A barista is a coffee professional. They specialize in preparing espresso-based beverages such as lattes, cappuccinos, and macchiatos, manual brew beverages such as pour overs, tea, and specialty drinks. But that’s only half their job. A barista is also a curator of the customer experience. This means being a warm and welcoming host, aiding customers with their ordering, answering questions, and caring for their needs. Beyond the bar, baristas are also responsible for managing inventory, cleaning and organizing their shop, and ensuring the overall customer experience meets their standards. A barista is someone who is passionate about coffee and hospitality. If they have that, they’ll go on to be a highly effective barista.
Soft skills needed to be a barista
To be successful, a barista must embody skills often referred to as soft skills. Soft skills are things that are typically difficult to measure, but are important nonetheless. You could also refer to these skills as general professionalism because they aren’t particular to the barista role, but apply to anyone wanting to develop their professional selves. Here are the soft skills needed to be a successful barista:
- Communication: A barista must be able to communicate effectively with customers, colleagues, and their managers. This involves actively listening, communicating clearly and concisely in a way that’s respectful and hospitable, and working collaboratively with others.
- Customer service: Providing excellent customer service is a crucial aspect of being a barista. This involves being friendly, approachable, and knowledgeable, as well as responding calmly and professionally to customer complaints or concerns. A customer should feel heard and understood even if they don’t necessarily get what they want.
- Time management: A barista must be able to work efficiently under pressure, manage their time effectively, and prioritize tasks to ensure that orders are prepared and served promptly. We have a saying that we hurry, but we don’t rush.
- Attention to detail: Preparing high-quality coffee beverages requires a great deal of attention to detail. A barista must be able to follow recipes accurately, measure ingredients precisely, and ensure that each drink’s presentation is aesthetically impressive.
- Flexibility: Working as a barista can be unpredictable, with sudden rushes and changes in customer demand. A barista must be flexible and adaptable, able to switch between tasks and remain calm under pressure.
- Teamwork: Sometimes a barista works alone, but often they work alongside other baristas at different stations. A barista must be able to contribute to a team flow where everyone is helping everyone, communicating effectively, and contributing to a positive team dynamic.
- Positive attitude: A barista with a positive attitude is more likely to create a welcoming atmosphere for customers, build strong relationships with colleagues, and maintain a high level of productivity and job satisfaction.
Hard skills needed to be a barista
The majority of baristas get most excited when it comes to learning the art and science of coffee preparation. These hard skills are the craft of coffee and can be measured, tweaked, and critiqued for whether they meet the cafe’s standards of coffee preparation. Here are the hard skills needed to be a successful barista:
- Espresso-making: Baristas must have expertise in making espresso, including the ability to grind coffee beans, measure and tamp the grounds, and properly extract espresso shots.
- Milk frothing: Milk frothing is an essential skill for baristas, as it is needed to create the creamy mouthfeel of milk-based coffee drinks.
- Latte art: Latte art is the crown of the coffee beverage. It adds no perceivable improvement to flavor, but it improves the overall enjoyment of the beverage through an aesthetically beautiful presentation.
- Beverage preparation: Baristas must know how to prepare a variety of hot and cold beverages, including cappuccinos, lattes, iced coffee, pour overs, as well as tea.
- Equipment maintenance: Coffee equipment is complex and baristas must know how to maintain and clean their equipment, including espresso machines, grinders, and brewers. Neglected and unclean equipment will impact the barista’s ability in producing a quality coffee beverage.
- Inventory management: Baristas need to be able to manage inventory and supplies, such as coffee beans, milk, and syrups. The PAR level system is a very common system adopted by most cafes to manage their inventory.
- Cash handling: Baristas often handle cash and must be able to make change and process transactions accurately, and open and close the drawer which involves reconciling the cash drawer with the daily sales.
- Food handler certification: Cafes with full food programs may require baristas to be certified food handlers. Permits like ServSafe, certifies baristas in handling unpackaged foods that are served to customers in a way that is safe and risk-free.
Barista further education
The world of coffee is vast and deep and there are many areas a barista can dive into. Here are a few skills that will help a barista master their craft.
- Sensory and palate development: Developing a refined palate and sensory skills is essential for a barista to accurately assess the quality and flavor profile of the coffee they're brewing. A scent and aroma kit will help a barista start to associate and name certain scents and aromas common in coffee.
- Knowledge of coffee cultivation: A good barista should have a solid understanding of coffee origins, varieties, and processing methods. This knowledge can help them provide customers with accurate information about the coffee they're serving, as well as make recommendations based on individual preferences.
- Barista certification: For baristas that want to take their education to the next level, programs like the SCA Coffee Skills program provide barista’s certification in different areas such as sensory, brewing, or barista. Though most workplaces don’t require barista certifications, they are helpful for those wanting to deepen or widen their coffee knowledge.
- Q Grader certification: A Q Grader is the master sommelier of coffee. This sensory evaluation skillset is mostly utilized on the green coffee buying, roasting, and quality control side of the industry, though many arrive by first starting out as a barista.
