May 1, 2011

10 Things I Love About Being a Barista. ~ René Cousineau

In response to Jolee McBreen’s article: 10 Things I Hate About Being a Barista.

I’ve been making coffee for a living since I was 14 years old.

When I got my first job at an independent coffee shop in my hometown (Glenwood Springs, Colorado), I did not expect that I would still be a barista at the age of…22.

Sometimes I feel like it’s the only thing I really know how to do.

I vividly remember my first day on the bar. It was hellish. I had been handed the responsibility of providing the public with their morning coffee without even knowing what hit me. I knew nothing about the espresso machine. I hadn’t learned how to steam milk properly. In my memory I see 15 or 20 empty cups lining the counter, waiting to be filled with lattes and mochas and cappuccinos. At that point, I still hardly knew the difference. What I remember the best is burning my hand, being yelled at by a patron who was “appalled” that I didn’t know what breve means and swiftly being thrown off bar for a good month if not more.

While the job itself is difficult, it seems that Jolee’s list of grievances is focused primarily on customer interaction. That truly is the hardest part—it can be distressing, upsetting and devaluing to deal with mean people. But there’s good news: For every busy-body jerk who neglects to say his pleases and thank yous, there’s a gentleman who seems to have been raised right. For every inconsiderate college girl who orders while she’s on the phone (apologizing not to you, but to whomever is on the line), there are handfuls of considerate young men and women who treat me like a human being and disprove the claim that our generation sucks.

Why are people so touchy about coffee? Because coffee is serious. Whether you drink black, drip coffee or a vanilla soy latte with an extra shot and your barista’s best rendition of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in chocolate on top—it’s serious. And someone had to learn how to do that for you.

The lack of acknowledgment is astounding, the lack of appreciation—even more so. I have dealt with so much bad behavior as a member of the service industry throughout my eight year-run, and have been driven to behave badly towards others in return. I’m not surprised that Jolee McBreen can easily punch out 10 entire reasons why she hates being a barista. I could probably think of more.

But, considering I’ve kept at it for eight years now, it really can’t be all bad. So here are 10 reasons why I, personally, given the good days and the bad, the mean people and the nice, personally love being a barista:

1. Morning Glory

My job as a barista turned me into a morning person. Before I became a barista, and in between jobs, six a.m. didn’t exist to me. But it really is the most beautiful part of the day. Waking up early is always a positive experience, especially when you have good coffee at hand.

2. The Main Event

Nothing in the world smells better than coffee. Few things taste as good. What’s sexier than the perfect shot, in all of its caramel-colored greatness, it’s chocolate-hued mottling? It’s difficult, in any other instance, to get me as excited as I am when I steam the perfect pitcher of milk—smooth, fluffy, white and flawless like new-fallen snow. And when it mixes with that perfect shot, and I’m able to form the perfect rosetta… not many other things are as beautiful as this.

Photo: Nate Steiner

3. Thirst for Knowledge

Once you fall in love with coffee, and all the aspects of its preparation from bean to cup, there’s no turning back. Soon enough you’ll want to know everything, from where it’s sourced to how it’s roasted to how it tastes made in a french press versus pour over. You’ll spend all your time sniffing, sipping and slurping. I know that sounds like a weird (or even kind of gross) way to spend your time, but that’s how I spend mine and I’m happy as a clam. Which brings me to my next point…

4. Coffee Nerds

I’ve become a coffee nerd, and the place to find more coffee nerds to nerd out over coffee with is at the coffee shop—usually behind the counter. You work with a lot of amazing, interesting and passionate people when you work with coffee. I’ve met some of my closest and dearest forever friends at work. I don’t believe a whole lot of people can truly make that claim.

5. The Nature of the Experiment

Sometimes, being a barista is like being a mad scientist. How can we make a latte taste like peanut brittle? Or a girl scout cookie? What does this roast taste like brewed three different ways? Why does an almond milk latte taste like wood and how can we get it to stop doing that? So the next time you order something off of the specials board at your coffee shop of choice, be aware of this process and try tasting it too.

6. Latte Art

It’s hard to master, fun to make, and well worth the ooohs and ahhhs.

Photo: My boss and latte art mentor Brian Wood—Latte: My lovely co-worker and friend Megan O’Rourke

7. The Regulars

Good morning large americano! How are you small non-fat latte? Hey there medium drip, I saved the last muffin for you!

Yes, some customers are really mean, some customers are really nice and other customers are regulars. Regardless of whether these people are bubbly or downright depressing to interact with, they’re familiar and expressive of their appreciation in that they come in every day. People like walking up to the counter and not having to tell you for the millionth time what they’d like, or how they’d like it. It makes me feel sharp when I can just see your face and know that I’m supposed to make a small, iced americano with extra ice and a smidgen of room for soy. And the praise makes me feel even better.

8. Name that Barista

In the same vein, I love love love it when customers know and address me by my name (and sometimes even my nickname). Many of our regulars know all of our names. It just makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

9. Tip Me Over (And Pour Me Out)

Any tip is a good tip. Baristas, like waitresses, aren’t the most well-paid people on the planet and depend a lot upon their tips to make ends meet. Becoming a barista requires the attainment of some extremely detailed and hard to master skills. Good tippers (meaning any tippers) make me love my job because it shows that they acknowledge and understand that the skills I used to make their drink weren’t honed in a day.

10. The Perks

When I’m working, I have an endless supply of coffee to get me through my day. That’s a perk. When I’m not working, I can go into work and get it for cheap. That’s a perk. But along with those perks, I also have the advantage of coffee knowledge. So when I’m anywhere else besides work—the grocery store, a restaurant or another coffee shop—I know what’s good, and I can enjoy what’s good. Unlike many other American coffee drinkers, baristas develop a taste for coffee that is rooted in pleasure rather than necessity. That, is definitely a perk.

René Cousineau was born and raised in Glenwood Springs, CO. She currently lives in Boulder and is a student of fiction writing and Russian literature. She spends her time reading, cleaning, hiking, dancing, and slinging cupcakes at a local bakery/coffee shop.

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