Barista is a gender-neutral Italian word for a skilled bartender. Classically, European baristi (the Italian plural) are skilled at coffee and alcohol cocktail preparation. As coffee houses have continued to spring up at incredible rates all around the world, the barista acts primarily as an expert in the preparation of espresso and espresso-based drinks.
Because of the tiny amounts of coffee and water involved, as well as the short amount of time required to “pull” a shot of espresso, making the perfect “shot” of espresso is something of a tightrope walk. The barista must adjust the sharpened blades of a grinder to cut the beans into just the right consistency so that extraction is even and the flavor and body are just right. The potential for extremely bitter or astringent shots is great, but the truly balanced shot is a sublime delight to be savored. Baristi can train and compete professionally, but most acquire their skills gradually, on the job.
A great barista will also be able to handle milk masterfully. In the creation of cappuccinos and lattes, milk is steamed and aerated until it is silky and sweet. An uneven hand at steaming can produce bubbly, unpleasant milk. Bringing the milk to too high a temperature (a mistake that can be made by steaming even a second too long) will ruin the texture through scalding. Even the way the milk is poured into the espresso has an effect on the texture and flavor of these two integrated components.
The range of any one barista’s skill sets has a great breadth, depending on personal experience and training habits, but these are the most central requirements for a great barista. With time, a barista will learn facets of roasting and equipment maintenance. Many go on to open coffee shops of their own. In addition to these technical skills, a great barista possesses the ineffable quality of great hosting. Many of these workers become beloved neighborhood figures, providing an important daily service for their neighbors, and by being a friendly face to all who frequent their shops. As coffee culture continues to evolve, you can be sure that the barista will evolve with it, taking the classic applications of Italian coffee culture into the modern realm. A great barista is the result of years of practice and intense experience. His or her trade is of great value to his employers and to his community. For many of us, we could never taste great coffee without them, and all coffee lovers are grateful.