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Unsung Heroes


Whether it be in the U.S. or the Netherlands, Australia or Italy, a career as a barista has become one of the most popular professions in the coffee industry. In fact, an internet survey recently conducted in Norway found that coffee bar operator was voted as the fourth trendiest job among today’s youth. The role of a barista is integral within any establishment that serves coffee simply because the success of this business depends upon the return of customers on a regular basis; people will time and again choose to return to the shop with the most inviting atmosphere, friendliest service, and of course, the tastiest cup of coffee. Such competitive conditions allow baristas to perfect their skills and expand their coffee knowledge. International competitions such as the World Barista Championship provide an excellent forum for these specialists to show off and share their expertise. But how exactly does one begin a career as a barista and what does it take to become a barista champion?

Many individuals fall into this line of work purely by accident and learn to appreciate and love the fine art of specialty drinks, but for Sherri Johns, the president of WholeCup Coffee Consulting, coffee has always flowed through her veins. As a social welfare student at San Francisco State University, she was known at the Student Union Café as one of the pickiest customers. “I would always request a ristretto shot in a preheated cup or a cappuccino foam steamed a particular way. When the café owner asked me to step in, I told her I had never done this type of work, but she replied that I knew more about coffee than her entire staff,” Johns recalls. She became hooked on seeing a customer’s face light up when presented with a great tasting cup of coffee and spent the next seven years as manager of a quintessential San Francisco coffeehouse learning, brewing, and drinking great coffee.

This type of dedication is necessary in order to succeed as a barista, but what else is required in order to prosper in this field? Paige Jennings, of P. Gordon Coffee Roasters in Fairfield, Connecticut, offered a small retail/roaster’s perspective, “Training is key. A true barista must go through a rigorous process of learning the nuances of the of the coffees and how it is properly prepared. I believe to be a true barista, it has to be in your heart.” Preben Oosterhof is currently the head coach of the Norwegian Barista Team and a former barista champion for Norway. He believes that the necessary skills can be passed down from one generation of baristas to the next. If the owner of a coffeehouse knows how to interact well with both his machinery and customers, he can share this knowledge with his barista staff and give them a starting point from which they can learn the craft work of espresso. In addition, the barista himself must also be enthusiastic and dedicated to his work. According to Oosterhof, “You cannot define yourself as a barista just over night. You have to dedicate your working hours each and every day to developing your skills and understanding the coffee, machinery, customers, and even milk.”

Many experts believe that such an understanding can be gained through experience, but for those who prefer a more traditional training, programs such as those offered at the Barista College in Australia are the ideal alternative. As the only independent training ground in the art of coffee making outside of Italy, the college is dedicated to providing its students with the necessary qualifications and experience necessary in order to become a skilled coffee professional. With an emphasis placed on both the production and consumption of excellent coffee, Barista College offers a variety of courses that deal with topics ranging from the types, cultivation, and history of coffee to the different roasting and grinding methods to demonstrations of the highest level of silver service presentation.

Preparing and serving an exceptional espresso drink is a craft and science that can be sharpened with coffee knowledge, practice and a dedication to the craft. Willy Hansen, head barista of Solberg & Hansen AS and internationally recognized juror for the World Barista Championship, includes four important things a barista should have control over in order to achieve espresso perfection: mano (the hand), machinadosatore (grinder), miscela (blend), and the machine and proper know-how of this last component is a key ingredient in this recipe.

Each barista has his/her favorites when it comes to machinery. Johns has always preferred La Marzocco Espresso equipment because of such features as “high volume capacity, individual boilers for milk steaming and espresso preparation, and performance reliability,” she stated. Willy Hansen and Tim Wendelboe, the Norwegian Barista Champion for two years running, also enjoy working with La Marzocco, as well as La Cimbali and Faema. In order to find a machine a barista is comfortable with, he must ask himself certain questions when buying any new coffee equipment: Can I work with this equipment? Does it fit into the coffeehouse’s general motif as far as looks, colors, size, and function are concerned? Will it be able to keep up with the amount of customers without malfunctioning and if it does, what type of maintenance services are offered by the company? The list goes on and on.

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