There are many ways to get into the coffee profession, from roaster to coffee journalist (yes, that exists!) to green coffee buyer. But probably the most common is becoming a barista.
Of course, there was a time when getting a job in coffee was as easy as walking into a cafe, dropping off a resume, and giving a good smile. Oh how times have changed! Being a barista is no longer the thing you just do to get your way through college; it's a respected, full-time profession with passionate, smart, dedicated people.
As Anne Nylander from the Specialty Coffee Association of America pointed out in an article in the SCAA's Specialty Coffee Chronicle, "The term 'professional barista' simply did not exist in coffee 30 years ago. This role in the industry was built in no small part by large coffee retailers who brought the professional barista to the masses, and baristas now grace our cafes on a daily basis."
Which means that if you want to be a barista, you're going to have to do a little more than know how to brew a French press.
How do you become a barista?
Baristas get to where they are through a variety of channels. Some start in a coffee shop with no certification, and others start with a course. There are numerous barista certification programs out there, and nowadays, many of the larger specialty coffee companies even run their own courses, like Counter Culture.
Do baristas go through training programs first? Or do they start serving coffee somewhere and then do a certification program?
People do both! Taking brewing classes shows initiative to a prospective employer, but generally most people land their first coffee job before they're really proficient on a commercial espresso machine. Typically, someone with no bar experience would start by working the register or expediting, and train until they're consistently and efficiently making quality drinks. That's the best-case scenario, at least. In a good coffee shop, even experienced baristas need to pass a certification or prove they can make drinks to a certain standard before they get bar shifts.
What can people expect to cover in a barista certification program?
They definitely vary, but in my opinion all should evaluate a barista's ability to "dial in" a coffee (make grind, recipe, and other adjustments so that coffee tastes great brewed under pressure at a high coffee-to-water ratio), properly heat and texturize milk, prepare quality drinks consistently and quickly without excess ingredient waste, maintain a clean and efficient station, explain the coffee menu, make recommendations, and otherwise interact with guests.
What makes a good barista?
A love for coffee and a decent palate, because a barista needs to taste the coffee and adjust brewing recipes as required. The ability to focus on making great drinks quickly and the capacity to spend hours on their feet without showing strain. Also, the usual suspects that contribute to a successful career — work ethic, attention to detail, communication skills, and professionalism.
If you had to pick three essential qualities that baristas have to have, what would they be?
Passion for coffee, great people skills, and attention to detail.
What tends to be the most difficult part of a barista certification course?
Making espresso is an art and a science, and a barista needs to understand the volatility of their ingredients. The best analogy I can think of is baking bread — with practice, a baker's instincts tell her when to add a little more flour or water to the dough and how to know when a loaf is fully cooked. A barista needs to understand the variables that affect espresso, pay close attention to how the shot looks and tastes, and make adjustments and modifications as they go.
Besides Counter Culture, are there any other great barista certification programs out there?
The Barista Guild is a national organization under the umbrella of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and they offer a variety of classes and certifications for coffee professionals.