March 20, 2017

Barista Excellence: When Third Wave Trends Go Bad


The third wave has done wonderful things for coffee. It’s encouraged an awareness of farming and processing, different brewing methods, and the role of the barista in shaping the coffee’s flavour. Vitally, it’s seen more and more consumers drinking better coffee. But like all good things, it’s also encouraged some bad habits.

Not in every barista, or in every third wave cafe – but those who have experienced it know how much of a headache it can be. I’m talking about Head Baristas who are particularly attached to the coffee bar, while junior baristas never get a chance to develop their skills. Or new baristas who care more about Instagram-worthy latte art than about extraction.

So I spoke to some local baristas in my home country of Malaysia to find out what bad habits they see – and how we can change them. Because in the ever-growing specialty coffee industry, these habits could hinder the excellent progress we’re making.

Versión en Español: Un Barista de Excelencia: Cuando Nuevas Tendencias Traen Efectos Negativos

barista tamping espresso puck

A good extraccion is far more important than an instagram-worthy cup. Credit: Coffea Coffee

Barista Culture in Southeast Asia

The third wave didn’t develop in Southeast Asia. It was introduced to us via globalization. It first appeared in places like Jakarta, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley. Today, the specialty coffee scene in our area of the world is increasingly vibrant. Independent cafés sprout up and certain coffee farms in Indonesia and Thailand are producing world-class coffee.

SEE ALSO: Coffee in Malaysia: We Need to Talk About Baristas

In Malaysia, specialty coffee is also popular – often at the expense of the three-in-one instant coffees that used to dominate. The Malaysia Barista Championship, Brewers Cup Championship, and Latte Art Championship promote barismo, as does our Barista Guild. The Malaysia Specialty Coffee Association draws attention to the potential for third wave coffee in this country.

Our industry is growing fast. But that can lead to growing pains.

The industry is growing and baristas need to be prepared. Credit: Center Coffee

The Influence of The Celebrity Barista

Over the past few years, we’ve seen the word “barista” come to take on a new meaning. Celebrity baristas, the World Barista Championship, and even barista films have helped us to understand that being a barista requires passion and technical ability. We’ve learned that the barista really does have a significant impact on the final cup. And this is important. First of all, baristas deserve that recognition. Secondly, this helps to attract good-quality baristas.

However, even celebrity baristas clean the tables and wash the dishes.

Samuel U is a barista at a high-volume café, and he tells me that he’s seen the negative impact of this trend. “Baristas often forget that they are foremost an employee. Having a passion to make coffee can be great, but it should never be at the expense of daily tasks, such as clearing tables or even serving the customers. A barista must understand that a coffee shop is a business and daily operational tasks that aren’t coffee related are necessary for the business to operate smoothly.”


Tristan Creswick cleans cups at work. Credit: Brian Foo

Latte Art vs Barismo

Latte art is another thing that has risen to prominence with specialty coffee, both in Southeast Asia and abroad. Christine Seah writes that Korea’s coffee boom may be partially attributed to latte art.

In Malaysia, I can’t conclusively claim that latte art contributes to the boom in specialty. But I can give you anecdotal evidence: aspiring baristas who come to us seeking advice on their latte art pouring. Regular customers who announced they were in a hurry but were still disappointed when their take-away cup didn’t have latte art.

Julian Loayza writes that we expect latte art in a specialty café. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. From a business point of view, latte art photos on Instagram create publicity and attract new customers.

However, this is only a single aspect of specialty coffee. And it’s sending a message to baristas about what they should achieve and “focus” on.

Tristan Creswick, Training Manager at Cloud Catcher, has 17+ years of experience in the coffee industry. He tells me, “These influences have added more levels of competency for the barista, and that might have affected the barista negatively.”


Lex Lim and Tristan Creswick work to develop their palate. Credit: Brian Foo

What’s The Solution?

I’m not saying latte art isn’t important. And I’m not saying celebrity baristas are a bad thing.

However, if the baristas at your café only care about the espresso machine, who will serve the customers? Or maintain cleanliness? I was told of a Head Barista who used to hide milk pitchers from the Junior Barista so she wouldn’t be able to serve her customer – that is an example of when good third wave trends have gone bad.

So what can be done about this issue? Well, one thing recommended by many baristas was mentors for new recruits.

staff cupping

Constant training is always important. Credit: The Tiny Roaster

The Case For Barista Mentors

Many passionate new baristas don’t have a mentor to guide them. And for those who do, their mentors often only guide them on preparing coffee.

In my opinion, mentors need to teach new recruits about the third wave coffee industry as a whole. This could range from conversations about how the café operates to how global warming may affect Arabica coffee production in the near future.

Samuel U tells me, “Employers who nurture and invest in their employees’ growth in coffee, by taking the role of a mentor, would benefit more than the business itself but the industry as a whole. This is because these young baristas could possibly be employers themselves one day, and perhaps do the same in nurturing and investing in their new recruits.”

With thanks to his mentors: Tristan Creswick, Surender Kumar, Lex Lim, Max Leong, and Shishir Ahmed.

All views within this opinion piece belong to the guest writer, and do not reflect Perfect Daily Grind’s stance. Perfect Daily Grind believes in furthering debate over topical issues within the industry, and so seeks to represent the views of all sides.

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