How to Choose Your Barista
by Don Holly

Barista Pouring The pursuit for quality coffee includes finding a skilled barista - the person who makes the drinks at an espresso bar or coffeehouse. In Italy, barista is a coveted title. It's a career that requires significant apprenticeship and for which no one would assume the title unless he or she could profess to having dedicated time and practice to this art. Here in the United States, the term barista is given to anyone who happens to be standing within ten feet of an espresso machine, whether he or she is truly skilled at the job or not. So how do you determine if the person making your drinks is truly a skilled barista? Here are some clues to watch for:

Do they know their coffee? If you ask your barista where the coffee he or she is serving comes from, and the response is, "Whoever we buy it from," or some other meaningless equivalent, then that person should not be your barista. If the answer is delivered with confidence and pride, including the name of their roaster (or maybe they are the roaster), the flavor style of the blend, how fresh it is, etc., then the barista passes this test.

Do they pre-heat their handles and their cups? Look to see where the portafilter handles (the things they put the coffee into) for the espresso machine are kept when not in use. If they are lying on the counter or on top of the machine, rather than fixed into the groupheads (the part of the machine where the water comes out) like they should be, then turn around and walk down the street to the next cafe' and begin again. Do they keep their china cups hot? If they brew into cold cups, they have no regard for how coffee should be served (or have not been properly trained) and should not be your barista.

How fresh is their coffee? If they are using coffee that was ground several hours (or even days) ago, then you should avoid their drinks. A caring barista will grind the coffee fresh for every drink.

How fresh is the milk that they steam and froth? Are there big pitchers of pre-frothed milk with thermometers sticking out of them sitting on the counter for who-knows-how-long that they are going to use to make your drink? Ahhgh! Run away! A skilled barista takes fresh milk out of the refrigerator and steams and froths just what they need to make the drinks they will serve immediately. People who froth a big pitcher of milk ahead of time are serving stale and sour milk, and do not deserve your business.

How do they tamp the coffee in the portafilter basket? Probably the skill that is most important for making good coffee (assuming the grind adjustment is right) is the art of the tamp; the act of flattening and compressing the coffee in the portafilter basket before fastening the handle into the machine to brew. A qualified barista uses a hand tamper and leans significant body weight (about 30 to 40 pounds) into the basket on top of the counter. If you see the operator just barely flattening the top surface of the coffee, he or she is an amateur.

How long is the brewing time of the espresso? If the grind has been adjusted correctly, then the time that it takes an espresso (about an ounce to 1 1/2 ounces of beverage) to brew after the machine's pump is started should be no less than 20 seconds and no more than 30 seconds. If it comes out faster, then the grind was too course, and if it comes out slower, then the grind was too fine. A good barista will constantly be adjusting the grind to make sure that the extraction time is proper. Unfortunately, too many operators don╠t even know that this is important, much less how to do it█their shops you should avoid.

How does the drink taste? Obviously, this is the most critical test. A person who really deserves the title of barista should be able to produce a drink that is exceptionally delicious and inspiring for you every time--worth the effort of searching them out and paying several dollars for their product.

Be patient in your search. The specialty coffee industry here in the United States is still fairly young and because the skills and knowledge of a barista have not been valued in our culture the way that they are in Italy, the number of skilled baristas is still rather small. But, once you have found one that passes all of the tests listed above, treat them well. The joy that they can bring you in delivering to you a fine coffee beverage is well worth the effort of your search.

Don Holly Don Holly is administrative director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in Long Beach, CA. He can be reached at 562.624.4100.

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