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Lessons in Barista-ing

Is making a latte like riding a bicycle? Not that you’ll never forget how once it’s mastered, but in how it’s mastered at first. Lots of practice, but second nature as soon as it’s captured. All it takes is rehearsal to make it instinct to you.  On Friday, David Cohen, attempted to teach me how to perfect a professional pour. I say attempted because I haven’t quite mastered the subtleties needed to capture a flower in the milky mixture that sits on top of the espresso shot in a latte. That’s where endless repetition is needed to manage the artistry necessary to being a barista.

I’ve pulled a couple shots in my time, but pouring them at Greenstreet was an entirely different experience. At Greenstreet, you don’t have to determine how many grounds to put in the basket. We have an automatic grinder at, so all you do is press the shot basket against a switch, so the perfect amount of beans can grind itself into the espresso shot basket.  That’s the most convenient part of the process. And even that isn’t truly simple. Whoever opens the café that day has to calibrate how big the shots are for the rest of the day. Seeing as climate conditions change from day to day, shot size differs accordingly. Shots sizes also have to be calibrated for new origins that come into the shop. We received a new Indonesian Sumatra Wahana last Wednesday and had to test a bunch of shots to see how many grinds to use and how long to pull it for. It’s a frustrating and rewarding process, resulting in the perfectly pulled shot, for that day at least.

Most other aspects involve practiced judgment calls. For example, after allowing the water to percolate through the espresso grinds, you have to steam the milk until, as David measures, it’s “too hot to hold”.  Which was really hard for me to guess at first. I was terrified of tearing the milk, holding the nozzle just below the surface, for either too long or too little time, and then not letting it sit in the milk for the right amount of time either. It’s a balance only achieved through repetition.

After actually making the elemental ingredients, espresso and steamed milk, David patiently let me practice making cappuccinos and latte art. Regardless, after cup after cup of cappuccino, I still can’t quite grip making perfect posies on the surface of mugs. The movement is just so delicate and requires so much careful attention to timing. Well, for me it does. David rattled off about three perfect cappuccinos in the time it took me to just pour my milk into the mug. It’s the type of tiny muscle memory that I would need to endlessly rehearse before being able to actually work at Greenstreet.

While rehearsing my swirl was intriguing and definitely captured my attention, I loved learning drink theory that I didn’t even get to enact myself. When someone ordered a macchiato, I learned how to make a macchiato (marveling at the ability needed to make designs in such a tiny space!) When I almost grabbed the half and half instead of the whole milk, David explained how to make a caffé breve.  Working behind the counter gave smaller tasks a bigger meaning. I’ve ground beans before, but never re-bagged them for paying patrons. Just washing dishes was an adventure instructions were needed for. But it’s not just the actual labor that goes into being a being a barista.

Honestly, baristas have an honorable job- what’s better than giving people that one thing they want and need, morning, noon and night? But, to quote Uncle Ben from Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. To be a great barista, it’s about more than making the perfect macchiato or pounding out the perfect espresso shot, or rinsing shot baskets or even washing dishes. Those are all important elements, but only a portion of the preparing process. What sets our baristas apart at Greenstreet is their genuine care for the drink of every customer that walks through our door.

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