The Many Guises of the Barista

 Barista – part 2

In the last post I looked at defining the brewing role in terms of creative direction and input from the maker; how the brewer affects the brew. However, I see the barista role as more than this; I see it as sharing with and involving the drinker, I see it as providing context for the drink you are brewing, it’s about multi-tasking, it’s about cleaning milk jugs and wiping surfaces, it’s about working with others in a team, it’s about service and hospitality.

Interestingly for us, we have not found it particularly useful to advertise for a barista role even though that’s what we are looking for. The definition that is most representative across the industry probably only partially aligns with my definition, and in some cases is at odds with it altogether. People are often applying for a role (that of barista) that is very different to the reality of what we are offering and looking for.

When I was first applying for roles and working as a barista I would have defined the role rather differently to what I am now outlining in these posts. In effect this discourse is a redefinition of the barista role within speciality coffee, as explored in “what barista competitions have to say about service” and my definition is much closer to competition requirements.

For these first barista roles, creative direction of flavour was not considered at all really. Yes, the people I was working for would want me to make “good” coffee, a vague definition, but really in most shops it meant steaming milk consistently and efficiently, it meant the logistical aspects of serving a hot beverage, e.g. don’t use a boiling hot cup for one drink and a cold cup for another. Keep the flow rate the same by changing grind…I was not asked about taste or quality or anything of that nature. In essence, flavour was not part of the equation.

I learnt the usual standardized industry party line, that making espresso is about sticking to a set recipe by watching variables. The problem was that I went to other shops that made consistently better coffee.  I wasn’t getting a consistency of flavour, I did know our product wasn’t as specialist, but even then I was curious as to why we weren’t achieving consistency, specialist or not. I put this down to the variability of the product, for a while I embraced the whole ‘god shot’ ideology. After some eye opening training and further inspection as to what different coffee people thought about brewing I slowly became aware of the creative direction of which I outlined in the last post, leaving the less useful coffee making notions behind.

I worked in four cafes whilst in Melbourne, but I stayed and developed the most in one shop. This shop was not a speciality coffee shop in any way. It was a lovely fast paced city café. We started with a big coffee brand and changed suppliers as we went. My boss here was pleased I was enthusiastic about the product and that more customers were commenting on the quality of the product, thing was though, it wasn’t as simple or easy as that. The approach began to require more coffee per shot, more time per drink and so forth. My interest in coffee had its benefits but from his point of view I was probably quite annoying. Wapping on about grinding fresh, changing recipes to taste, and also venturing down a path that was less repeatable across staff without more training, time, money and effort. The owner was kind enough to indulge my curiosity, letting me buy coffee elsewhere and stay after work using their equipment to brew and play around with it.

I am very grateful to him for letting me explore my interest and further my understanding of coffee whilst working in his shop.

It was touch and go for a while, but increased trade outweighed the bottom line negatives. But only just. Yes, there was increased interest, but increases also needed to be made to pricing in order to match what was now going into the product, prices that may not have suited the demographic that had been built.

Up the road was a place that had cutting edge speciality ingredients, I do feel we competed on service there rather than product, the cool shop knocked out divine cups of coffee but were pretty meek and didn’t remember who you were. It was quite telling that when I mentioned this to a friend in Australia at the time, they pondered “yeah, I guess I do always expect the coffee to be better when the baristas are surly and less friendly”

Melbourne itself probably made it easier to justify pursuing coffee in more depth; a stronger interest in a crafted product that was more commonly perceived as having variable quality meant investing more was harder to see as superfluous. Instead the value was easily recognised, of course this depended on the business but in general there did seem to be more interest and enthusiasm from a broader customer base.

Something I have noticed across the barista world is a common disconnect between managers/owners and the barista. More often than not this was understandable. Often, the barista role was undertaken in a way that didn’t appreciate a team effort, an “I won’t do dishes or run tables” attitude, “I just make coffee.” Another big problem was that the emphasis of a barista role allowed people to partake in the role who knew very little about it in reality, they could pour a fern and that was about it. The problem, it seemed for a lot of café owners, was that they wanted to hire someone with expertise in something they themselves were only partially familiar with, so, in essence they are hiring blind. How do you know that the applicant knows their stuff, if you aren’t aware of what there is to know? Successful hiring seemed then to take place based on character judgement along with a strong relationship between roaster and cafe which could also help empower the shop owner, effectively offering a vetting system, pushing the baristas to be better – This was often only  theoretical and didn’t transpire.

The barista role is in itself generally more prevalent in the antipodes and North America than in the UK.  In the UK it is more synonymous with the print stretching across the back of a member of staff in Costa than it is with artisan craft and taste choices.

I myself really enjoyed the logistical tasks of working in a busy traditional bar/commercial environment. My first barista jobs were closer to pulling pints (which I also enjoyed) than brewing beer. Looking after guests, managing orders, etc.

There’s a reason I didn’t hang around that area though, is because that simple goal of which nearly all café owners talk, is not that simple – knocking up a consistently great coffee….And I was particularly taken with this pursuit.

I will often hear people talk about opening a shop that isn’t specialist, that they just want to run a shop with one coffee, freshly roasted, sourced transparently with high quality raw ingredients and serve it up to their prospective customers. The thing is, this requires meticulous care and a specialist approach. You can either take part knowingly in the creative process or take part in it without knowing; take part through neglect. Not taking part in positive taste creativity results in ironically inconsistent results. I have seen this become much more pronounced as espresso becomes less heavily blended and the roasting less heavy, this opens up a lot of complex flavour, more flavour to go wrong. Those heavily blended roastier coffees’ definitely seem to have smaller variance (yes, far less flavour potential). Again, it is important to recognise the itemised commercial coffee off of which the Barista role has been founded. As with a lot of commonly used terminology in coffee, the term barista means different things to different people and rather than struggle with semantics it can be easier to not use the word at all.

Whether a shop has one or three espresso on, the methodology and approach required is the same – that is if you want a consistent speciality coffee product. The earnest notion of just making good speciality crafted coffee but not taking it seriously is in fact seriously flawed. If the goal is consistently high quality speciality coffee then the role of the barista cannot be simplified, sidestepped or less involved.

This does have interesting lead on effects for a café business, if you do encourage your staff to invest their time and interest in the product then you may very quickly find that your one coffee and lack of dialogue with the drinker means that the keen Barista with much potential quickly becomes limited, or in the nicest possible way bored and frustrated by their environment.

Throughout the industry the term barista fits in differently depending on the coffee business. Assuming the goals are indeed speciality coffee then the prism of the barista does need a commercial environment which is complimentary.

 

Next –  Environments for barista nourishment.

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