The Barista Culture

Steve GSeptember 26th, 2007
By: Steve G

Merriam-Webster defines the barista as a person who makes and serves coffee (ala espresso) to the public. Though it is derived from the Italian word for bartender, the recent boom of the specialty coffee sector has transformed the title to be exclusively connected to the coffee industry.

While you make think of these people as an afterthought, the barista is the unsung hero of morning commuters and coffee enthusiasts. But what makes the Barista so special, they only brew coffee right? That answer is only partly right. Against popular belief, the creation of espresso is more than just pushing a bunch of preset buttons. It is so precise that any shortcoming at any point of the extraction can lead to horrible coffee. Have you ever order a latte that tasted extremely bitter and burnt? If the answer is yes that unpleasant result was all predicated on the skill of the barista.

At many specialty shops, new employees spend several days in training before the store lets them out to the rabid public. Being a skilled barista is more than simply following measurements and pulling a standardized shot. There’s more too it than that. Just because you have some really great recipes doesn’t guarantee that you can be a great chef. The barista has to apply concepts of art as well as science to get that perfect consistent shot. Combining the right set of tools and materials, the barista also needs a good feel of the process as well as an in-depth knowledge of espresso drinks. Not afraid of pushing the edge of the envelope, some baristas have expanded the aesthetic element of the industry.

Barista Art: Too pretty to drink?

thumb-etch.jpg

Example of Etching

Ever have a cup of coffee with some of the most elaborate designs that make it almost too beautiful to drink? Many baristas have evolved the method of creating coffee to an aesthetic quality. This technique is called Latte Art.

Lattes are the preferred drink to use for this art because of its good foam to milk ratio. There are two basic ways of creating art with coffee: free pour and etching. The free pour method manipulates the flow of milk into the cup. By using strategically angled pours in specific directions, the barista can manipulate the drink to creative some pretty imaginative designs. Most of the patterns made through the free pour are flowers, leaves, and hearts. Etching is the other method of Latte art. It utilizes a small tool and a variety of stencils, powers and syrups. Using the coffee as an ink well of sorts, the Barista can create intricate lines and patterns. Chocolate syrup is used in situations where they want darker, bolder lines. The best part about Latte art is that while it is beautiful to behold, the coffee is more often than not great to drink.

WBC: The World Barista Championship

With the new garnered skill of Baristas becoming very evident, competitions have formed to determine who is the best of the best. While every country has its regional and national barista competitions, there was still a lingering question: Who is the greatest in the world?

The Specialty Coffee Association of America and Europe decided that they needed an all encompassing event that would have baristas from around the world competing for that title, thus the World Barista Championship (WBC) was born. AS the WBC picked up speed, national champions from around the globe competed to claim the title of world’s greatest.

The competition is judged on efficiency, technical skills, as well as creativity. Sounds like an Olympic event huh? Well maybe that’s a little too extreme. The format of the competition requires competitors to serve coffee to four sensory judges. Each judge gets a single espresso, single cappuccino and a single specialty drink.

Along with the drinks being identical in quality and taste, the baristas are also given a stringent time limit to complete their drinks. Another judge will observe their routines from warm-up to shot extractions, noting technique, speed and cleanliness. Obviously, the judges are looking for the perfect barista in all aspects of the job, but the title of World’s greatest is not earned easily.

From Monte Carlo to Olso to Seattle, several cites have hosted the WBC, but the competition has been clearly dominated by one country. Denmark has a strong hold on the competition with four 1st place finishes in the competition’s 6 year existence. The last WBC was held in Tokyo with James Hoffman, native of the UK, being the 2007 winner.

Coffee cup at a cafe with barista in back.
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