The job scope a barista can depend on the country that they are in.
In Italy, a barista is someone that not only can make great coffee and lattes, but can usually also tend a full bar.
In North America it's a bit of a different story. The barista's skill set will depend on the type of cafe they work in. Certain companies may require them to pass a small course that is unique to their company. This is true of large cafe chains such as Starbucks and Second Cup. These courses teach a lot of theory thus most barista skills are learned practically, on the job. For smaller chains or independent cafes, there is usually an absence of training course materials and all skills will be learned practically, on the job.
Although there is no officially defined industry standard, a barista must be able to do certain things to be considered competent or qualified to work in the industry.
Practical skill sets:
- Ability to make quality espresso:
- Tamping pressure
- Extraction time
- Grind size and how it relates to factors such as humidity, temperature, etc.
- Ability to operate espresso machine and monitor boiler and dispensing pressures.
- Ability to steam milk:
- Making microfoam
- Steaming to the proper temperature
- Altering foam for drinks (lattes vs cappuccinos) and customer preference
- Steaming different types of milk (Skim, 2%, whole, soy, lactose free, etc)
- Artisan skills:
- Ability to make drinks in a well presented manner
- Latte art via pouring or drawing
- Toppings such as whipped cream, syrups, etc.
- Ability to grind coffee and brew it
- Ability to recognize differences in aroma, body, flavour, etc in different coffees.
Theoretical Skill Sets:
- Understanding the coffee production process, from growth all the way to the cup you serve to your customer.
- Understanding characteristics in different types of coffee
- Knowledge of the roasting process, roast type, caffeine, and Swiss Water Decaffeination
- Knowledge of Fair Trade, fairly traded, and Rain Forest Alliance coffee.
- Knowledge of characteristics specific to coffees grown in certain regions (ie which regions produce naturally less acidic coffee?)
- Understanding customers and personality types.
- Learning how to provide your customer with the product that they will like.
- Understanding all the factors at every point in the coffee making process and how they will affect the final product, which is the beverage that is served.
The list goes on and on.
The level to which you may need to know these things can depend on the type of cafe you work in, and where you work in the world.
So in short, yes, there are many many many many skills that a barista must know other than a regular food service worker. It is never as simple as knowing how to operate a machine. Some of the skills that I listed can take over a year to get good at.
The attitude of most cafe managers I have met is the following: "I can train anyone to make a great cup of coffee if they don't have barista skills, but I can't train people to be good with customers if they don't have interpersonal skills."
I am a barista in a cafe in Eastern Canada.