by Don Holly
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
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
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 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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