Thursday, July 16, 2015

My 10 Year Journey as a Barista

This post is coming a tad bit late as my last day at the café was at the end of June.  Things have just been so crazy lately that I haven't had time to update.  I've been working a bunch at the cinema, preparing the nursery, running last minute errands, and Roibeard and I just threw a potluck to celebrate our final days before we officially become *gasp* parents!
My café job was in the west loop, which was a 50-60 minute commute for me 5 days of the week.  Once the baby gets here I'd like to be a little closer to home, so I'll need to find a new job after I've had a little time to recover.  I'm not entirely ruling out another barista gig, but I am going to keep my options open and do what I can to get a job that will be stable and best allow me to support a family.
Oh and I apologize for the blurry quality of these photos.  Roibeard had to take them while I was "in action", so the focus isn't exactly the best.

So first of all, I should probably explain what exactly it is that I do.  This has been especially confusing to my family over the years who are still convinced that I am a waitress. 
To clear things up:
I am not a waitress, although I sometimes am required to offer table service when a large group comes in.
I do not work at Starbucks.  I do not speak Starbucks lingo.  If you want to talk about coffee with me I'll do so for hours, but the second you mention a non-fat, decaf, venti frappuccino, you've officially lost me.
I do not work in fast food.  Not that I'm criticizing anyone who does work in fast food.  It's just not what I do for a living.  There is no magical button that I press to prepare your drink.  Instead, I prepare your drink with patience, skill, and love. <3
My job is sort of a cross between being a bartender and a wine connoisseur...but with coffee and espresso.  First and foremost it's my job to know my customers and to make them feel welcome.  Got the Cheers theme song in your head yet? Good.  You're on the right track to understanding what I do. 
Second, it's my job to know my stuff.  I am an officially certified barista.  I did my training in San Francisco, and they take their coffee culture seriously over there.  It's my job to know things like what flavour notes are typical of various regions, how long an espresso shot can sit before it dies, what is going on chemically with the espresso when you are extracting a shot, when a shot is over or under extracted and what this will mean in terms of a drink being more bitter or sour.
Finally, my skills are what will result in your smooth, velvety milk that will expertly integrate with your shot and form a beautiful drink.  Baristas need to know all about texturizing, aerating, and expanding your milk.  We need to know which milks work best and how to work a steam wand around milks that have less fat and more sugar. 
Does my job require me to be pretentious?  I don't consider myself "pretentious", but I do consider myself picky.  I want your drink to be perfect.  You probably paid upwards of $5 for your drink, right?  So please don't ask me to make you a large cappuccino, make your drink extra hot, or rush me when I'm making your pour-over.  These things will ruin your $5 drink.  I will do all of the above with a smile/grimace if you ask me to.  On the inside though...I will be crying.
Don't get me wrong, it took me awhile to become queen bee on the espresso bar.  I first starting making specialty coffee drinks because the cinema that I worked at had a working machine and it was part of my job.  I really didn't know much back then and more or less made everyone the same drink regardless of whether they ordered a cappuccino or latte.  It was all the same to me.  As time went on I got better.  I learned how to tamp and how to steam a bit better.
Then I moved to San Diego and had one of the craziest jobs ever.  I worked at a place that was a café, wine bar, cigar shop, antique store, and tea room all in one.  We offered wine tastings and hosted tango nights.  The owner was very eccentric, fond of Turkish music, and a bit of a creeper.  He also was very specific about the way in which his drinks were to be served...extra dry cappuccinos with foam exactly four inches above the cup and a small sprinkle of cinnamon for instance.  Coffee and espresso drinks at this location were a form of art, but not a skill.
It wasn't until I arrived in San Francisco that everything that I had learned up to that point was just thrown upside down and my world was rocked.  I did my training with one of the top roasters in the country.  Looking back I'm so grateful for that as I've since learned that classes like those actually cost around $500.  Mine were all free though because it was part of my job.  (Yay!)  I almost....almost....walked out on the first day of training.  We did a cupping and learned how to do pour-overs and I just thought the whole thing was ridiculous. 
The truth is though that I couldn't have been happier that I decided to stick with it.  I'm a very process oriented person.  It's why film appeals to me, why I ended up being good at baking, and how I came to be obsessed with coffee and coffee culture.  I just loved learning all of the chemistry behind making an amazing drink, I loved all of my little latte art creations, and most of all I loved meeting so many wonderful and amazing people during my time as a barista. 
If this is the end, then I can certainly say that I've had a good run.  <3

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