The Art of the Barista San Diego Coffee Culture

The Art of Being an Expert Barista

You’ve probably been to a cocktail bar and been served by one of those incredibly skilled bartenders — the people who can simultaneously mix great drinks and put on a performance. But did you know that it’s not just bartenders who do this? Baristas, the artisans of the espresso machine, do the same, in little-known competitions called throwdowns. In fact, we have a Thursday Throwdown every week here in San Diego, where baristas from across the city display their well-honed abilities.

Achilles-Coffee-Roasters-San-Diego-1Barista Fundamentals

There’s one ability that ranks above all others: making a good espresso. As espresso shots form the basis of all your lattes, cappuccinos, and many other drinks, so it’s crucial to be able to get it right, every time. A good barista knows pressure to tamp the espresso grounds in the portafilter, the correct amount of water, temperature and time to pull the espresso shot.

The World Barista Championship

So if the espresso is the foundation that all baristas need to know, then what skills does it take to make it at the top level? Well, competitors at the World Barista Championship, now in its 17th year, are tasked with preparing four espressos, four milk drinks, and four original signature drinks, in a 15-minute performance set to music. These baristas are then judged on five criteria:

Taste
Cleanliness
Creativity
Technical skill
Overall presentation

This competition format allows baristas to demonstrate both their ability to flawlessly execute the fundamentals, but also their knowledge and innovation in creating new and unique coffee drinks. Berg Wu, the 2016 World Champion, created a drink with an orange and honey reduction, Earl Grey tea and espresso, before infusing it with mandarin essential oil through an aromatizer. It remains to be seen if anyone can top this at the 2017 World Championships this November in Seoul, Korea.

Latte Art

The most visible skill on display is the latte art. If you’ve ever been served your coffee, looked into your micro-foam and seen a heart, a rosette, or a tulip, then you’ve seen latte art.

These simple designs are known as Free Hand Pours, where the barista uses only their steady hand and trusty milk pitcher. In the World Latte Art Championships, however, things get more creative, as competitors are also judged on a Designer Pour, for which they are permitted to use a stylus and textured milk to draw with.

In the World Championships, these pours are judged on their symmetry, creativity, visual appeal, and difficulty. If that reminds you of olympic sports like gymnastics or ice-skating, then you’re exactly right — and like these athletes, latte artists are also judged on their professionalism, ability, and stage presence.

4 Things a Good Barista Pays Attention To

Espresso

Achilles-Coffee-Roasters-San-Diego-EspressoDoes the barista watch it the whole time?
Espresso is a temperamental thing. Even the most seasoned of baristas will tell you that there is really no way to guarantee that each and every shot is perfect. A number of continuously changing factors can alter the quality of the pull of the shot- the temperature of the machine, the humidity in the shop that day, or simply the ghost in the espresso machine! A good barista knows this, and will stay near the espresso machine while the shot pulls to ensure that it looks like a quality shot.

Milk steaming

Starbucks and other mass chains have popularized the practice of “auto-steaming”-putting the steam wand in the milk and walking away- in the name of efficiency and speed. It may work for turning out lattes as quickly as possible during an eight a.m. rush, but it certainly shouldn’t be happening if your coffee is being made by a barista who knows their stuff and has the time and desire to make a really good latte or cappuccino. A barista with coffee-making skill and knowledge will pay attention while they’re steaming milk, watching the motion of the milk, feeling the temperature of the pitcher, or even just listening to the pitch of the sound being emitted. This is to ensure that they are foaming and microfoaming effectively- and not scalding the milk.

Freshness

If you want the best taste and good caffeine content, it is critical that your coffee shop restocks newly roasted beans with regularity. A good shop should be able to tell you the roast date of their current beans, and that date shouldn’t be more than a few weeks old.
One important thing to remember about freshness, however- when it comes to espresso, you don’t want absolutely fresh beans. After roasting, it is really important to allow the beans to “rest” for a few days- otherwise it can be really tricky to figure out the correct grind for the bean and pull beautiful espresso shots with any consistency.

Cleanliness

– Okay, so this one should be a no-brainer. Obviously, when you’re looking for quality in any food or drink establishment, cleanliness is a pretty good indicator of whether a business is paying close attention to their product and keeping their customers healthy (or even obeying the region’s health codes!). But we’re not talking about general tidiness, here- hopefully your regular coffee shop does sweep the floors, but it’s definitely not going to directly affect the quality of your morning java. The cleanliness that you should be looking for should be directly around the making of your coffee- does your barista rinse their portafilters or wipe them after they knock used coffee grounds out and before they grind more into them (portafilters are the small round trays with handles that twist into the espresso machine and drip the espresso shot out the bottom)? Do they wipe the leftover milk off of the wands when they’re done steaming? What about spraying a little steam out to get any milk inside the wand off (this is called “purging” in coffee lingo)? Occasionally, some of these steps might get missed (especially during the craziness of a morning rush!), but by and large you should see your baristas doing these things with frequency if they know their stuff and want you to get the highest quality latte possible.