The History and Art of the Barista
Coffee preparation can be a culinary art, just like the arts of gastronomy practiced by a chef, a pastry chef, a sommelier, or a master baker.
In the coffee world, our term for a professional skilled in the art of coffee preparation is barista.
“Barista” is a loan word from the Italian language for “bartender”, in the same way that “chef” is borrowed from the French word for “chief”. The history of the word is fascinating, and is intertwined with the history of coffee itself. This story focuses on Italy, one of the most important culinary cultures in the world, and one of the first cultures in Europe to embrace coffee-drinking as a gastronomic delight. Coffee, first introduced to Italy through Venetian traders, became immensely popular as a special culinary experience, served alongside other special drinks like amaro, grappa, and limoncello at small establishments overlooking the piazzas of the great cities of Italy. These places took the name “Bar”, after the beautiful, highly decorated bars popular in Europe in the 19th century. Unlike elsewhere in the world, liquor took a backseat at the Italian bar to the delicious, strong coffee drinks prepared there. Today, to the surprise of many travelers, Italian bars focus on coffee and pastry as much as liquor, and both are served alongside each other to people of all walks who frequent neighborhood bars throughout the day.
When Espresso machines were first developed in Italy, they were quickly installed in the bars surrounding Italian piazzas all over the country; and became an instant hit. The small, delicious espressi and cappuccini of the Italian bars were perfect for the Italian culinary taste: small, perfectly crafted, intensely delicious coffee flavors, in beautiful china cups, sipped while watching the parade of Italian life. The people working behind these Italian bars became extraordinarily skilled in operating the complex, sometimes dangerous steam-powered espresso machines, and took pride in producing exceptionally delicious, richly textured and flavored coffee drinks. The Italian culinary world began to celebrate this craft, and before long the barista, meaning simply “person who works the bar”, became the word for an expert beverage-maker, particularly skilled in the art of coffee making.
Espresso didn’t stay an Italian secret for long. By the 1950s, people throughout Europe and the United States had become fascinated with the delicious coffee beverages of the Italian Bar, and tried to reproduce the experience back home. However, early attempts to duplicate the delicious espresso and cappuccino of Italy were met with frustration- it was soon learned that simply setting up an espresso machine at a bar was only a beginning- espresso making requires study and practice to perfect.
A few in Europe and America dedicated themselves to studying and learning the arts of the Italian barista, and began to take on the term themselves as a badge of pride, a sign of honor as a coffee professional. These baristas devoted themselves not only to learning the craft of espresso making, but also became thoroughly knowledgeable about coffee in general. At the same time, engineers began to design machines which attempted to duplicate the human process of espresso making, attempting to automate the barista’s craft. Of course, no machine can replace an artisan, and a truly skilled barista is a completely different animal than a person who simply works behind the counter of an automated coffee bar.
A true barista working a coffee bar is a delight to behold- swiftly producing beautiful, delicious coffee beverages of singular intensity and flavor, all the while offering advice and knowledge to the coffee drinker. Professional baristas really understand the machines they work with, the coffees they present, the milk they use, even the nuances of the ceramic cups the coffees are served in. They balance knowledge of milk chemistry, the detailed mechanics of espresso extraction, and the aesthetic beauty of a perfectly executed cappuccino.
Baristas study and refine their technique, in order to deliver a better, more consistent coffee experience to their patrons. American Baristas compete with each other at the World Barista Championship and United States Barista Championship; support each other through their own professional organization, the Barista Guild of America, and interact and learn from each other through a network of coffee professionals that spans the country. Professional baristas share a passion for coffee, a thirst for knowledge, and a knack for producing amazing and delicious coffee experiences. An espresso prepared by a skilled barista is the unique expression of a culinary artist, prepared with thought and precision to deliver a specific, unique flavor. It’s an incredible, beautiful treat.
On a more literal note, a latte can truly be visual art. Check out these fabulous hand poured latte art images collected on Flickr.