A barista more bitter than his coffee

I recently wrote here about what makes being a barista such a great job. In contrast, The Roanoke Times ran an op-ed by a barista named Bruce Henry the other day entitled “10 things baristas hate about you.” The author, trying to be funny, comes off as a bit of an ass, but he’s right about some of it. Let’s take it point by point.

10. Teenagers. Bruce says hanging out in a coffee shop will never be cool. I hung out in coffee shops when I was a teenager and I was… ok, well, some of the people there were cool. And some of the most interesting people I know I met while hanging out in coffee shops. Bars have their place, but drinking a cup of coffee with your friends offers its own perfections.

9. Anything decaffeinated. I used to agree with him on this one. Then, after working nearly six months in my current coffee shop, I tried our decaf espresso for the first time. Once I dialed in the correct grind it was surprisingly good. I’ll stick to the regular stuff and still think the decaffeination process is basically molesting the bean, but I have a newfound respect for decaf.

8. Over three words to order. Sort of with him on this one. Simple is better. If you’ve got a good barista, trust him to make you a tasty drink.

7. Taking forever to order. I like answering questions because I like talking about coffee, especially if the customer is open to trying new things (i.e. being steered toward less sugar and less milk). But lollygagging at the counter while scanning the menu they should have been scanning when they first got in line? Yeah, that’s annoying.

6. The macchiato. Completely agree. The word “macchiato” is derived from the Italian for “marked,” as in espresso marked with a touch of milk. How this became Starbucks’ 20 oz caramel drink is known only to a room full of lame marketers. However it happened, it confuses every customer who wants to duplicate the Starbucks caramel macchiato at their local cafe. My favorite story is the customer I served who, even after having it explained to him that a macchiato is a tiny drink and he probably wanted a caramel latte, insisted on getting a caramel macchiato. When I gave him a demitasse of caramel, espresso, and milk, his friends were shocked he wanted such a small beverage. “Yeah,” he said defensively, “at Starbucks you get a much better value.” For him, macchiato was a mysterious essence that made his drink delicious, not a term describing the amount of milk involved.

5. Live music. I’ve never worked at a place with live music. I don’t think it would bother me, but it could disappoint me as a customer if I was expecting a chill place to talk with friends and instead found a loud concert going on. Even worse? Walking in to your favorite shop to find it’s been taken over by a politician’s campaign event.

4. Anything from a blender.
Indeed. There’s something degrading about making blended drinks, taking great shots of espresso and tossing them into a container full of frappe powder. As a fellow barista once said, “If I wanted to work at Smoothie King, I’m sure I could.”

3. Being in a hurry. Super automatic espresso machines and milk steamed by the bucketfull makes for drinks served quickly. They also make for bitterness and poor texture. If you want the former, go to one of the big chains with my blessing.

2. Tipping. I think tipping is a good practice for reasons I’ll probably write about here later. But I don’t think it should be taken for granted if the barista doesn’t earn it with skill and a pleasant personality.

1. Starbucks. I’ve written lots about the company before. I can live with the lingo if it gets people drinking espresso. I see Starbucks customers as conversion opportunities less than as annoyances.

Things that would have made my own list? Ordering soy milk (most of it doesn’t texture well). Drinks that are so big I can’t extract the shots directly into the cup. Chai that’s sweet instead of spiced.

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee.]


6 thoughts on “A barista more bitter than his coffee”

  1. Most people aren’t willing to pay more for decaf. Since it costs more to decaffeinate coffee beans, the coffee companies use lower quality beans to recoup cost and keep the price the same as regular coffee. That is the reason for the disdain.

    If you are willing to pay more for high quality decaffeinated beans, then you can make a good cup of decaf.

  2. I think that’s often true, Joel, but even with great beans the decaffeination process is going to take its toll. Companies have come up with some very innovative ways to remove caffeine from the beans while leaving in the flavor components, but even the best methods do some damage.

  3. The trick with soy is to steam the heck out of it. Seriously, it alters the texture of the milk. Baristas (in my experience) are so scared to scald soy — which is basically impossible unless your hands are made of asbestos — that they don’t get it hot enough. I’m therefore annoying on two counts, because when I haven’t enough enough to stomach my caffeine, I order an extra hot soy latte.

    You can have a latte macchiatto, though, right? Where the milk is poured first, then marked with foam. Macchiatto doesn’t have to do with the amount of milk, but the marking. Most people get an espresso machiatto — an espresso marked with steamed milk. But there is such a thing (outside of the siren’s realm, even) as a latte machiatto. This is where the inspiration came from, because the Caramel Machiatto (insert registered trademark sign here) is steamed milk marked with boh espresso AND caramel. It’s still misleading, yes, but not quite in the way you think.

  4. That’s an interesting way to think about it. In all my shifts I’ve never had an order for a latte macchiato, but I can see the logic in it. If that’s the way Starbucks meant it I can cut them a little slack.

  5. Milk marked with espresso. That’s what I meant. Not foam. That’s foolishness.

    It is what Starbucks meant. I promise. The caramel machiatto (which should be called a caramel latte machiatto) was introduced for the 25th anniversary celebration when we all had to wear horrible tie-dye t-shirts and listen to Aqualung everyday.

    Only a LITTLE slack, Jacob. We shouldn’t let those who try to “educate” people, bastardize our beloved bean and its many incarnations.

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