What do you expect from your Barista?

Monday, 27 May, 2019

Originally published in Issue 4 of The Coffee Magazine, this article still holds a lot of relevance for our ever-growing coffee community!

Photos by Ant Fox

The hipster barista of Funny or Die skits has become a symbol of coffee snobbery. You know the kind of barista we’re talking about. Dressed just so and a wealth of knowledge on coffee and how it should be drunk. With each new barista you encounter, hipster or not, comes a new coffee experience. In this article we explore how important the barista is to your cup of coffee. As Gwilym Davies says, the thirty seconds shared between the barista and the customer mean the difference between a cup of coffee and a life changing experience. At least that’s what a good barista aims to do; take pride in a product that has been through a massive production process to get to your cup and convert you to their religion.

Imagine it: The first thing that hits you as you walk through the door, is the aroma. The interior is beautiful. The furniture has been carefully selected; there is just the right mix of vintage and modern. There are rock roses or proteas in Consol glass jars on the tables. You walk up to the counter. The person behind it is confident with the portafilter and equally as comfortable in skinny jeans. The list of coffees is overwhelming.

“What can I get for you today? We’ve got a delicious blend in the hopper, I would recommend a cappuccino.”

You don’t like too much milk so you ask for a normal filter coffee.

“Well I can do you an Americano, or we can make you a plunger or a pour over? The single origin Costa Rica is amazing as a pour over.”

From here, the rest of your café experience could go either way. Maybe you play it safe and stick to an Americano because you have no idea what a pour over is. Maybe you try something new and you never look at coffee the same way again. 

The above hypothetical experience could be read as a positive learning occurrence or as a negative irritation prolonging your wait for caffeine. It’s all about expectation. Is the barista taking the blame for a growing industry trying to inspire more people to drink quality coffee? Should they stop their apparent crusade against bad coffee and just let us order what we want? With the rise of the barista trade, expectations from both sides, in front of and behind the counter, are changing. 

South Africa’s baristas are beginning to compete on the world stage. Lovejoy Chirambasukwa has just returned from the World Barista Championships 2013 in Melbourne and the search has already begun for the next person to hold his SA crown. Change and improvement come with growing pains. It cannot be denied that the standard of coffee has skyrocketed in South Africa in the last few years, a fact that an international World Barista Champion was quick to point out on a recent visit to our shores.

Gwilym Davies, World Barista Champ 2009, is defending the job of the barista and coming from the UK coffee culture that has had a lot more time to mature, perhaps he is one of the best people to give us a little more insight into just what the role of the barista is. He shared his thought with us in Joburg, 2013. 

"Coffee is a huge industry; right the way from the coffee fields to the consumer’s cup and the biggest part of it, the biggest part that can influence the whole chain, is the relationship between the barista and the final consumer. How they relate to the consumer affects the whole chain. I really enjoyed the warmth of the baristas South Africa, how they welcome you when you walk in the door. Training is my passion and what I love to do. The two most critical areas for any barista in my opinion are hospitality and making sure your machine is clean.

Originally the competitive side of coffee held no interest for me, but Stephen Morrissey, the 2008 Champion told me, do it to meet your community to meet your fellow baristas and the second was to get better, the better you are at making coffee, the easier it is for the customer to believe your stories. I wanted to bring the passion that I served each customer with to the world stage. I trained hard for three months under two previous World Champion baristas and I ended up winning it. I didn’t intend to win it, in fact it was a huge surprise, but I certainly learnt the value of it for baristas everywhere. 

Being a World Champion Barista really comes with a big responsibility, because if you say something then it is taken as fact, if you do something then others will copy, so whether you like it or not you become a role model for people in the profession to follow. You have to lead by example and behave in a way that you would like the barista profession to head. It gives me the chance to direct an industry and it has given me a wonderful chance to learn a lot and share ideas. As I’m learning I need to share it with my community, with other baristas that don’t have the opportunity to travel.

The South African market, while aspiring to levels of cleanliness and quality of green beans set by the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE), should also try to distinguish themselves as a unique coffee producer. Certain cultures prefer tight, short espresso like Australia. The Scandanavians enjoy the sharp citrusy flavours of a lightly roasted coffee. It’s good to come in with your own personality and South Africa is still discovering theirs. The quality seems to have jumped dramatically from what I anticipated. The quality of the greens is good and the cafes are using seasonal, fresh, African coffees that haven’t been too darkly roasted. The one thing I’d really like to see more of is alternative brewing methods, because they’re a great way to explore the coffees and you can transfer what you’ve learned to espresso. What you learn from when you’re hand brewing which is a much less dramatic way of making coffee, there’s more time, two seconds doesn’t make such a huge difference, so you can calmly see how the coffee reacts, before you put it under the pressure of an espresso machine.

I’ve often found as an independent café owner that standing alone doesn’t help you, but when you work with others then you raise the standard together, like a tide bringing up a boat. I started as a barista at a coffee cart in a London market. Now I’m co-owner of Prufrock. People started inquiring about training when we started out, so we looked at finding premises where we could set up a training centre, which now goes by the name the London BRAT (Barista Resources and Training). We took over an old sex shop and put the training facility in the basement, it’s good fun. When baristas run their course with us, they move on to other specialty cafes. The more good quality coffee there is, the better. 

Like any other specialty coffee business, it’s difficult. We know how to make good coffee and how to get people coming back and we’ve gotten to a point where we’re consistently busy. The thing is, we need to put our prices up but we can’t do that if we’re promising something amazing and then being inconsistent. In the UK we’ve taken to weighing our coffee grounds and weighing the espresso shot to ensure consistency for the consumer.

You also can’t charge what the coffee is actually worth if the experience is a fast food one, it’s like serving a £15 burger out of a McDonalds; people feel that they are being ripped off. But if you give them the quality of the experience, make them understand that the coffee has travelled many miles to get to this point, involve them in the romance of it, it’s like visiting a Michelin Star restaurant and savouring every minute. People have gotten used to the Starbucks, on-the-go fast food mentality of being served, that is not what specialty coffee is about. This doesn’t necessarily mean educating them, but rather it means making them feel good about themselves.

All that being said, if your customer doesn’t want to hear the story, then as a person in the service industry you still need to respect that. Service is a huge part of this industry, the farmers are relying on baristas half a world away to make the best possible cup."

Gwilym is not alone in his thoughts on service, another World Barista Champion James Hoffman, can’t emphasise the importance of good service enough. A really good barista will know if the customer is interested in hearing the story. 

As he says “If you make a delicious cup of coffee but I don’t like being in your business, then I’m not going to buy coffee from you.” A barista who thinks they know everything can appear unfriendly and as Hoffman puts it “lecture-y”. You can’t try to educate someone who’s not interested. Baristas need to learn to read their customer, some people will be interested in the origin of the coffee, and some people just need a delicious caffeine fix to start their day.

Baristas are expected to make consistently good coffee under pressure and cater to the whims of the paying customer. They too have their gripes with caffeine-deprived customers. It’s like any profession; baristas are trained with certain rules. Don’t burn the milk. Keep your equipment clean. Sugar ruins the taste of the coffee. The consumer’s lack of appreciation for a seriously quality cup of coffee can be taken as disrespectful to the baristas craft. 

The expectations are high on both sides of the counter, but perhaps with a bit of mutual respect we can all learn to get along and drink amazing coffee. And a smile, we can all agree that a smile goes a long way.

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