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What is a Barista?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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When visiting a bar or coffeeshop in Italy, a customer might very well encounter a uniformed bartender called a barista. In Italy, this person is a trained mixologist familiar with both alcohol and coffee-based drinks. He or she might even wear an elaborate jacket similar to that of a bandmaster or military officer. A barista is usually treated as a respected specialist, in the same vein as a wine steward or sommelier.

When the gourmet coffee industry exploded onto the scene during the 1980s and 1990s, however, the term took on a slightly different meaning. A barista in the coffeehouse sense is an expert in producing espresso and espresso-based drinks. Espresso is an intensely-flavored form of coffee generally served in a small cup called a demitasse. In order to brew a perfect cup of espresso, a barista must place a measured amount of ground coffee into a wire basket and tamp it down firmly. The wire basket is then locked under the spout of an espresso machine.

A trained barista should know precisely how much hot water should be forced through the mesh and for how long. If the time is too short, the espresso will be weak and watery, but if it takes too much time, the espresso will be too strong to drink. It is this intimate knowledge of an espresso machine's capabilities that make a good barista indispensable to a coffeeshop. He or she may also have to create a good froth from steamed milk or allow the espresso to form a natural dark layer on top called a crema.

The skills of a barista go beyond being a good coffee maker. In some coffeeshops, he or she is also expected to have a working knowledge of all of the different blends of gourmet coffees offered. Customers may also ask about roasting times or which grinder settings work best. A good barista also learns different garnishing techniques, such as creating signature designs with stir sticks and cream. There are national and international competitions that put all of these skills to the ultimate test.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon304680 — On Nov 20, 2012

My grandma is a good maker of instant coffee in a cup, but I cannot call her a barista because the term barista is for an expert or someone who has mastered the art of producing espresso based drinks and non espresso based drinks based on a standard recipe and concoction.

By jennythelib — On Apr 05, 2012

@anon30038 - In the US, the term "barista" is often used for people who work at Starbucks, Seattle's Best, or similar chains and do not have the classical barista training. Was it mostly push-button work?

So in this country, you could probably get away with calling yourself a "barista," although I think most people know that it's just a fancy term for a coffe clerk. But in Italy, I doubt you would pass muster as a barista.

By anon121725 — On Oct 25, 2010

thanks for great info. I'm applying for a job as barista assistant and needed clarifying as to what it was.

By anon80752 — On Apr 28, 2010

Thank you for the complete information on the subject "What is a barista."

Sincere appreciation. Ernestine M.

By anon30038 — On Apr 13, 2009

If you used to make cappuccinos and lattes and other hot drinks and used the espresso coffee machine, does that class you as a barrista?

By malena — On Jan 20, 2008

barista...not to be confused with a barrister or lawyer!

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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