Essential Barista Skills for Coffee Enthusiasts

By

Ru Chen

on July 16, 2024

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Key Takeaways

  • Baristas need to understand coffee beans, grinds, brewing methods, and coffee machines
  • Milk frothing, espresso extraction, and latte art can also be key skills 
  • Customer service skills may be necessary 
  • Barista skills can be honed and mastered through practice and time

Baristas prepare and serve coffee drinks, usually at coffeehouses. They have admirable knowledge and expertise when it comes to coffee and are often referred to as coffee artists. No one can become a master barista overnight, but knowing what skills you need can put you on the fast track to coffee-brewing success. 

If you aspire to become a barista or brew coffee at home, this is the guide for you. Let’s dive into the top 10 essential barista skills you should know. 

1. Understanding Coffee Beans

Types of coffee beans

Arabica: The most popular type of coffee bean, Arabica contains less caffeine than Robusta and is distinctly sweeter. Great for all kinds of brewed coffee. Arabica coffee beans are native to Ethiopia and make up around 60% of coffee production worldwide. 

Robusta: Tends to have more bitterness than Arabica coffee beans. Fantastic for coffee blends and espresso. Robusta coffee is native to sub-Saharan Africa. 

Others: Feel free to experiment with other coffee beans, such as Excelsa (a tart and fruity bean) and Liberica (a uniquely nutty and woody flavor) which both come from Southeast Asia. These coffee beans, though less widely used, can be used for brewed coffees, blends, and even desserts.

Significance of origin

Single-origin: Single-origin coffee beans give you a clear idea of where the beans come from: a single geographical origin as listed on the coffee bean package. This may mean that the coffee can be traced to a specific region, or even an individual farm/producer. Single-origin beans provide more control and transparency when it comes to how your beans are sourced.

Blends: Blends are usually more consistent and well-rounded than single-origin coffee beans in terms of flavor and use. Blend coffee is typically more affordable, making it more accessible for coffee enthusiasts who just want to make their daily brews at home. The taste of blends is also more palatable, being less overpowering and unusual than certain single-origin coffees.  

Bean roasting levels

The ensures rich and delicious coffee flavors. The coffee roasting process involves heating up the beans, with differences in methodology and timing resulting in different flavors and aromas. 

Coffee enthusiasts should explore different roasts to get a good idea of what roast level is suitable for each type of drink. 

Light roast: A lighter brown coffee that has a fruity or floral aroma. To get a light roast, the green coffee beans are roasted for less time and under cooler temperatures. Roasting stops upon hearing the first crack within 3 to 5 minutes of roasting.  

Dark roast: Dark brown and glossy coffee with thick flavors and aromas of nuts and cacao. The beans need to be roasted for a while after the second crack to obtain a dark roast. Be careful to not over-roast since that would turn the beans smoky and unpleasant. 

Medium roast: A shiny, medium brown coffee with a balanced flavor and aroma. It has a more distinct aftertaste than light roasts. When making a batch of medium roast, there will be a noisy second crack. 

Sourcing beans

Choosing the type of bean and roast you want can be a time-consuming process. You want to balance affordability with quality. We recommend checking out our curated list of for freshly roasted, high-quality beans. You can choose a subscription that aligns with your flavor profile and roast preferences. Coffee clubs will then deliver your desired beans straight to your doorstep, simplifying the process of sourcing coffee beans. Coffee clubs can even grant you special access to exclusive beans. 

Our favorite coffee clubs include:

2. Grinding Coffee Beans

You can’t brew coffee without grinding your coffee beans. Let’s over the key points of grinding coffee beans. 

The importance of grind size

The grind size of coffee beans affects how much flavor can be extracted from them. Baristas strive to achieve the perfect grind, which varies depending on your brewing method. Regardless of brewing method, a freshly ground batch of coffee beans will allow for a higher quality brew. 

Types of grinders

Blade grinder: More affordable and popular. Blade grinders are similar to tiny food processors as they chop coffee beans with the blade. Offers less consistency than burr grinders. The heat created by a blade grinder can also hamper the taste of the beans. 

Burr grinder: Also known as burr mills, a burr grinder works by crushing coffee beans between two rough discs (i.e. burrs). Offers more control and consistency. You can purchase electric burr grinders that come with adjustable features. 

