Common barista mistakes in specialty coffee

Matt Haw kicks off the #CoffeeMistakesHappen series by speaking to Alessandro Zengiaro about the many common barista mistakes, and how the industry could start to approach them

This article is the first in a series exploring the prevailing attitude towards mistakes in the specialty coffee sector. The series is being produced in collaboration with Heylo Coffee, who are eager to kickstart a conversation around “mistakes” – beginning on a road to normalising them.

In the specialty coffee sector, there is a culture of meticulousness and striving for excellence. In some instances, this can lead to an air of perfectionism, where mistakes are looked down upon. This can put undue pressure on many actors across the industry, creating unnecessary stress.

Heylo is seeking to reverse this narrative: Mistakes do happen; and embracing them could foster a more open, healthy, and constructive environment.

This collaborative series will look at common mistakes made by baristas, coffee roasters, and coffee shop owners – not in an effort to expose people working in those roles; but to embrace failure as part of the process, and as part of life.

Barista mistakes

In the specialty coffee sector, baristas are focused – even fixated – on producing the best cup of coffee possible. This dedication stems from a good place: a genuine desire to improve and provide customers with the best possible coffee experience.

However, it can mean that other satellite tasks fall by the wayside. More often than not, the task that gets neglected is cleaning.

“A lack of cleaning is probably one of the most common mistakes that new baristas, and sometimes even old baristas, make,” says Alessandro Zengiaro, UK Latte Art Champion and head of technical for Assembly Coffee and Volcano Coffeeworks.

This often means baristas prioritise cleaning customer-facing spaces, but other functional areas get overlooked.

“Sometimes you look at the portafilter, take the basket out and it’s pitch black,” says Alessandro. “Cleaning can affect not just the taste of the coffee, which as a coffee drinker is my first concern, but also how the machine and the grinders operate.”

Indeed, cleaning isn’t just an aesthetic choice; avoiding it can have real consequences. Yet, this places significant responsibility on baristas to maintain expensive equipment.

Furthermore, there are certain myths surrounding coffee machine maintenance that can be difficult for new baristas to navigate. For example, while a thorough end-of-day clean is crucial, some baristas are commonly taught to soak their steam wands overnight – a situation where the chemicals and water can actually do damage.

As such, the responsibility to upkeep equipment can be a heavy burden, especially with a number of myths surrounding the subject. Recognising this could help to take the weight off for some baristas. 

Common technical barista mistakes

This problem is not limited to coffee machine clean-downs, of course. The entire process of brewing coffee is littered with myths and misconceptions. Just within the process of preparing the coffee puck, baristas are often taught techniques that can actually harm the quality of the extraction. 

For instance, tapping the tamper against the portafilter can create cracks and channels in the coffee bed; similarly, spinning the tamper can negate all the work done by a well-executed tamp.

Tamping with robotic-like consistency every time is difficult to master, to say the least. Yet, when espresso shots invariably pull at different speeds, baristas can become overly critical of their technique. This is just one more instance of how the demanding standards in specialty coffee can create unnecessary stress.

In response, the sector could embrace a more open and accepting approach to these sorts of mistakes. Not only are they inevitable – we are human, after all – but it could also foster a positive learning environment where baristas feel at ease; rather than stressed and anxious. 

Automatic tampers are becoming ubiquitous, and act as a solution to help mitigate some of these stresses. However, there are certain areas that automation can’t help with.

Dialling in

For example, dialling in coffee is a difficult skill to master – with many factors to consider and remember all at the same time. As such, it is easy to forget or overlook something.

“I see a lot of baristas change the grind size and try a shot, but it’s still the same extraction time – not realising that, due to retention, the previous change hasn’t kicked in yet,” says Josh.

Furthermore, the number of purges required can vary from one grinder to another. So, even if you remember to flush the chamber, a different grinder may make that process more challenging.

In general, dialling in coffee can be stressful for baristas, especially when the coffee shop is about to open. Some coffee shops only allocate 30 minutes to open, from setting up tables and chairs to dialling in the coffee.

Many people work more efficiently in a relaxed environment, and while it’s not always easy to control that in a coffee shop, allowing baristas enough time to dial in their coffee in the morning can set a relaxed tone for the day and improve productivity.

Re-steaming milk

For many baristas, especially those new to the job, steaming milk is where the most danger lies. Often a barista will judge themselves (and be judged) by the quality of their latte art. Indeed, this can become a point of frustration as it can be so difficult to perfect.

Specialty coffee shops frequently establish minimum latte art standards, which can create certain expectations and pressure regarding your skill level.

However, when it comes down to it, imperfect latte art doesn’t necessarily diminish the quality of the drink – as long as the texture and temperature of the milk are well-executed. Essentially, not being able to pour a beautiful rosetta isn’t the end of the world.

Yet, there are certain tips and tricks that will allow baristas to produce better milk. For example,  re-steaming milk is one of the most common barista mistakes in specialty coffee shops. The chemical changes that occur during steaming can not simply be repeated. Instead, the milk further deteriorates, the proteins and sugars will break down even more, and foam stability will diminish. It is therefore best to discard leftover milk after each pour.

However, this must be managed alongside wastage. For new baristas, it can be difficult to judge the correct amount of milk to pour into the jug. This is a reason why automated milk-frothing technology, such as Heylo’s milk module, is becoming increasingly popular. Not only is it able to create a perfect texture every time; but it can also consistently dose the ideal amount of milk – greatly minimising wastage.

barista mistakes are common, such as untidiness

Having the right attitude

In the specialty coffee sector, some argue that baristas should have an even greater focus on “service”.

“When I say service, I mean you are here to sell me something special,” Alessandro says. “We’re making specialty coffee, right? Tell me something about that.”

Indeed, this is especially relevant for specialty coffee where there is a greater emphasis on quality, how producers are innovating to improve value, and how the supply chain can be transparent about that.

As such, specialty coffee baristas have a level of responsibility in explaining that information to customers, conveying “the extra value of what you’re doing and what you’re serving”, according to Alessandro.

In a broader sense, this reflects a general mindset of successful baristas in the specialty coffee industry. They approach their work with enthusiasm, take pride in their role within the coffee value chain, and are committed to delivering that value to their customers.

There are bound to be mistakes along the way. Alessandro suggests that a level of curiosity towards specialty coffee is a valuable trait – reflecting a drive for continuous growth and improvement.

“For me, talking to people was effective, or when I had the chance to visit other coffee shops and see different approaches,” says Alessandro.

This represents an openness to learning that some established baristas may find difficult to embrace. Indeed, the pursuit of perfection has contributed to the perception of specialty coffee as elitist. What’s often overlooked is that this can be harmful to those working within the industry, as well as customers on the outside.

As a barista working in specialty coffee, the potential for making mistakes is nearly limitless. Fostering a more constructive environment across the industry could be highly beneficial – not only for newcomers, but for everyone involved.

New Ground Coffee

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Common barista mistakes in specialty coffee

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