Imagine you are Front of House at the Corner. You have just taken an order. You pass the various elements of the order to the barista, take the customer’s money, and help them to find somewhere to sit. Meanwhile, your barista looks at the order, and enters into a completely different world.
Being a good barista requires concentration. The first thing they will do is warm the cups with hot water. The next thing they will do is grind a fresh dose of espresso (the best baristas try to grind as they go – keeping the coffee extra fresh). They then need to select the correct portafilter (double if more than one espresso based drink, or single. Two doubles? A single and a double?) They will then dose the portafilter with the correct amount of espresso, evening it out, then tamping it (tamping requires a whole blog in itself). They will hook up the portafilter, and proceed according to the type of drink they are making.
A “coffee only” drink
Some drinks are relatively simple – espresso, americano: the “coffee only” drinks. These require the correct dose of coffee and extraction time (at the Corner, we have pre-programmed our extraction times, but many baristas prefer to judge the extraction themselves, according to timing, the thickness of the espresso “tail”, and other things which affect the consistency and flavour of the espresso.)
A milk drink
Many of the most popular drinks involve milk. Again, the barista won’t be particularly talkative at this point, because heating the milk requires not only the ability to feel the temperature with your hand (or concentrate on the thermometer – too cool, the drink is ruined, too hot the drink is ruined), but also the ability to incorporate bubbles at exactly the right moment (a small amount for a latte – a longer amount for a cappuccino). Latte milk should have a reflective shine, not unlike the consistency of pourable cream.
Incorporating bubbles means that the barista has to listen to the steam wand “chirping” (when the air mixes in with the steam wand causing the milk to incorporate bubbles into the heating process). A latte must have very few bubbles, if any – which is why a barista bangs them out once on the table top (some baristas make the tapping out of the bubbles part of the “act” – unnecessary unless you have incorporated too many bubbles). A cappuccino needs a greater amount of foamed milk, to give it that characteristic “frothy” quality on top. But it shouldn’t have too much – ideally you should have a glorious brown espresso ring around the drink.
Some baristas can pour a cappuccino freely, causing it to froth towards the end of the pour, ready for chocolate sprinkles. Others use a spoon to help out the thicker foam at the end. Pouring a latte requires a lot of concentration though – starting high, bringing the milk jug down slowly to create the right amount of “crust” with which to draw patterns (if you are good enough).
I have known baristas who have thrown away coffees with which they are particularly unhappy, and start again. We do that occasionally at the Corner, because we want to make sure the drink the customer receives is of a high quality.
So next time you wonder why the barista seems a bit quiet or withdrawn, they might just be concentrating extra hard on getting the coffee just right for their customers.