Adjusting grind size for different brewing methods

Your brewing method of choice can affect what is the ideal grind size for you. Grind sizes go from extra coarse (rock salt consistency around 1.5 mm particle size) to super fine (0.1 mm particle size like flour). 

Extra coarse: Cold brew

Coarse: French press

Medium: Pour-over, Chemex, drip coffee 

Medium fine: AeroPress, cone pour-over

Fine: Espresso 

Superfine: Turkish coffee

3. Espresso Extraction

When hot water is poured over coffee grounds, coffee is extracted from the grounds. The extraction method can affect the flavor and strength of the coffee. To pull a perfect shot, baristas need to master coffee grinding, dosage, tamping, and brewing. 

Basic components of an espresso machine

An espresso machine comes with key components, including:

  • Boiler
  • Steam valves or hot water valves
  • Hot water wands
  • Steam wands 
  • Heating element (e.g. pressurestat) to control temperature 
  • Pump
  • Pump motor

Common mistakes and how to avoid them

  • Unclean grinders: Make sure to clean the grinder at least once a week 
  • Skipping a brew ratio: Look into ideal brew ratios, such as a 1:2 coffee to water ratio
  • Not tamping down the espresso properly: Follow the machine instructions to tamp down with enough force and proper technique 
  • Overinvesting in the espresso machine: Having a high precision and quality espresso machine can also go a long way, but first-time espresso brewers need not invest in the most expensive machines

4. Milk Frothing Techniques

Why froth milk?

Frothed milk is a key component of cappucinos, lattes, mochas, macchiatos, and other coffee beverages. The type of milk that you use is important since it changes the properties of the microfoam. The quality of the microfoam you have in a cup of coffee will also affect the strength, taste, and mouthfeel. 

Types of milk and their properties

Ideally, the milk froth should be silky and light. This enhances the coffee drinking experience. The milk you choose can affect the properties of your frothed milk and the ease of the frothing process. 

Whole milk: The type of milk to froth that is favored by many baristas. Whole milk has a rich and full flavor that delivers the most traditional microfoam for coffee. 

Dairy substitutes: Nut, oat, and soy milk substitutes may also be used to create microfoam. However, the froth made from dairy substitutes tends to vanish more quickly and may not be as suitable for latte art. 

2% milk: Froths easily. Produces less aerated foam and has more flavor than skim milk. 

Skim milk: Froths the most easily, but lacks a creamy mouthfeel. 

Regardless of your chosen milk type, make sure to use fresh, cold milk. 

How to froth milk using a steam wand 

Frothing milk with a steam wand can require practice before a barista gets the hang of it. Fill the milk pitcher with milk up to the start of the spout. Then, submerge the steam wand tip beneath the milk surface. Froth until the pitcher is warm. Then, lower steam wand further into the milk, tilting the pitcher to create a vortex within the milk as it is frothed by the steam wand. Stop when microfoam looks ready.

Tips for creating microfoam

  • Hold the pitcher in a natural, comfortable arm and hand position
  • Position the steam wand just below the surface of the milk at a slight angle
  • Beware: too much air creates large bubbles, too little results in flat milk
  • Practice until perfect

5. Latte Art

Introduction to latte art

Latte art can elevate a simple cup of joe to an experience that is more special and memorable. Between hearts, floral designs, and complex patterns, there is so much to explore and enjoy when it comes to the world of latte art. Don’t forget to learn how to froth milk that is best for latte art. 

Basic patterns 

Even basic patterns can be daunting and tricky, but mastering them is a worthwhile, valuable experience for coffee enthusiasts. Popular patterns include the heart, rosette, and tulip. As you improve your latte art rippling, striking, and wiggling techniques, you will be able to create more beautiful patterns on the microfoam. 

Latte art mastery

If you want to , it’s time to practice advanced techniques and designs. Also consider what latte art accessories and equipment you want to invest in.

6. Brewing Methods

Your chosen brewing method depends on your coffee preferences and what coffee machine you have on hand. Here are some of the most popular brewing methods, how they work, and the pros and cons of each brewing technique. 

AeroPress

A manual coffee making machine that is wonderfully simple to use and quick to brew coffee with. The cylindrical chamber of the AeroPress has a plunger with an airtight silicone seal you can use to brew coffee. Takes under two minutes to brew coffee.  

