Barista as a profession?

So,…I’ve been thinking,….

If, like me, you pay attention to all the online chatter, the various coffee podcasts and all the hype surrounding competitions, you’re probably aware of the clear message trying to promote the barista craft, with many attempting to get it a respect equal to that of a chef or a sommelier (depending who you talk to). We all want better pay for barista’s and also for more communication between the growers and the brewers. Read any issue of baristamagazine to see examples of this.

While I would be the first to preach the importance the barista plays in the chain of seed to cup, I don’t however know how much I’d recognise it as a full blown profession. For me a ‘profession’ suggests something a person could happily do all their life, but do we really think many barista’s out there still want to be barista’s in ten years time?……….. I’m not so sure.

I understand this depends greatly on how we define a barista and whether their skills can be compared to that of a chef or rather a technician instead. And yes, if we define it as incorporating roasting, cupping and engineering skills, then I suppose such a job would prove a sustainable source of interest for many years.

Sadly, very few barista’s are exposed to these avenues in coffee. Even for those that do, and who want to learn more and develop, they’ll usually find themselves experimenting with roasting and cupping extensively, so much so that they spend less and less time behind the bar. So if they’re not working behind the bar, are they still a barista? Have they surpassed that level as a professional in the coffee industry? Can we then look at a barista as an entry point into the world of coffee? Or should it be held in high esteem as the role of the true coffee professional?

I find it hard to imagine a place in today’s speciality coffee society for the professional barista of 30 years experience. The general absence of roasting gear and pricey new brewing equipment, in the majority of the world’s cafes’. would suggest there is only so far a professional barista can develop in that limited environment.

Vancouver is known for its higher number of quality focused cafe’s and while here I’ve met many working baristas who’ve been exposed to the latest technologies, roasteries, and indeed some of the world’s best coffee’s available. But this is not the norm, and even if it were, I would question still whether these baristas would be content in their current roles 10 years down the line.

If the WBC continues with its message and gradually raises the bar for specialty coffee around the globe, I’m sure we will see standards improve in all our cities. But do we really expect each city to have cafe’s capable of feeding the knowledge hungry barista?

It is almost a case that as we try to educate and inspire barista’s, they will only want to move beyond the role. I’m just wondering lately whether its too much of a romantic notion to idolise the barista as much as we do in the industry.



13 thoughts on “Barista as a profession?

  1. Billy Wilson recently wrote a very similar article for Fresh Cup, in the 9 bars section.

    It is a very valid point. The career barista is laudable but unlikely.

  2. Career barista…. you’ve got my attention and support to push for this. Curently I’m learning the ropes; the deeper I get into coffee and hte fine art of a good cup the more I crave a career as a barista. I liken myself currently to an artist, each cup is a exquisit piece of art to be enjoyed. Viva La Barista!

  3. Excellent post and very valid. Part of the reason should be obvious, a chef is the sole artist in the creation of food, and the art he/she produces are far more varied than the art of a barista.
    In coffee you have two artists, a roaster and a barista, and also the growers play a FAR more important part in the quality of the end product.

    So a career coffee professional is probably as plausible as a career chef, but a barista is somewhat limited

  4. you know steph, I was just asking myself and you for that fact where and what is the next step for me, there’s bound to be a peak at one level and then a push to the next phase. Perhaps ownership, or consulting…but then again if the pay was competitive and kept up with my “needs” and some of my “wants”…I may stick to it. dunno, but well written stuff Irishman.

  5. Hi Stephen Hope you are having fun out there. will catch up when you get back.
    Yes you can be a barista in your later years!!! I saw an even older barista than me working flat out in the market in the Ramblas in Barcelona he must have been 70 and was producing astonishing lattes at speeds you’d be proud of. In terms of recognition a sommelier is comparable but a chef must work with a much greater number of ingredients so his skills may be percieved to be much greater. Slán

  6. sommelier is more akin to barista than chef. i would say if specialty coffee continues apace–what with $50/lb green beans and all–the role of the barista will become as vaunted as that of the sommelier. more so, since all the sommelier does is uncork and serve what everyone else has already done. the barista still has to “make” the beverage.

  7. It’s the coffee industry as a whole a Barista can create a profession. You must be passionate and the deep appreciation has to be present. The Barista is the launch off point. It’s a skilled trade you must work thru all the layers to achieve profession “on the job”. In America it’s not respected as it should be. As a professional it has created much difficulty for me to find skilled workers that respect the bean when there communities see it as just a “temporary job”. Barista in my part of America make 20,000.00 a year if you’re good. In Italy it’s a profession.

  8. As others have already said, very good points raised in this article.

    I think the main issue is where you set the bar. Currently our society is not ready to accept the notion of a career barista, however, that doesn’t mean someone with a passion for coffee couldn’t find room to grow after 10 years. I guess you set your own limits. I’m sure even after 10 years of making coffee only the most conceited baristas would claim they can make a perfect cup every time. There is always room for improvement. Whether or not you want to do that is a separate issue.

    Take Japanese sword smiths as an example, they apprentice for decades doing the same basic actions over and over because there is always room for improvement and they have a very high bar to reach. Coffee could develop along these same lines, but not before society is willing to support it.

  9. I think before a “Barista” could become a profession – the industry has a lot more to do to prove to 90% of the consumers that espresso is more that just strong coffee made with fancy equipment. Bartenders serve more drink varieties than baristas, and have not managed to make a “profession” out of bartending. Sometimes I think baristas get overinflated egos and need to loosen the berkenstocks a little bit to increase blood flow. It is coffee for crying out loud – good coffee – but I highly doubt you are going to see a bachelors or masters in coffee grinding offered by any college soon.

    We own two (successful) cafe’s with espresso bars, and have come to the conclusion that while we can all agree there is a science to developing and roasting a good coffee bean, there is no rocket science in being a barista.

    Some of the hype created about the critical timing between grinding and serving is for the most part a bunch of malarkey.

    After being challenged by one of our newly hired experience baristas that we were serving “bad” drinks by using 1 hour old doses, we had that barista conduct several blind taste tests using high end freshly roasted coffees, with grinds that sat for 3-4 days (way past the 15-30 seconds that our barista will claim the coffee degrades in after grinding). Using the same exact grind and coffee, we prepared Lattes from 20 second old doses, 1 day old doses, and 3 day old doses. Not a single tester out of 40 people could tell which one was the 20 second dose, and in fact, 6 picked the 3 day old dose as having a better taste, the rest claimed that there was no real difference in taste between the 3 prepared drinks.

    Our “professional” barista quit the next day claiming that 40 of our customers “just don’t know what good coffee is”. I think is was more that the “professional” barista could not prove the “science” behind his claims.

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