Try to imagine a coffee shop without a barista. Now try to imagine it without an espresso machine. Which seems the most improbable?
Machines have been a quintessential part of the coffee shop for over a century, while the smiling barista has become a cliché both in and outside of the coffee industry. But as machinery keeps developing and our customer service and coffee expectations grow, what roles do the two play? Can one replace the other? How is the job of the barista changing?
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The brew bar in a third wave coffee shop. Credit: Neil Soque
The Importance of Skilled Baristas
A barista does far more than press buttons on an espresso machine. They understand coffee extraction and create and troubleshoot recipes. They dial in profiles. They look after the equipment, cleaning machinery and spotting problems. They steam milk and pour latte art.
They also provide excellent customer service, ensuring that customers are satisfied and return to the shop. They adapt to individual customers’ needs, from oat milk to clock systems for the visually impaired (“your coffee is at 3 pm and your muffin is at 5 pm”). They cross-sell and up-sell, boosting the café’s profits per transaction.
They work together as a team, mentoring and motivating other baristas, and in doing so create a positive shop environment. They keep the bar and the tables clean, and check that there are enough napkins on the condiment table. They politely ask customers with trailing laptop cables to sit closer to the socket to avoid creating a hazard for people in wheelchairs or with prams.
A skilled barista isn’t just responsible for the coffee being served. They work to meet all the customers’ needs and ensure the shop runs smoothly.
A barista monitors the weight of an espresso with a scale during the Flow King Contest in Barcelona. Photo credit: Dalla Corte
How Machines Make The Barista’s Job Easier
New tools are constantly being developed, while today’s espresso machines come with an impressive array of features. Baristas can dial in via apps and use water fonts with a temperature precision of 0.1°C.
These tools increase efficiency but also improve consistency, reduce the likelihood of errors, and create a healthier work environment. Let’s take a look at some of the ways new equipment can help a coffee shop run smoother.
Scales improve consistency and accuracy by allowing baristas to assess and control the ratios of all the drinks they make. Simone Guidi is a Dalla Corte Brand Ambassador and the owner of La Sosta Specialty Coffee in Florence, Italy. He says, “Of course, the scale is important to be sure that you are working with the quantity of ground coffee that you wanted. Because if for some reason, the coffee weighed more or less than you expected or wanted, the result is going to be different.”
There are workarounds. Simone tells me that if he didn’t have a scale, he would work with cups with lines drawn inside them. “The line inside the cup is just a reference,” he says, explaining that it measures output by volume instead of by weight. “It’s not super-precise like a scale, but it’s something that can help you.”
However, this creates extra work for the barista. They have to calculate where the line should be, mark the cups before they begin working, and make sure they always use the right cup. It’s also not as precise as measuring by weight. Having a scale means the barista can work accurately with any cup, which frees up time for them to focus on other things.
Moreover, not all scales are the same. A high-quality, waterproof, and heat-resistant one will allow baristas to work efficiently and consistently, meaning that they can focus on providing better service. The scale will measure the ground coffee accurately, and should water splash onto it, the barista won’t have to rush for a towel. Instead, they can finish creating the customer’s drink, serve it with a smile, and then dry the scale off.
Measuring unground coffee beans before brewing espresso. Credit Neil Soque
From distribution and levelling tools that help ensure an evenly packed and tamped puck to automated tamping tools like the PuqPress, there is a wide range of tamping tools to choose from.
Simone tells me, “The leveller for sure is a tool that is important, because if you are not an expert barista, it helps you to tamp more evenly.” He points out that it improves consistency and is useful for trained and proficient baristas, as well as trainees.
As a roaster, he often provides coffee to specialty coffee shops. He tells me, “I have given [levellers] to three of my customers and they’ve got much better results… Because now they are better at tamping, and of course, now they are extracting the coffee better. This is something that I can tell you works.”
Automated tamping tools also ensure consistent, even tamping, but with the bonus of reduced physical effort. As a result, baristas are less likely to experience a repetitive strain injury and can continue working comfortably and safely for longer.
A barista uses a leveller and tamper to prepare espresso-based coffees at The Fix, Madrid. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
The Espresso Machine
It’s the most prominent piece of equipment in the coffee shop, often placed on the counter so the customer can see it. The espresso machine is a polished piece of art, but how much difference can it make to a barista’s workflow?
Simone gives me the example of the newly launched Dalla Corte Zero, which is capable of measuring and controlling water flow from the group showers in grams per second. He tells me that this allows baristas to modulate extraction, since they can control flow rate. In turn, this means a trained barista with an understanding of the relationship between flow rate and extraction can better control the quality and consistency of the espressos they’re pulling.
The Zero is not the only machine to offer flow rate control – the Mina does as well, for example. Yet Simone points out that on the Zero, baristas can regulate the flow rate from the digital screen. This allows them to do so quickly, meaning more of their attention can be focused on the customer or on steaming the milk.
Any machine where settings can be amended on a digital screen will reduce the amount of work needed from the barista, allowing them to respond quicker, have greater control, and also work on other tasks. Simone says, “[With a digital screen], if you want to change the temperature of your espresso, in just a very short time you can change it.”
The Dalla Corte Zero. Credit: Dalla Corte
Can High-Tech Machines Work Without Skilled Baristas?
From flashy coffee-making robots to automated pour over machines, there are increasingly more options on the market that promise to do away with the barista altogether.
I ask Simone if he thinks robots can replace baristas. He tells me that if we were just talking about making coffee, then yes. “A robot can make a very good espresso,” he says.
Yet he wouldn’t want to replace all baristas with machines. “This is my opinion, but as everyone knows, the barista’s job is not just a question of making a good espresso. Also, when I talk about my specialty coffee brand, it’s not just a question of selling a good product. It’s a question of giving an experience to the customer…
“Of course, there is a part that can be replaced by a robot, but another part comes from your intelligence, your brain, your experience. That will never be substituted by a robot.”
A robot cannot offer the same customer service as a human barista, nor can they currently show as much adaptability. From giving customers recommendations to troubleshooting issues, there is much that we still rely on human baristas to do.
Similarly, there is a huge difference between a trainee barista and a skilled one. Simone says, “The more skilled you are, the more you can play with the machine.”
He gives the example of controlling flow rate to alter a coffee’s profile in the cup. “In order to give a different result, in order to help if the roaster didn’t roast the coffee at the best, with a machine like the Zero you can rebuild the cup or help make the cup better. But you have to have good skills for tasting and to understand espresso extraction.”
So, in the barista vs machine debate, who wins? Both. The best option of all is to have a highly competent barista operating top-of-the-range machinery. Good machinery will make a barista’s job easier, while a skilled barista can take advantage of all the functions that the machine offers. In the pursuit of high-quality coffee and excellent customer service, both machines and baristas are essential.
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Feature photo: A Dalla Corte Zero.
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