French press

A cylindrical pot that uses a plunger to create concentrated, creamy brews. Can take more time than other brewing methods, but lets you keep your coffee warm and rich in flavor. 

Drip coffee

Drip coffee makers are great for home kitchens due to their great convenience and acceptable brewing speed. You only need to add water and coffee grounds to the drip coffee maker. Gravity does the work of brewing, taking 5 to 10 minutes. 

Pour-over coffee

Offers baristas more control over the coffee brewing process than drip coffee making. Pour-over coffee making requires more manual steps than drip coffee. 

7. Coffee Equipment Maintenance

Coffee machines and equipment should be regularly cleaned. Maintenance checks allow you to detect malfunctioning parts that might need repair or replacement. If you do not clean your coffee maker and equipment frequently, buildup and bacteria can cause the coffee to taste off and unpleasant. Routine maintenance and cleaning also ensure a longer lifespan of your coffee equipment.

If you use a coffee maker every day, make sure to clean the machine properly every month. You can use vinegar and water to sanitize the coffee maker and carafe of coffee makers.  

8. Customer Service Skills

If you want to be a barista who interacts with customers, it’s important to learn how to create a welcoming environment. Effective communication skills and a warm tone of voice can go a long way. Body language and expressions also play an important role in conveying to the customer that you care about providing them with a good coffee experience. 

Order-taking is important for baristas. People love drinking coffee – but many customers also find it frustrating if their cup of coffee tastes differently compared to their expectations. This may result in complaints and other issues, which can be challenging for any barista. 

If you work at or plan to work at a coffee shop, make sure to read up on your coffee shop’s rules and policies for handling customer complaints and difficult situations. Avoid escalations and try to create an understanding, welcoming safe space for coffee drinkers. 

9. Advanced Coffee Knowledge

Brewing ratio 

The brew ratio of coffee to water varies depending on what type of coffee you want to make. As you advance your coffee brewing journey, you will need to know the different coffee extraction and brewing ratios. 

The general rule of thumb is to go with a 1:17 ratio for manual and automatic pour-over coffee brewing. This means that for every 1 gram of coffee, you would use 17 grams of water. This improves your coffee extraction, resulting in better flavors. 

Depending on your coffee brewing method, you will need to know different ratios. For example, espresso typically requires a 1:2 ratio. 

Coffee cupping

Coffee cupping is a standardized ritual in the world of coffee. It involves strict steps to assess the fragrance, aroma, and flavor of coffee. Whether you’re a coffee expert or an aspiring barista, coffee cupping can be an enjoyable, fascinating experience. 

Coffee profiles and tasting notes

Baristas should try out different coffee profiles and tasting notes to better understand the world of aromatic, flavorful coffee. Coffee flavor profiles include: 

  • Bitter
  • Sweet
  • Floral
  • Fruity
  • Roasted

Tasting notes are natural characteristics of coffee instead of added flavor. These are more expansive and varied. For example, you could get tasting notes like blueberry jam or lemon. 

10. Continuous Learning and Improvement

Barista training courses and certifications can help you ensure you’re on the right track as you master essential barista skills. 

Even after you have obtained your certificate, your journey as a barista isn’t done yet. Brewing coffee can be a lifelong, meaningful experience as you master current and new skills. Join coffee communities, clubs, and forums to share your expertise and journey. You can even attend workshops and local barista competitions. 

Conclusion

Becoming a barista means getting to know your coffee beans and brewing methods. With the right level of coffee mastery, you can turn any humble coffee bean into a delicious cup of joe that tastes just the way you want it to. 

Practice often and continuously to improve your barista skills. Brewing coffee is both a science and an art. If one method of learning doesn’t seem effective, it’s perfectly fine to rest and try a new method or roast. Lastly, don’t forget to have fun and find the path of coffee that suits you best.

About the Author

Content Writer

Ru Chen

Content Writer

Ru Chen is a content writer with several years of experience in creating engaging and well-researched articles. She mostly writes about coffee, business, digital marketing, and law. In her free time, she can be found watching horror movies and playing board games with her partner in Brooklyn.

Ru Chen is a content writer with several years of experience in creating engaging and well-researched articles. She mostly writes about coffee, business, digital marketing, and law. In her free time, she can be found watching horror movies and playing board games with her partner in Brooklyn.