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What is a Barista? A True Story.

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A coffee shop I often frequented, well before I became serious and educated about coffee, was owned by an entrepreneur. In this case, the definition of entrepreneur is a person with a type A personality who has enough money to buy a coffee shop. He was energetic and driven with no real knowledge about coffee. The previous owners trained him, and while I do not know about their background or education in the field, I have to assume that they either did not know much, did not pass on much, or the new owner was just not listening.

I mentioned that I was quite early on in my coffee ambitions, just starting to frequent coffee shops. It was just a few weeks after I learned that espresso did not have an “x” in its spelling. On one of my first visits to this shop I asked, “What is the thermometer in the milk for?” He was steaming a pitcher at the time.

He told me, “It is to make sure that the milk gets hot enough to kill the bacteria.” I am not knowledgeable in the field of bacteriology, but that is not why you use a thermometer. And experienced baristas never use a thermometer. A “real” barista will hold their hand on the pitcher. The basic instruction is to add air (the “whoosing” sound early in the process) until the outside of the metal pitcher feels the same temperature as the skin on your hand, then raise the pitcher to allow the steam to swirl the milk. Stop when the pitcher feels just a bit uncomfortably hot to the touch. From there the barista adjusts the timing and technique to the quality of the milk as they gain experience. So:

Thermometer = Amateur barista
Hand on pitcher = Professional barista

As the months went by, and then the years, things got worse at this shop. The espresso degraded as did the cappuccinos and lattes, and the owner/barista actually told a then-new customer who stated that the drink was bitter that he ordered the wrong beverage. The customer was right as we had noticed that all the drinks became bitter as the profits dropped and he was ordering lower grades of coffee beans.

The final straw for me as a customer was when one summer I ordered a mocha smoothie from their new smoothie bar. The female PBTC (person behind the counter – it would be grossly inaccurate to call her a barista) asked me, “What’s that?”

I replied, “What’s mocha? Its coffee and chocolate.”

“That’s not mocha,” I was told.

“Mocha is chocolate and coffee.”

“No it isn’t.”

“So, what is mocha?” I asked her.

“I don’t know, but it isn’t coffee and chocolate.”

I should have waked out right there, but I said, “OK then. Please make me a chocolate smoothie and put a double shot of espresso in it when you blend it.”

mocha smothie

“We will have to charge you extra for the espresso because that comes from that side [she points to the coffee bar] and the smoothie is from here [standing at the smoothie which was ten feet from the coffee bar].”

A couple of lessons here. When you become knowledgeable about your coffee beverages it becomes easier to spot someone who knows what they are doing, and hopefully, easier to find a quality coffee shop. The other lesson is that if you get into situations in a shop that make you feel uncomfortable or force you to give the recipe to the workers as to how to make a beverage, it is definitely time to move on.

There are good coffee shops out there that offer a friendly atmosphere as well as quality beverages. Look for them. They deserve your patronage.

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