How to become a barista
There are a few barista skills you need to master in order to brew yourself the best coffee in the world.
The key is to practice whenever you have the time & embrace mistakes you make during your learning time.
Barista Skills: Coffee distribution
It’s very important when coffee falls into the filter basket but it falls evenly and we create an even equal density inside the filter basket of the coffee.
Before you tamp the coffee, it should already be flat and level. Before you even think about tamping the coffee.
So no big hills and no big valleys or divides. I never realized how important distributing was.
Distributing starts as soon as we start grinding.
How the coffee falls into the basket is very important. Anything you do here is just moving the top of the coffee.
I know this from my experience of working with a naked portafilter.
So, it is just the basket and the spout is chopped off.
Now I much prefer my espresso from the spout, but this taught me that I was not the perfect barista.
This taught me that I need to have the coffee evenly distributed throughout the whole basket.
This taught me that if I didn’t learn this, I would end up with dirty T-shirts every single time I make coffee.
Because this taught me what channeling was.
Channeling is when the water comes from the machine. It doesn’t go through the coffee slowly and evenly but finds the easiest path through and can come out the other side even without extracting any coffee.
So you get spreads of water going all over the back of the machine or on your T-shirt.
And you don’t always see it in the spout. This was very common back in the old days.
It’s something we don’t do now because it’s not good for your wrist, it’s not good for your coffee tamper, it’s not good for your portafilter and it’s not good for your puck inside here.
It will create cracks and lead to channeling.
So, just don’t do it, stop it!
What do I do now?
I don’t use my finger anymore. I find it makes my finger messy and slows me down.
So, this is what I do… The first thing I did was make sure that the coffee was falling evenly into the basket. Check my dose… Perfect!
I give it a little tap just to push out a little bit of air and to make sure everything is flat and even.
It’s ready for tamping. Done! Quick, fast, efficient, effective! And it doesn’t damage my coffee tamper!
Barista Skills: Tamping mistakes to avoid
Some of the biggest problems I came across in tamping is because people are just over-complicating it.
They put too much value on tamping the coffee. Tamping the coffee is very very simple!
The aim is to take the tamper, press hard enough to press out the air pockets and then leave a flat even surface.
That aims of tamping the coffee!
The biggest mistakes I come across is that some people act like a gorilla and they want to tamp as hard as possible.
Now, one that’s not effective and doesn’t affect anything.
Apart from it’s likely to damage your wrist and there is a chance that if you go in hard, you will not be going in flat and when you correct yourself you will change the density inside the coffee bed. And you will not get consistent flow from shot to shot.
Also, people who tend to go in hard will also come out quick. And when you come out, come out nice and gently.
That way, there is less chance of suction.
So, if you come out quickly, you could lift up the coffee pack.
Once you tamp the coffee, it should be fine. There is no real reason to tamp once and then to tamp twice.
Some people I have seen even tamp the coffee three times. It’s extra strain on your wrist and it’s just wasting time.
The twist, I am not sure. I do it, I tamp and then I twist. I don’t know why I do it.
It might feel as though it helps me to check that it’s level and straight, but I don’t think so.
I think I am just wasting some of the customer’s time! I check to make sure it is flat and level because I know that I am thumb-heavy.
So now every like three or four coffees I make, I just give it a little quick check to see if I am on target.
And we are done, quick wipe, wipe and insert. That’s tamping the coffee! It’s not very complicated!
Barista Skills: Dosing mistakes
As well as being consistent with the dose we need to be consistent with the amounts of liquid that goes in our cup.
Because if we have different amounts of liquid, we have different flavors and different levels of strength.
So, there are two ways we can do it, again, by eye in a short glass or in a cup we can put on scales and use our eyes to look at the numbers.
So, let’s do it! I can either have a look at it with my eyes in the shot glass or I have a number from the scale.
I find it much more reliable to have the number.
Because when coffee is very fresh, there is lots of gas and there is a big crema.
When the coffee is not so fresh, there is less crema, less gas and it’s smaller in the cup.
Also when I am looking at things by eye it is more subjective, it’s more my point of view, but when I am looking at something on the scales there is a specific number for me.
Once I have the weight of the dose and the weight of the coffee, then I know the relationship between the two.
So, if there is a lot of coffee and a little bit of water, then it’s gonna be a “ristretto”, a very strong flavor.
If there are less coffee and more water, it’s gonna be a “lungo”, so a much weaker and very different flavor.
So, when a barista asks me about their coffee, one of the first questions I ask them is what is your dose and how much liquid is coming out.
I hope you know!
Barista Skills: Inserting handle into the group
Now we are going to look at the journey that’s often never talked about.
And that’s from tamping the coffee to the machine where we insert the portafilter and we press brew.
It’s a very short space of time, but it’s where I see most extraction problems originating from.
The first thing we have to do is be very, very careful with this.
Quick, efficient but careful! Move it across and when we bring it into the group head, we need to make sure that we don’t knock it.
If we knock it, then we can take the coffee puck away from the side of the basket, or put a crack on the inside, so this will result in channeling.
The next thing we need to be careful of if we flush and put the portafilter back too early, there will still be drips of water coming down onto the coffee, which is not good for the coffee!
The most efficient way to do it, if you can, is flash when you take the portafilter out.
Then you tamp the coffee and you come back and you don’t have to worry about that.
If you need to flash, for some reason, before you insert your portafilter, make sure that it finishes dripping first.
