There’s an interesting read in three parts posted at The Shot, which concludes with a condemnation of the evolving importance of the barista. There are many points I agree with and many I strongly do not, and the divergence usually occurs when it’s assumed that being a good barista means being a possessor of strong service skills. The two skillsets, and to be sure they’re both skills, are completely independant of one another. A bad barista can give great service regardless, and clearly a great barista is capable of poor service. To generalize that baristas are as a group the most novice and least experienced, as the author does, is kind of scary given that there’s no possible way to extricate them from the crucial communicative role they have with the customer. I don’t think baritas are any less informed or able as a group than roasters or farmers, and I guess I’m a bit confused by that whole point. Anyway, moving on…
I too argued once with Scott about barista competitions being counterproductive as a whole for the industry, and it begat a conversation that ultimately changed my mind a little bit. The article missed the point and spirit of competitions. I’ve never met a winner of a competition who believed that by winning, he was a superior “barista.” The winner is the person who accumulates the most points awarded that day, and in my experience nobody takes that beyond the confines of the competition. Now, that said, I’ve been lucky enough to work bar with two of Canada’s national champions and both were exceptional baristas in a cafe setting as well. Both are charismatic and a hit with customers in addition to mastering the coffee they work with, and to me there’s little more to ask of someone in that role. Competitions function well for baristas to meet and learn from one another, for the public as a gateway to learning about the finer qualities of drink building and service, and for the media to publicize an incredibly small niche of a market. Perhaps they don’t succeed in crowning the “best” barista, but no less so than any competition judged on subjective criteria.
The last point made in the column is something I’ve already touched on; great service has nothing to do with making coffee. I’ve heard Jamie McCormick and Abraco produce great coffee from a number of my peers, but his ability to connect with his customers is irrelevent to that. I think both are essential for a good experience in a shop, and that’s true of any industry, not just coffee. Baristas are unique in the sense that, unlike chefs (in keeping with that comparison), they’re responsible for building the drinks while relating to the customer. There’s no kitchen to hide in, no team of waiters providing a layer of insulation. Very often the relationship between barista and customer is a game of inches, adding more pressure to add the performative element that’s completely unnecessary for most culinary professionals.
So yeah, I guess you might not find the likes of Jamie McCormick in a barista competition, but that doesn’t mean anything so far as I can tell. It doesn’t mean anything to me because of the guys you do find at competitions, perhaps just as skilled and friendly in every way. I’m proud to call myself a barista and represent my craft to a coffee drinking public that hasn’t necessarily been initiated to the culinary approach that many of us share. Taking the barista out of the spotlight as a means to further the “progression” of quality coffee makes little sense to me, especially given that so many baristas pursue their craft out of enthusiasm and passion instead of the material motives that have yet to become available to them.
I won’t comment much on the portion on coffee geeks, as this is dragging on too long as it is, except to say that some of the most important progressions in reducing variables in extractions and brewing have come from amateurs, not professionals. Let’s not bite the hands that feed, yeah?