What is it like to be a Barista? Hot Coffee and Cool People
Being the owner of a coffee company, I can tell you, being a Barista is a fun job.
"Baristas are like morning bartenders...we get to hear people’s morning anxieties and victories, and get the chance to start people’s day on a good note." Logan Cullen, Musician, Artist, Nail Tech @logan5nails - Lead Barista at Weaver's Coffee & Tea, 2301 Market Street, San Francisco, CA
"Obviously you need to be an early riser, you'll probably drink a lot of coffee, and your brain will be going a hundred miles an hour, but once you know the drinks and the customers, it's a lot of fun!" - Jono Painting, studied at the University of Canberra on Quora
"There’s nothing like putting a cup of delicious coffee in someone’s hands. I loved that part of being a barista. I love that part of making coffee and espresso for family and friends. The secret ingredient in all great food, I would contend, is love…and passion." - Matthew Hundley Matthew Hundley, Writer, Musician, Artist, Theologian on Quora
When you go to Quora and you type in, “What is it like to be a Barista?”, you’ll see answers like these. You’ll also see answers that are negative, pointing out that it’s hard work, the pay can be low, and there aren’t a lot of built-in career choices.
A coffee shop barista is very creative and making the most of barista life requires passion, commitment, and inventiveness.
Vincent Distrola - General Manager Weaver's Coffee & Tea, 2301 Market Street, San Francisco, CA
Artist, Sculptor, Musician, Student, Master Coffee Barista & Trainer
If you’re looking for a life where you can be an artist and still pull down a regular paycheck, this is the job. If you want to meet lots of cool people and have a social life, this is the job. If you’re as interested in learning something new every day, and having fun as you are in paying rent, coffee shop barista is the job.
When you look at the life of baristas, it shows that the people who do it, the ones who do it as more than a pass-through job, have found something to love, something that affects their soul.
Definition of barista
ba·ris·ta | \ bə-ˈrē-stə , bä-ˈrē-stä\
Definition of barista
: a person who makes and serves coffee (such as espresso) to the public
Merriam-Webster Dictionary – August 9, 2019
A barista is someone who makes coffee for the public, per the simple dictionary definition. In practice, a barista is someone who has turned coffee into a passion. They tend to want to learn about different coffee roasts and coffees from different regions of the world. They spend time creating new coffee recipes or studying the art of foaming milk, and making latte art.
Baristas are ambassadors who help customers explore the pleasures of coffee the same way a sommelier guides people through wine. They are loved by their customers and spend a lot of time making the public very happy.
Alex Alvarez - Lead Barista, Weaver's Coffee & Tea 40 Louise Street, San Rafael, CA
Barista, Father, Master Coffee Barista & Trainer
Hundreds of millions of people make coffee for themselves every day, so they may feel a barista doesn’t really do anything difficult. However, ask a Barista and they will tell you, that if you embrace the job, coffee, espresso, cold brew, nitro cold brew, and certain coffee drinks, they the art of being a Barista is just as complex, interesting, and awesome as employees who embrace the businesses of wine, whiskey, or any other drink or food product.
Serving Coffee is Food Service, But…
Being a barista is food service, like being a cook or a chef. The big difference, of course, is that you’re serving liquid food. There are some things that you need to know, like food safety, etc., but that’s where that comparison can stop.
The biggest similarity is that if you’re a barista who takes the job seriously, you can become a master at creating drinks. Coffee is a complex product and the addition of other ingredients, like milk, syrups, and lots of techniques make a Master Barista.
Becoming a Master Coffee Barista
Becoming a Master Barista takes time and study. Often, the best baristas learn on their own time to create amazing drinks.
Around the country, there are schools that offer training for baristas.
As another resource, many coffee roasters will train baristas. For example, at Weaver’s Coffee & Tea, we have our own in-house Master Baristas who offer training, hints, and insider tips for other baristas.
Alex Alvarez, Weaver's Coffee & Tea
The La Marzocco Espresso Machine: The Coffee Barista’s Best Friend
The espresso machine is the heart of all coffee houses. We only work with La Marzocco Espresso Machines, usually installing a Strada Espresso Machine in our cafes.
The espresso machine contains a tank that heats water to boiling, creating immense pressure. The steam is then pushed through finely ground, tightly packed coffee to create espresso. The coffee has been dark roasted and ground to a fine powder.
Traditionally, the coffee is ground by hand for each customer. Electric grinders are now the norm, but the beans are still ground to order on our La Marzocco Grinder.
The ground coffee is loaded into the portafilter (portable filter). The filter is locked onto the espresso machine and the steam is forced through it. This creates a distinctive and complex drink known as espresso. Note the thick crema on our espresso shot.
Definition of crema
\ ˈkre-mə \
Definition of crema
1: a layer of creamy tan froth that forms on the top of freshly made espresso What the head is to the beer lover, the foam called crema is to the espresso aficionado. … The crema is produced as the water is pushed through and past the close-packed grains of coffee, although how that happens is not fully understood.— Sidney Perkowitz, Universal Foam, 2000
The barista goes beyond that one espresso shot, using double espresso shots to make lattes, mochas, and many more espresso drinks.
Attached to the espresso machine is the steam wand, a tube that allows steam to be let out of the machine. It’s this steam pushed through the wand that steams milk for lattes, mochas, and cappuccinos.
Learning about Coffee
While, for many people, coffee is coffee, however, we know it's far more multifaceted than that simple statement.
Coffee trees grow in equatorial climates all over the world, from Africa, where coffee originated, to South America, where coffee has become one of the most important crops, to Southeast Asia, where some of the world’s most interesting coffees grow.
Coffee trees typically like volcanic soil or sandy loam that is very fertile. While coffee will grow in many types of soils, the richer the volcanic soil, the better the coffee.