Start with the basics
Learning the drinks
Similar to how cocktail bars offer classic cocktails as well as their own signature creations, so do coffee shops. The classic coffee beverages with Italian names are actually not completely different drinks, but variations on the ratio of espresso and milk. For instance, macchiato means stained or spotted in that there’s so little milk it appears to be spotted. And cappuccinos can be wet or dry which refers to the amount of foam the drink has. Every cafe puts their own mark on how these drinks are prepared or their sizes. Though there’s a general universal understanding of what the drinks are, there’s no real rules.
Cafes also develop their own signature drinks that add more complexity or seasonality to their menu. These can be as simple as adding chocolate to a latte to make it a mocha. Or drinks that are heavily inspired by mixology. With time and training, baristas will be expected to create these drinks consistently, efficiently, and from memory.
Learning the equipment
Coffee equipment is becoming more and more automated. From espresso machines with volumetrics that help you pull consistent shots, to grinders that grind with precision, there’s more and more nuance that is being automated for the barista. But this doesn’t remove the need to know what is happening, why, and how to improve it. Equipment is still just a tool and has yet to replace a knowledgeable and capable barista. Here are the types of equipment any barista will be expected to master:
Different grinders are intended to be used for different brew methods. For instance, if you’re brewing espresso, you’ll need a grinder that is capable of grinding to the fineness necessary for espresso and that can grind into a portafilter. But all grinders have the same impact on extraction. If the coffee is ground too fine, the coffee will taste bitter. And if it’s ground too coarse, the coffee can taste sour. The job of the barista is to learn how to adjust the grind size in order to dial in the coffee perfectly.
Learn more: How to grind coffee beans | 7 best burr grinders for coffee
The heart of any coffee shop is the espresso machine. They’re complicated machines that are actually quite simple to operate but that still take time to master. Pulling a perfectly extracted shot, frothing milk perfectly, and pouring beautiful latte art takes time, but is one of the first things any barista should master.
Learn more: Coffee shop equipment list
A lot of third wave coffee shops serve manually brewed coffee such as pour overs. It’s hard to beat a hand poured cup of coffee that is perfectly brewed. Each brew method comes with its own nuance and brew recipes. Mastering these brew methods will make any barista feel like they’re a pro.
Learn more: Manual brew guides
Essentials for coffee brewing
Milk is one of the best things you can add to a cup of coffee. The mild creaminess of steamed milk perfectly balances the acidity of a full-bodied cup of coffee and adds just the right amount of heartiness. Steaming perfectly textured milk requires the right amount of aeration and heat. It’s easy to over aerate or scald the milk by overheating it.
Learn more: How to steam milk for a latte
Pulling a shot of espresso on an espresso machine is not difficult, but dialing in the perfectly balanced shot of espresso takes a bit more practice. Knowing the parameters of dose, yield, and time for pulling a shot will help you understand what to adjust and why. Dose refers to the amount of ground coffee used in your shot, yield is the amount of brewed espresso, and time is how long it takes to get to your yield. Once you have these parameters set, you can choose which one to adjust in order to get that perfect tasting brew.
Learn more: How to pull a shot of espresso
Though there are other contributors, grind size is often the greatest impact on how your coffee will taste. Coffee that tastes sour is under extracted which often means it’s ground too coarse. Coffee that tastes bitter is over extracted which often means the ground is too fine. Knowing how to make adjustments to dial in your coffee, but without wasting too much coffee while dialing in, is a mastery that comes with time.
Learn more: How to grind coffee beans
Water temperature is one of the primary contributors to coffee quality. The goal is to perfectly dissolve the soluble materials within coffee that give us that perfectly balanced flavor profile we all love. And heat helps to dissolve those materials faster. But if the water is too hot, it can burn the coffee producing an unpleasant flavor. And water that’s too cool won’t dissolve the proper amount of materials. For most brew devices, including espresso, water temperature from 197 to 205 fahrenheit will provide the right amount of dissolution without burning.
All brew methods fall into either immersion or infusion brewing. Coffee brewed by immersion is when ground coffee is submerged in water for a period of time, like in a french press. Coffee brewed by infusion is when water moves through ground coffee by letting gravity draw it through but espresso kicks this up a notch by forcing pressurized water through finely-ground coffee.
Learn more about: Coffee brewing basics
Learning how to master any brew devices starts with learning the basics of brewing (the ratio of coffee beans to water, grind size, water temperature, brew time, and brew method). And then how to apply that understanding to the brew method and express the nuance each brew method can bring. For instance, the Aeropress combines immersion and infusion brewing whereas espresso uses infusion brewing but with a high pressure.
Learn more: Brew guides
Passion, Dedication, and Continuous Learning
In conclusion, becoming a skilled and successful barista requires a blend of passion, dedication, and continuous learning. From mastering the technical aspects of coffee brewing to developing strong soft skills, a barista's journey is both challenging and rewarding. By staying up-to-date with industry trends, participating in training programs, and embracing a customer-centric approach, aspiring baristas can cultivate a fulfilling career in the world of specialty coffee. Ultimately, the combination of exceptional coffee craftsmanship and an unwavering commitment to delivering outstanding customer experiences will set the stage for a truly memorable coffee shop experience, where every cup tells a story and each interaction leaves a lasting impression.