For many, the mention of the term barista conjures up a familiar image of that person behind the counter at a Starbucks who prepares the various espresso drinks including lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, and such.
And there are some who have a problem classifying the folks at Starbucks as baristas, reserving the distinction of barista for a more skillful and prestigious calling.
In the general and literal sense, a barista is someone who has achieved some level of skill in the preparation of espresso drinks. The operative qualifier is “some level” of skill. And in fairness to the hard working folks at Starbucks, I think it’s more than reasonable to refer to the partners behind the counter as baristas (see Starbucks Barista Bashing). And if you’re interested in the most literal definition of the term barista (plural), the word derives from the Italian baristi (masculine) and bariste (feminine) meaning bartender.
But for those of us that pursue a passion for a more extreme coffee experience, the notion of a barista takes on a broader meaning and more honorable distinction.
For me, I’m humbled and inspired by the barista professional who is highly trained and practiced in the skill of espresso and coffee preparation. To achieve barista greatness requires a depth of knowledge, technique and skill that covers many aspects of coffee preparation including coffee beans and origins, espresso equipment, grinding beans, blending beans, developing a sophisticated tasting palette for coffee, coffee roast levels, latte art, and more.
In the same sense that we recognize and acknowledge great chefs in the creative and artistic achievement of extraordinary food preparation, a barista at the top of the game is worthy of outstanding and uncommon achievement.
In fact, it may come as a surprise to some that there are baristas that actually achieve celebrity for their talents and accomplishments.
With the level of skill, training and creativity necessary to achieve barista greatness, it’s no surprise that this is a highly competitive domain. In fact, there are barista contests and championships at many levels including regional, national and of course, the ultimate distinction of world barista champion.
To get a sense of what these baristas are about, let’s explore the world of the barista for a moment.
James Hoffmann, of the UK, is the current reigning World Barista Champion. Have a look at the following interview by Sarah Allen of Barista Magazine conducted at the last Nordic Barista Cup. As with many people who are really good at what they do, James Hoffmann exhibits a humility that underplays his achievements.
James Hoffmann, current 2007 World Barista Champion, interviewed by Sarah Allen of Barista Magazine at the 2007 Nordic Barista Cup.
Here’s a fun barista documentary. A behind-the-scenes look at a recent barista competition in the Northwest US. Interviews with Kyle Larson of Stumptown Roasters, Dan and Kyle, a couple of baristas from Victrola Coffee Roasters in Seattle, and Jen Prince of Zoka Roasters in Seattle (now that’s the kind of passion I’m talking about).
Incidentally, the note on Youtube says the producers of this documentary would be interested in some small-time investors to help finish the film. With over 20,000 views on Youtube, maybe they have a hit in its current unfinished state … see, this stuff actually does create a little buzz, and it’s not just the caffeine.
Behind the scenes look at the world of the barista – short documentary.
And of course, we can’t forget the Latte Art
I’ve always been fascinated by the special talents of the barista who can produce Latte art, those marvelous patterns out of swirls a-top the milk foam in a latte.
Now, we were always taught not to play with our food, or blow bubbles in our milk, but latte art takes it to another level. Think of this as the creative and artistic expression when the dessert chef arranges an attractive display on your plate out of chocolate swirls and such (and that’s playing with your food in my book).
Latte art talent also involves the one-handed approach without a lot of fuss and and re-attempts to push the pattern into submission. Hey, these guys make it look easy, but it’s harder than it looks ….
A barista from Greece demonstrates Latte Art – The Classic Rosetta
And here’s a latte art twist that adds a dimension to the design with a little chocolate sauce. Now some barista purists will argue that adding the chocolate sauce and arranging the swirl patterns with the aid of a pointed tool is a little bit of cheating. But give me a break – this very creative and impressive to say the least. Notice the use of the milk thermometer as a drawing stylus in this artistic application.
So visit a espresso cafe in your area, or better yet, see if you can track down a barista competition. It’s great fun, and the coffee can truly be amazing.