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The Prism of the Barista

February 14, 2013

Barista - Part 1

I would like to write a small series of articles that focus more exclusively the role of the barista. Starting with :-

 The Prism of the Barista

Recently I have felt inclined to explain the role of the barista, as I see it.  Mine is a definition of the barista, a description of a coffee professional in speciality coffee who is preparing coffee with a culinary purpose, with flavour and provenance the point of interest.  The term itself means many other things to many people.   Over the next couple of posts I want to explore how I see the role in its different guises and forms, as well as how it may be perceived across the board.  Many of coffees’ stories are intertwined around the barista post.

Maybe what’s missing from many perceptions of the barista, as well as from many training structures, is that the role is among other things largely defined by creative direction.

Here is an important realisation: The individual brewing makes a taste choice.

Precise technical ability and theoretical understanding can and should embolden this creative direction, but the physical actions of preparing coffee are not the sole defining characteristics of the role.  The classic barista tussle with the variables in coffee is often misunderstood - the mistake lies amongst the perception that there is a set perfect recipe, and that therefore the baristas role is to oversee and battle to stick to said parameters.  This notion encompasses all sorts of problematic ideas, such as making sure espresso pours in a way that looks “right” or a crema that does not display blonding, or always to the same volume, the list goes on.  If taste is the goal then it is not repetition of the same actions that presents the challenge. The challenge is varying actions to achieve taste goals. This is not to be confused with not being precise and efficient, just a more fluid precision that is driven by taste, resulting in more consistency of the most positive qualities in the coffee being used.

A carefully grown and roasted coffee provides a barista with an ingredient, one with much potential, potential that changes in larger degrees as more time passes.  What the barista can achieve with the coffee is driven and dictated by the coffee, but the coffee does not by virtue of being itself determine a singular way in which it will be or should be viewed.  It is as if the coffee is being viewed by the drinker through the prism of the barista.   All viewer-ship is also defined by the prism of the water make-up and equipment.  From a barista point of view, there can often be more than one way, sometimes several ways of displaying and brewing the same coffee, all of which are equally valid.

The point is that all of a coffees potential can not be viewed in one cup, its this that often fascinates the brewer, its also information that rarely reaches the drinker. Our shop is a point in case.  You will order a coffee by name of origin and we will present you with one cup as a display of that coffees’ flavour.  The thing is, it is the coffee through us.  We have endeavoured to show you what we see as the best possible view of the cup, but it is a view.

It has been a very positive move, to make the focus of our offering about flavour and the coffees we have on offer. I am pleased to have moved away from some of the barista romanticism that embraces the brewing role solely, instead embracing flavours in the cup and the origins of that very flavour.  In doing this we have made the perception of the barista role one more akin to a sommelier.  It is only on further inquiry that customers take part in a dialogue that takes the barista role into account more specifically, looking at the effect it has.  We do feel that overall it is more important to place less emphasis on the prism of the brewer.

Sometimes we will have to make a choice between equally valuable ways of viewing one coffee.  This can be seen as restrictive or glorious.  Either way it is the nature of brewing coffee.  The same display of flavour may not even exist the next day from roast, I am not saying that a particular coffee will suddenly change its entire personality, it’s more like a change of dress.

More accurate logging of the recipes we use has many positive attributes but the numbers are markers for what we have tasted, they help log experiences and suggest what may work with a particular coffee and equipment, only a suggestion though.  Constant variation that stems for the complexities of a changing organic product will often chuck these numbers and parameters in our face. We will dial in first thing in the morning and feel confident that sticking to those recipes throughout the day will yield great results, with a couple of taste checks spaced throughout the day. At this point the tussle does then become the classic variable battle, of keeping on top of grinder changes - once the taste decisions have been made. Longer periods of time increase changes and new roasts of the same coffee can almost require a fresh start.  Sometimes recipes will hold true, sometimes not.

In our shop all baristas need to collectively communicate and read off of the same creative taste page.  Firstly because otherwise the prism of viewing will be too distinctly different depending on who’s on shift which isn’t good for anyone, secondly because the only way to solve taste problems* with coffee is to take part in altering brewing parameters as things change.

I sympathise with an eagerness to find ways of making desirable displays of a given coffee more accessible and readily achievable.   Displaying and suggesting recipes is a part of this. It is a positive goal, unfortunately for shop owners or managers and customers, as well as roasters and growers, its not that simple.  The role of the barista requires taste training with theory and numbers as a tool kit for achieving optimum results in the cups that are brewed.  The brewer plays a huge role.

The café barista who aims to knock out a consistent cup of the house blend also has to take part in creative direction to achieve that very goal.  In the next post I would like to look at the different realities of the barista role, specialist and not, attempting to observe that which pervades across all notions as well as that which is different, taking a look at the wider industry prism through which the barista role is performed

*Here I am differentiating between the taste problems that occur with superb raw ingredients as opposed to a problem with poor raw ingredients.  In fact it is the dilemma of many a barista, more so when starting out - “Are the taste problems me? Or are they the coffee? Or the processes etc?”  A coffees’ quality is relative to all that is employed in its preparation, including taste diagnosis.  A great coffee can taste awful.


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