What is a Barista?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

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.

Baristas are often tasked to make an espresso.
Baristas are often tasked to make an espresso.

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.

Baristas make a variety of espresso-based drinks.
Baristas make a variety of espresso-based drinks.

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.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


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.


@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.


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


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

Sincere appreciation. Ernestine M.


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?


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

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