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Baristas: Coffee’s Unsung Heroes

When all is said and done, different baristas agree that the style and quality of the machine does not mean much if the person operating it doesn’t know what he is doing or if the coffee beans are of poor quality. An untrained barista staff and poorly roasted or old coffee are among the many brewing problems a coffeehouse can face on a regular basis. The most common problems include incorrect adjustments of espresso machines or grinders, poorly pre-heated cups, inferior water, and poorly maintained machinery. Oosterhof, who is also a board member for the Norwegian chapter of the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) and runs his own coffee shop chain, points out a few factors that should be kept in mind in order to avoid major problems:

Cleanliness of the equipment - all machines and grinders should be thoroughly cleaned throughout the course of each day. To secure this condition, coffee shop owners need to enforced strict cleaning routines that all staff members must follow.

Temperature - If the espresso machine delivers water temperatures above or below 91-93° Celsius, the espresso will be either under- or over-extracted. This will bring out a bad flavor in the coffee and destroy the flavor balance of the drink.

Grinding - “The heart and soul behind making a perfect cup of espresso is not found in the espresso machine alone. The secret is in correctly grinding the coffee,” Oosterhof states. Espresso coffee responds differently to weather changes and humidity levels and the freshness of the coffee is also important. Constant adjustments must be made to the grinder in order to make a perfect cup.

The Perfect Cup
Having a grasp on these basics is the perfect start for a barista as he hones his skills. From such a firm base, any dedicated barista can proceed to acquire the skills necessary to take part in the World Barista Championship (WBC). As a member of the World Barista Committee, Tone Elin Liavaag is running the third annual championship this June. According to her, in order for a barista to excel in such a competition, he must display “a commitment to quality coffee, a high level of knowledge of all technical equipment used, and pay careful attention to details such as cups, glasses and other accessories used. An exceptionally good barista has espresso in his blood.”

The WBC is a three day contest, conference, and exhibition that allows baristas from 40 countries to represent their nations by making use of their specialized expertise and skills. The first championship was held in Monte Carlo, followed by Miami and is to take place in Oslo this year. Next year’s competition is to take place in Boston and will then return to Europe for its fifth year anniversary. The format for the competition is modeled after the world championship for chefs and has been used for semi-finals in countries all over the world, including Brazil, India, Lebanon, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the U.S. Each nation chooses a representative barista to enter the world championships and most arrive with supporting teams and coaches to ensure that the barista can perform his/her very best during the competitions.

Throughout the three days of the WBC, the world’s top baristas first compete in qualifying rounds from which the winners move on to the grand finale. Each participant has 15 minutes to serve four judges four espressos, four cappuccinos and four identical espresso-based, signature beverage of their choice. The judges then evaluate their work based on taste, technique, and beverage and personal presentation before selecting the 2002 World Barista Champion.

But if all of the excitement of the competition isn’t enough, members of the coffee industry attending the World Barista Championship can also take advantage of an exhibition that will be hosting the leading specialty coffee producers, traders, and roasters from around the world. Suppliers of grinding, brewing and serving equipment as well as tea, chocolate, flavoring, and other coffee innovations will be on hand to help new customers. At the same time, a two track educational program will be going on in an attempt to keep the coffee industry up-to-date on the latest developments. Track One is made up of 12 presentations and panel discussions that will allow some of the best presenters in the coffee business to share their knowledge and recipes for success. Track Two will allow participants to meet leading coffee producers and taste some of their best work. From the thrill of the competition to the variety of possibilities for educational and business expansion, the World Barista Championship has something to offer every member of the coffee industry.

Events such as the WBC show that baristas all over the world are extremely dedicated to their work and have a true love for coffee. Most baristas, unless they own their own coffee shops, bars, or carts, do not make much money in this field. Johns and Oosterhof believe that a part-time barista will average about $1,000 to $1,300 a month, while a professional who makes a living out of coffee will make anywhere between $1,500 and $2,000 a month. Some businesses will also offer employees health and medical benefits.

But as Trygve Klingenberg, ceo and owner of Solberg & Hansen AS, points out, “The popularity of working in a coffee bar shows that there must be an up-side besides the salary.” Most of the people who work as baristas are young and simply have a love for the craft work involved in espresso and coffee. They enjoy the atmosphere in which they work, the different types of people they meet each day and the fact that there is always something new to learn when it comes to coffee. As Johns has observed, “the baristas are the ‘unsung heroes’ of the coffee industry. Many baristas are taken for granted, paid nominally, offered little or no training and expected to serve customers every day in a challenging environment. On the other hand, those savvy retailers who understand the special qualities of coffee and the unique set of skills required to prepare specialty drinks are the ones who are prospering in this competitive marketplace."

Dahlia Damaghi drank many cups of exceptionally made coffee while researching this article.

Tea & Coffee - June/July 2002

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