Defining the Barista

For my first official blog post I want to bring up a topic which has been flittering about in my head for some time, and I believe has long been a conversation among many coffee professionals. This post is not just about defining what we think a barista is or should be, but hopefully sculpting the barista mentality as well.

What is a barista?

This is sadly one of the most common questions I have answered to the general public. As much as we in the coffee industry want to roll our eyes at such a simple question, the word is really a part of our coffee lexicon and not necessarily a part of everyone's daily lives.

To give a simple dictionary definition, a barista is: "a person who is specially trained in the making and serving of coffee drinks, as in a coffee bar".

So there you have it. Such a simple definition could be applied to your local Starbucks employee, a rock star barista at Intelligentsia, or a waiter at your local steakhouse who got a half hour training session on the "cappuccino machine" before he/she started their first shift. There is a whole lot more room in this definition than you may like, yet all of those people can and do call themselves a barista. I don't consider this a failure on our part, but a success.

Before you think that I have gone crazy for thinking this, let me explain what is going through my head.

People bringing what they knew from Italian cafes over to the U.S. (among other places) would rightly use the same terms and titles. It's Italian, it's sexy, it's perfect, right? Whoever first started using the term barista in the U.S. wasn't really wrong in doing so as it was accurate and useful in defining the role of coffee bartender. As time has passed and we have grown as an industry globally, we simply must evaluate and adjust. Just because a term we use no longer gives justice to all of the hard work we put into our careers does not mean it is wrong to use that term. Now let's look at why I told you I think we have succeeded rather than failed.

We started with a word that was simple and effective, and now we have moved ourselves beyond such simplicity. The industry has grown so much that we can no longer use one simple word to accurately describe a coffee professional. We have succeeded so well and so quickly that we haven't been able to embrace change!

If I were to ask you "what is a bartender?" would you tell me it is a highly trained and skilled person who mixes spirits to create a harmonious balance of it's ingredients? You may even think that, but I am willing to bet that you have met incredibly bad bartenders as well as great ones. A person can call themselves a bartender if they know how to pour a rum and coke and have an apron. So here is my correlation. "Bartender" is a broad term much like "barista" has become. There are bar tending associations just like we have the SCAA/SCAE, BGA, and various coffee schools, and liquor can be butchered as well as coffee can.

Here is the difference: There are now mixologists, sommeliers, and even specialists in single areas of spirits. There are certifications and licenses to be had in bartending, but I will talk about some of our initiatives further down in the post.

What we are really missing is an increased vocabulary. To grow to a large amount of specialties will most likely take even more growth from our industry, but we need at least one or two now to help redefine what we are. This brings me to what I really want to talk about.


Where are we going?

We are racing full speed, but we are trying to stay the same in a way. I find that we are often trying to change the definition of what we are as opposed to advancing ourselves through new perspectives. Making new titles for ourselves is not something to be done lightly, and in this instance I think what we need is conversation on what sets us apart from just being a “barista”. So here is my look at what will truly set us apart and therefore help define what we are.

Where we are

In recent years we have focused on being representatives for roasters and coffee farmers. Cutting edge baristas will not just pour great tasting, great looking drinks, but will also talk our ears off about "farm demographics" like country, region, altitude, and harvest date, plus roast degree, and flavor notes (and notes, and notes). We have cultivated an amazing appreciation for the product we serve, especially amongst ourselves. I say ourselves because it is so easy to focus on what we have been excelling at that often we leave our customers in the dust. Even 10 years ago, getting a clean, sweet , defect-free coffee was pretty much what we wanted.

Now acidity is a huge focus.

Lighter roasting techniques to preserve the acidity have led to a very different cup today than less than a decade ago. Our customers haven't been along on this ride that we have been enjoying, and because of that I know I have been told that a coffee is sour and unpleasant.

This is where we are. We are experiencing a gap between what we like and what the average stranger likes in their coffee, and the barista has become part educator, part service professional. We have grown into this role smoothly in most cases, but we can't forget where the customer is coming from either. I always like remembering that the customer wants to trust us. The trust is built by first serving them a great drink and giving the service they desire. After the customer has been established we are able to continually impress and educate the customer over time as interactions allow. As a good friend told me recently: listen, ask questions, and meet the customer where they are at so you can learn their version of coffee and give them what will meet their needs.

Moving forward

This is my way of saying where I think the barista craft is headed. There are a number of directions I am seeing our industry moving to, and I want to recognize a few of those along with my own ideas. You will see that I am not trying to coin any specific titles here, my goal is to start the discussion of these concepts

SCAA/BGA Certification – The Barista Guild of America has begun programs to create accredited and standardized barista certification. I have heard some criticism of this program, but personally I think this is a huge step for our industry. A curriculum is being created and implemented, and this has to start from the very beginning and grow over time. Currently there are 2 levels of certification, with a third level being implemented soon. I liken this to bartending licensing as it ensures that certain standards are emphasized.

Barista/Mixologist – This is such a natural crossover for our industry. If you are anything like myself, you probably enjoy just about any sort of crafted beverage. The main portion of this group is primarily independently seeking the knowledge, either as a barista who loves mixology, or a bartender/mixologist who loves coffee. There are increasingly more “coffee bar” concepts with coffee and liquor these days and I feel that this may be a very big aspect in our industry down the road. Perhaps someday the term “mixologist” will simply forgo the barista title and incorporate all of the pertinent techniques they need.

(The coffee sommelier) – I have heard people say a barista should be considered a sommelier of coffee, but I have to disagree. Since I believe that “barista” is more of a broad term, not every barista will fit here, and therefore this is something different. I can't imagine actually using the word sommelier, as this is completely unimaginiative, however the idea of this is much akin to what a sommelier does. This person would be a true expert of coffee, from their knowledge of farm techniques, to roasting concepts, to preparation. All of these aspects of the coffee chain would easily be correlated to the flavor and character of the final product. This individual would also be well versed in flavor pairings, whether recommending what type of food the coffee would pair well with, or how well that coffee would interact with other ingredients (or if it should be cherished on its own). There are many aspects to what this type of coffee professional could be, but I could see this being a compelling direction for the professional barista in the future.

(The master barista/coffee expert/etc) – This is more or less the organic evolution of the current barista professional. As we continue to grow as an industry, the level of top notch baristas will continue to rise. Eventually there will be an inevitable need for separation from even the average trained barista. When I think of this “master barista” I think of a well dressed professional with masterfully honed skills, knowledge, and industry recognized abilities. Maybe competition is an avenue for this level of barista, maybe the level of BGA certification will reach that level, or maybe other industry leadership will be the key. However the level is reached, it would be something that is not simply gained over time or connections, but true excellence in their profession.

There you have it, this is my take on what the barista profession is and where it is headed. Do you see other directions we should be looking to? I can't imagine I have the only perspective on this topic. So what do you think?


Posted on September 5, 2012 and filed under Blog.