of various food encyclopedias and food science books like McGhee, try these two books:

UnCommon Grounds by Pendergrast and the The Devil's Cup by Allen. Another one to read though it has other drinks history is Hstory of the World in 6 Glasses by Standage.
posted by jadepearl at 3:40 AM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Read the Home Barista forums and guides. These guys are serious, and some are competitive baristas. If you already know the basics of how a machine works, start with the how-tos on diagnosing extraction problems and milk steaming- they're written for home espresso but will apply in most small cafes too.

Things I personally appreciate in my cappuccinos:

- good microfoam. this shouldn't look like soap suds, it should be a dense and viscous layer of very fine bubbles.
- proper milk temp- I can tell when it's passed 160 degrees and the milk starts to coagulate and taste off. use a thermometer at first and learn where this point is, and don't serve your customers something that overshoots that mark, ever.
- proper extraction. i know you're trying to make my shot as fast as possible, but no amount of milk will hide major problems with your machine. learn your machine and grinder, especially, and get good at troubleshooting them. I am loyal as a dog to one barista on my campus because I know he does this right every morning before I get my coffee and it shows.
posted by slow graffiti at 1:34 PM on May 5, 2009

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