Are barista courses really worth it?
Jenna Gottlieb chats with barista trainer Vicki Hart to find out whether formal training beats hands-on experience when it comes to working at a coffee shop.
Each day, hundreds of millions of consumers around the world depend on professional baristas for their daily cups of coffee. Among other things, they rely on them to produce an enjoyable and consistent drink by applying their skill, knowledge, and experience.
It makes sense, then, that anyone aspiring to be a professional barista requires some degree of formal training. Sometimes, this might be an informal orientation period at a small coffee shop, but typically, people invest time and money in dedicated barista courses.
In fact, these courses are more popular than ever, partially thanks to the continuing expansion of specialty coffee, but also because of the Covid-19 pandemic. People didn’t stop drinking coffee when they were forced to stay home – in reality, many delved into the wealth of coffee knowledge available online.
Taught by experienced coffee professionals, many barista programmes enable existing professionals to progress all the way to barista competitions. However, there are now courses available for aspiring baristas of all levels.
Courses are ideal for people who want to learn about the coffee brewing process step by step. Classes generally teach crucial skills like good dosing techniques, how to tamp coffee, and what it takes to properly calibrate a coffee grinder.
Many of these courses are offered by roasters, but others are taught at Specialty Coffee Association-certified training centres. Over the decades, these schools have produced thousands upon thousands of coffee professionals, many of whom still work in the industry.
Modern baristas are more respected as coffee professionals, partly thanks to the publicity afforded by competitions like the World Barista Championship. In turn, this is encouraging more people to pursue this as a career.
However, with so much free coffee knowledge available on the web, some in the industry are beginning to question the necessity – and the cost – of formal barista training.
What are the benefits of barista courses?
Like in any trade, many baristas learn their trade exclusively on the job, often from a young age. However, some of the intricacies and subtleties of coffee require genuine insight.
“I have found that learning only on the job, due to the busy environment you are working in and the pressure of the customers being present, teaches you the process of making coffee – but not necessarily the understanding of what you are doing,” says Vicki Hart, who leads barista training courses at Limini Coffee.
“The advantage of a barista course is that not only do you get to practise the physical side of making coffee, but also the reasoning behind it. Some of the most important things – like extraction time, grind size, dosage, and freshness – often get left behind when learning on the job.”
In her experience, it’s far more fruitful for prospective baristas to learn in an environment where they’re free to make mistakes, ask questions, and explore ideas.
“This leads to a better barista, as they have the confidence and knowledge to know if their coffee is the best it can be, and the know-how to problem solve and fix any issues,” she adds.
Some of the many skills taught by barista courses are the ability to create latte art, problem-solving, an intricate knowledge of grinder settings, and proper cleaning and maintenance procedures.
Furthermore, students learn about the history behind coffee processing, roasting, and brewing techniques. This explains why training is often held at roasters, as this allows the students to learn about the entire journey of the coffee bean from bean to cup.
On a higher level, barista courses can also help aspiring competitors to hone their craft. Often, this can enable them to break through into other areas of the coffee industry, such as management, quality control, sourcing, and roasting.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the coffee industry is evolving quicker than ever before. Stakeholders are grappling with climate change and social issues to create a better coffee supply chain, and technology is innovating at an incredible rate.
Baristas aren’t immune to this change – in fact, it’s vital for all coffee professionals to stay abreast of the latest trends and technologies, whether that means learning to embrace superautomatic espresso machines or discovering the next best coffee cocktail.
Training & experience together
First and foremost, anyone considering taking a barista course must weigh up the pros and cons of committing to further education. For many, it’s worth the money. However, for those who are learning for pleasure, it might be an expensive endeavour.
For instance, the 18-day diploma programme from the Specialty Coffee Association, the five-day Seattle Barista Academy course, and the two-day Bellissimo Coffee Advisory course all cost significant amounts of money.
Furthermore, although additional learning can be invaluable, baristas should still have realistic expectations regarding career progression. Essentially, a barista course isn’t a shortcut to success. Rather, it’s a tool that can make the journey easier.
However, more and more coffee education institutions are beginning to train professionals in other areas of the business. For instance, the London School of Coffee offers a course on how to start a coffee shop, providing attendees with crucial information on the financial considerations of operating a café.
“I believe it’s worth it for the reasons I have mentioned,” Vicki explains. “However, managing a queue, dealing with large orders, customer service, customising drinks, and working cleanly and efficiently alongside a team is what you learn from working on the job.”
As such, if a prospective student doesn’t ever intend to work as a barista, they may end up missing out on all these experience-derived skills. However, for those who want to pursue a long career in coffee, it’s a combination of both learning environments that makes the difference.
“In my opinion, it’s training and experience together that make a great barista,” Vicki concludes.