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What special knowledge, training or qualifications do baristas receive that make them more expert on coffee than any other front line food service worker or interested home coffee consumer? I don't mean simply operating the machine, but the why's and science that contribute to better coffee. How do they get this knowledge? Is there an industry standard certification or qualification that demonstrates them?

Bottom line: I would like to know how the knowledge base of baristas is deeper than simply operating the machine, if in fact it is.

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It's not a licensed profession (like doctor or lawyer), so there isn't an official standard. Training is going to depend on the employer (and of course, you could just call yourself a barista without actually being employed to make coffee)... so I don't see how this can be answered. –  derobert Aug 27 '13 at 22:18
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Plenty of non-licensed professions have formal industry standards; we IT people abound with them. There are state standards in many states for food service sanitation. Even lacking formal standards, there is often an expected body of knowledge that goes with the job. I would like to know how the knowledge base of barista's is deeper than simply operating the machine, if in fact it is. –  SAJ14SAJ Aug 27 '13 at 22:23
    
FWIW, about a decade ago, I was a barista (for about 4 months). I had my state food-handler's card, and received enough on-the-job training to operate the espresso machine and cash register. I didn't even like to drink coffee for another 6 years or so. –  KatieK Aug 27 '13 at 23:05

3 Answers 3

What you're asking is no different than: what special knowledge or certification/license do bakers have other than operating the oven? Many people know how to work the oven, but can they bake an artisan loaf? Do they even know the different kinds of bread?

The same answer applies to baristas. Some chains like *bucks have their own training program. Specialty shops chase baristas like the Neapolitan pizza parlors chase pizzaioli.

The special skill? Besides the latte art which seems more of a North American thing, it is very difficult to pull a great espresso shot and choose good beans. I personally have been pulling shots on a pro machine daily for 7-years and still take my hat off when I meet a good barista. What you get from one of those Nesspresso or other superautomatics is the equivalent to microwave dinner lasagna vs Mario Batali's.

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microwave lasagna? Ick. You should get the ones that you reheat in a toaster oven. Those are much better. –  Joe Aug 28 '13 at 15:25
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Baking is a perfect example. While someone at a chain bakery may be a "baker" and only brown the crust of premade bread, a "baker" at an artisan shop will probably have a much deeper knowledge of the whole baking process, specialty topics, etc. The same applies to a "barista". Someone at a national chain probably just knows how to operate their machines and make their drinks, but someone at a higher end shop will know more about roasting, sourcing, milk temperatures, extraction, different brewing methods, etc. –  sourd'oh Aug 28 '13 at 16:20

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.
  • Coffee:
    • 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."


Sources:

I am a barista in a cafe in Eastern Canada.

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A Barista is someone whom has passed a recognised barista course, these are somewhat country dependent

They would have to have probably made a 100 frothed milks, and 100's of coffee pulls to pass

Latte art (which is very global) is a 'nice to have', but only a tidy finish would normally be required

Bean roasting/selection is not a commonly a barista skill, as that is selected by the owner of the establishment

Baristas in Country Recognised Educational Institutes

NZ - AUT Barista Course

AU - TAFE NSW

UK - Beverage Standards Association

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I imagine there are a lot of baristas, especially in smaller coffee shops, who are a bit more involved in things like roasting. And the courses are completely country dependent - I doubt many countries have such a standardized thing. –  Jefromi Aug 28 '13 at 14:40
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At least in the US, I can attest that while some people may be offering "barista certifications" for profit, it's definitely not any kind of industry standard. –  sourd'oh Aug 28 '13 at 16:18
    
And do note that the course you looked to, while offered by a university and described as "evidence of education that prospective or current employers are looking for" is by no means any sort of standardized training. I wouldn't be surprised if there are tons of baristas in NZ who've never taken a recognized barista course. –  Jefromi Aug 28 '13 at 17:42
    
@Jefromi why the -ve. Just because your country doesn't do recognised qualifications, it doesn't mean the rest of the world is haphazard. The US is not a shiny example of good coffee, maybe they could do with a real barista qualification. If you have travelled the world a bit you may have noticed that AU and NZ are coffee snob's –  TFD Aug 29 '13 at 9:19
    
@sourd'oh Sorry, the USA is not indicative of the rest of the world –  TFD Aug 29 '13 at 9:29

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