Learning the subtle flavor profiles and differences between coffees from around the world, and even from plantations that are miles apart, is one of the skills that a Master Barista learns. Again, just like a sommelier can tell the difference between a chardonnay from California and Oregon, a great barista can tell the difference between coffee from Columbia and Brazil.
Coffee Barista Salary
Barista’s salaries are typically minimum wage or slightly above. The average annual barista salary is between $19,000 and $29,000 per year. This figure often includes gratuities.
Tips as a Coffee Barista
Similar to food servers, baristas rely on tips, or gratuities, to make their real money.
The key to making a living as a barista is understanding that happy customers will give you a tip. This means that great service is the best way to make a good living as a barista.
The best part about tips is that it gives you an opportunity to control your income. If you can supplement your income by 25% with tips, you’ll find that there’s a lot more that you can do with your life and your future.
Some hints to making tips as a Coffee Barista
Here are some of the suggestions that baristas have shared that helped them to make more money:
- Smile - This is the simplest suggestion, but the one that many people in customer service forget. Smile when you speak to someone, hand them their drinks, or even have a polite conversation.
- Tone - As important as smiling is the tone of your voice. Be sure when you speak to anyone that your tone is pleasant and engaged. Too often, baristas sound bored and like they don’t care as they speak to someone. Care about your job and the people who are coming to you.
- Upsell - So often, baristas are simply order-takers. A customer will walk up and order a beverage. The barista nods takes their money and makes their drink. If you add an extra shot of espresso to a beverage, you can charge more. The more someone spends, the more likely they are to tip. Also, the higher the profits for the business. This increases the likelihood that you can get a raise.
- Style - The fancier you are, the more likely you are to get a tip. Everyone likes getting something that feels like it was made just for them. That’s why the big coffee chains have started using people’s names a part of every order. Hearing your name called feels great. More than that, make your customers feel special simply by taking the time to talk to them. If you get a break, go around and ask everyone how their drink is and how their day is going.
Social Life - At Work and Beyond
Customers - Baristas usually love what they do because they love people. It might not be the best-paid job on the planet, but the customers and co-workers can make it great.
Work Life - Your regular customers will become friends. You can count on them to have a kind word or to leave you a decent tip. Those people who stop by every day are one of the main reasons that baristas love what they do.
Names - Learn your customer's names and favorite drinks as fast as you can. This will let you start building a group of friends and customers that you can count on to tip well and be a steady source of income.
Finish Early - Baristas work early mornings. Usually, a barista is at work around 6 am or even earlier to be ready for the morning rush. This also means that baristas have the night off. They can go out, hang out with friends, or attend night school.
A little caveat: Many, many baristas have been fired for not showing up or showing up in no condition to work after a long night of partying. Plan work first and fun second or you’ll be looking for a new place to pull coffees.
Chain Coffee Shop vs. the Little Guy Coffee Shop
There is always a raging debate between working with a national chain or working with a small, locally-owned coffeehouse and each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Chain Coffee Shop - The big chains, like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, offer benefits, which can be a huge positive. Medical, dental, retirement plans and more are available through the large coffee shop chains.
Local Coffee Shop - There might not be as many financial benefits to working for a local coffee shop, but there are usually some great perks. Working at a local shop, you’re more likely to have a laid back environment where customers will hang out for hours and become good friends. You are also more likely to be allowed to try new things and innovate in a local coffee house versus the big chains where recipes are handed down from the corporate offices.
Cole Baumeister, Barista - Colton DeMarr, Barista learning latte art
Should you work for a chain or a local coffee shop?
This is a decision that you need to make based on your needs and your position in life. If you’re younger, on your parents’ insurance, and don’t need a retirement plan yet, you can choose either option. If you’re a bit older or considering being a barista as a career, the coffee shop chains might be a great place to get started with retirement accounts and insurance.
Either way, it’s still fun and exciting.
Barista Careers beyond the Espresso Machine
Once you’ve gotten your barista skills down there are a number of ways to move your career forward.
- Own your own coffee cart - There’s a lot of money to be made, even with a small cart in front of the right office building. A coffee cart business can be started for as little as $8,000. There are some legal restrictions and you need to make sure you choose your location wisely, but you can make money.
- Own your own coffee shop - The start-up costs for a coffee shops will be much higher, but it’s a 365 day-a-year business that can allow you to expand to making lunches or even having live entertainment. In most cases, the success of a coffee shop is location, location, location. Make sure that you have easy in and out parking.
- Write a book - Yes, books about the coffee sell. With great photos and some awesome text, you can make some extra money teaching people about coffee and espresso drinks.
- Start a school - You can teach other baristas by starting a training school If you marry this training with food safety training, there’s a good chance you can even get companies to sponsor your students.
- Start a blog - There’s money to be made on a blog that speaks every day or so about coffee. You can write about what you’ve seen, what you’ve done, and your favorite coffees. You can even expense your travels if you keep track of your receipts and you use travel for the blog.
- Coffee roaster - Working as a barista for a coffee roaster can be rewarding. Get to give input on new roasts, create new drinks, and design drinkable works of art that end up on websites, in catalogs, and on social media. Every coffee roaster needs a great barista and that can be you.
Life Skills Learned as a Coffee Barista
The final important point about being a barista is that you’ll learn life skills. No, not just the ability to make great coffee drinks, but the ability to talk and engage with people, to sell things, and to get along as a team. Learning to handle pressure, place food orders, and manage money are all part of the skills that having a job as a barista can teach.
No matter where you are in life, as your first job or your last job or somewhere in between, being a barista is a fun, challenging job that will put some food on the table and let you enjoy every day at work!