Next thing, once it’s inserted, we’ve got to press the brew button immediately.
The reason for this with the dark roast is that it starts a bitter burned flavor.
It’s not actually burning, but it’s a burned flavor that you’ll get.
Also, it’s to save time with customers.
So, a very, very simple journey from tamping to pressing brew, but one that has many, many dangers!
Don’t do them!
Barista Skills: Handling the cup
A barista’s job can be very technical, but there are three things that I really value from baristas that have nothing to do with being technical.
The first is I want them to smile.
They are in a hospitality industry and I want them to make the customers feel welcome.
The second one is I want them to clean their machine.
I want them to clean their machine more than they ever think it needs to be cleaned.
The third one I shouldn’t really have to mention. Fingers in cups!
I was in a café in London a few days ago and the person on shots, it was a very busy café, the person on shots grabbed the cups, put them underneath, moved the cups to the person on milk.
The person on milk steamed really well, he was putting a beautiful pattern in, holding the cup like this, beautiful gorgeous pattern. Put it down, but his fingers were all over the cups.
Then the waitress came along and picked up the cups. That’s the third finger movement!
We are a new profession. We are a profession that is trying to be recognized as professionals.
I was explaining this to a poor guy, lovely friend, who works at the café I was sat at.
And then as I was trying to make my point, a girl arrives, the waitress.
And she was carrying loads of cups and she was keeping her fingers in the cups trying to hold them.
She puts them down and put them on the espresso machine. And it was just like a perfect example!
A place that really really cares about everything they do, yet they still keep serving their finger in the cup!
So don’t put your finger on my rim and your finger in my cup!
Barista Skills: Cleaning the machine
Now, this isn’t the sexiest subject, it’s not the most interesting subject!
But I am really really gonna enjoy talking about it because it is one thing that can really make a difference to the taste of your coffee.
In the previous section, I said that tamping is overvalued.
It’s much more simple than we think.
Cleaning is the other way round.
We don’t value it enough, but it is the thing that can make your coffee taste better than the café next door.
If you don’t clean your machine, you get a dirty taste right to the back in the aftertaste.
The other reason is that if you have a dirty machine, the extraction process from these amazing machines does not work properly.
So, you will have unevenly extracted coffee. And not consistently extracted coffee.
So, what do we do? And how much do we need to do it?
The first thing is we need to clean inside the portafilter.
Inside here there is a basket where dirt forms around here.
So that needs to be cleaned. Also inside this portafilter, it looks dirty but it’s not.
It’s one of the clever ones that have Teflon on the inside so that it does not stick as easily.
So, these need to be cleaned. It’s a very simple process. It doesn’t take long.
While this is out, we take our little brush. Scrub the shower screen. Flush it.
Then put the brush between the shower screen and the edge of the group head, where there is a rubber seal. And flush.
Re-insert the portafilter and we are ready to go.
Use the timer
Now, how often you do this depends on you and your café.
But the best cafés I know have a little timer on top of their machine and every time they do this, they reset the timer.
The maximum they let their timer to get to is one hour.
So they don’t clean it once an hour, sometimes they clean it more often.
So, they will clean and reset. Even if it’s been ten minutes, they will reset.
But the most, the timer will ever get to, is one hour. It’s amazing!
Some baristas, who’ve been working in these cafés, think this is normal and they do it as part of their regular routine.
And the taste of their coffee is dramatically better.
Also, if you have time, during those little cleans throughout the day, put in the blind basket.
Turn on the water, let the pressure build and let the water spill over the side of the basket.
Stop it, empty it, one more time.
And if you’ve been flushing regularly between each shot, it should be nice and clean.
Now, at the end of the day, the thing we need to do is use this but we put a white powder in.
And we do the same back flushing. We do this maybe 8 times.
Then rinse the basket and do it again.
So if it still has the white powder in, we wait our 8 seconds. Stop after 8 seconds.
If you are lucky, some machines have an automatic cleaning cycle. So, you don’t have to wait.
Then rinse. Do it again.
Check the top of the machines
If you are worried that your coffee will taste the chemicals, it won’t! Just flush it through properly.
What we are gonna do now anyway at the end of the night is take down the shower screen.
Up here, on most of the machines, is a little screw. I unscrew it using a spoon.
I used to use a screwdriver, but the screwdrivers would always go missing and then sometimes some of the stronger people during the barista shift would tighten it so tight that I could never get it off again.
So, spoons never go missing and you can’t tighten it too much.
Some machines just have a shower screen. But the Simonelli has the shower screen and a shower block.
So don’t be shocked, if this comes down to some machines. This shower screen is the thing that spreads the water over the coffee puck.
If it’s dirty, it would be spreading dirty old coffee tastes all over your freshly ground beautiful coffee and giving that dirty taste at the end of the drink.
Check if the screen is blocked
If the coffee or the oils from the coffee is blocking the shower screen, you’ll have an uneven extraction.
Uneven extraction usually means a non-consistent taste in coffee and also unpleasant taste in coffee.
Once you’ve washed it, put it back together, put it back in and tighten it up with your spoon.
Don’t tighten it too much so the spoon breaks, but tighten it enough so it’s not loose.
It may not be the most exciting thing in a barista’s day.
But it is the thing that will make your coffee taste better.
When I go to cafés and I taste their coffee, the most usual reason a coffee does not taste good is that they have a dirty machine.
And you will be surprised how quickly your machine gets dirty.