November 10, 2015

5 Things You Learn from Shadowing a Barista That AREN’T About Coffee


Ever been dazzled by your favourite barista’s attention to detail, their omnipresence in the café, their seamless ability to multi-task, or their effortless cool under pressure?

Intrigued about what makes baristas the wonders they are or about what it takes to be one?

Ask any barista and they’ll tell you: their job is never just about making coffee. It’s a job that’s built on a special code. It requires a certain work ethic, one that at its core involves the cultivation of invaluable, transferable, life-long skills. In short, being a barista is a way of life.

I used to work at a non-profit café, where we provided job training and apprenticeships. And while we were happy to see many of our apprentices becoming coffee professionals, many others went into entirely unrelated fields. Was their time at our café a mistake? A wrong step in the road to meaningful employment?

Absolutely not! They received those jobs because of those irreplaceable skills they learned when making coffee.

Read on to hear about the key virtues of being a barista – and what you could learn from shadowing one during the magic hours of busy service.

5 Reasons to Shadow a Barista

1. Patience

Patience is a virtue, especially when you’re a barista.

Rushed coffee always equals bad coffee, and no one benefits from a barista who is rushing. Not the coffee, not their colleagues, not the business owner and, least of all, not the customer.

As a barista, the single most important skill you can learn is the ability to be patient and remain calm. This single skill will make your workflow more efficient. It will govern how you perform in almost every situation.

Learning patience will allow us to keep a cool head when the pressure’s on – like when there’s a queue to the door and a row of orders on. It’s what helps us develop the rhythms to avoid complacency. It’s what keeps us grounded enough to avoid mistakes, or to tackle them properly when they inevitably arise. It’s the key to that perfect extraction, that perfectly textured milk, that perfectly poured rosetta, not to mention that perfectly serviced customer or that perfectly clean work-station – it’s the key to the perfect cup. 

Lee este artículo en español 5 Cosas Diferentes al Café Que Aprendes Observando a un Barista

espresso machine

 Using one of these will teach you about far more than coffee.

2. Problem Solving

Being a barista can often feel like an exercise in problem solving. And little did you know the vast amount of tiny details and elements that make up the process behind your coffee.

Inevitably, this means there can be an unforgiving margin for error. Heat, dryness, moisture, and air temperature – to name but a few – can all wreak havoc with coffee beans. This in turn will affect the grind and dose, which if improperly controlled will affect the extraction and therefore how tasty the shot is.

Perhaps you nail your grind and dose but then fluff your tamp. Or, in a rush to get your portafilter into your group, you slam it on the side of your machine and rupture your espresso puck, resulting in a channelled shot and horribly under extracted coffee. Yuck!

Maybe the batch of coffee in your hopper is too fresh and still exotherming (a period after roasting in which gasses are released from the beans). Maybe your steam wand hasn’t been purged properly and it clogs, covering your machine – and sometimes you or a customer! – in milk.

No matter what happens, you have to work out why, how to fix it, and how to make sure it never happens again.

So it’s no wonder that experienced baristas have highly developed powers of observation and logical thinking. The difference between your coffee being perfect and it being average, forgettable, or just plain bad stands on a knife edge when the barista is in their flow.

See also: 5 Things Nobody Tells You About Being a High-Volume Barista

espresso extraction

If something goes wrong, can you work out what? Problem solving: one of a barista’s most valuable skills.7

3. Community

As much as learning to be a barista can be about personal growth, personal excellence, and ambition, it also relies to a large extent on a strong foundation of community. Whether it is between your colleagues and peers; your regulars; or the coffee world, local or global, being a barista is about teamwork and communication.

In the same way, it should also be about helping the community. The warm, welcoming space you aim to cultivate in your café should extend far beyond its front door. As a barista, you connect people, and you provide the centrepiece around which people connect, but you are also a valuable link in a connected chain of production and progress. The work behind the bar and around the café connects a guest to a barista, a roaster, an importer, and a farmer.

Building good relationships are the foundations of the coffee industry at all levels. Once you realize this you begin to see the bigger picture behind your cup. That it’s a mosaic of community, consisting of many small, equally valuable pieces that form one beautiful, caffeinated image. 

barista behind the bar

Never underestimate what you learn when working in a café.

4. Passion

Contrary to what TV or the movies might suggest, not all baristas are struggling art students who ‘just make coffee’ on the side (which is ironic, since I was an art student). One thing’s for sure, and presumably if you’ve found your way to this blog you’ve already noticed it: coffee can be a serious business.

Serious baristas are intensely passionate about what they do. They strive for excellence and the perfection of their craft at all times, working with laser-sighted attention to details and often impossibly high standards. It’s standard practice in many cafes, for example, to remake a drink if it’s 2g off recipe. And the latte art in your drink that lasts a matter of seconds? That’s not merely a transient detail, but rather the unique, aesthetic flourish of a dedicated and passionate craftsman. You can be sure that the barista who created that beautiful coffee for you has spent many, many hours practicing and wasted lots and lots milk to bring you that special moment.

Baristas hold enormous levels of pride and ownership over their work environment, understanding that for many, coffee is as much about sanctuary and ritual as it is about flavour and that caffeine kick. Baristas want your coffee to be an experience, and the thing that drives them to make every part of it perfect is passion.

And when the café doors are closed, there is always more experimenting to do. More equipment to try, more techniques to research.

A barista’s work is never done.

barista behind the bar

Forget coffee pro, a barista’s a pro in every sense of the word.

5. Sharing

As a barista, you have a responsibility to show someone what you know because someone showed you what they know.

Benjamin Put, Canadian National Barista Champion and 3rd Place World Barista Champion

The speciality coffee industry is in many ways a unique and wonderful thing to be a part of. It continues to raise the commodity status of coffee to something invaluable, precious, and beautiful – and it does so through a global community in which passionate, curious people support each other. Central to the sustainability of our favourite drink is the passing on of knowledge from one barista to another.

Being a barista isn’t just about personal growth, nor is it about hoarding the secrets of coffee brewing – rather, it’s about teaching, and encouraging growth in others. It’s about instilling in them some of the passion and virtues we pride ourselves on. To take responsibility for the growth of others is to foster a desire for the longevity of your own work, and in the case of the barista, we all want the same thing: to help coffee grow and improve.

Baristas have a great deal to share, and the importance of how and where we share our knowledge is what keeps our industry alive and thriving.

Observe your favorite baristas in action could have positive, far-reaching and practical benefits to your life. After all, patience, lateral thinking, communication and passion may not be unique to baristas, but they do help us make better coffee!

Try asking your local café if you can shadow a barista – and let us know what you learn in the comments, on facebook and on instagram.

Edited by S. McCusker.

Perfect Daily Grind.

barista behind the bar