From the other side, customers see a clean, shiny espresso machine and baristas carefully crafting lattes. But behind the counter, it's more than just the beans. Lines of ticket orders crowd the counter and espresso grounds quite literally cover the whole station, no matter how often it’s wiped down. As a newly minted barista, I have learned well beyond the basics of making a latte heart—which is actually harder than it looks. Here are five things that I have learned so far from being a barista.

1. The chemistry behind milk steaming

coffee, cappuccino, espresso, milk, mocha, cream
Jocelyn Hsu

There is a surprising science behind what makes the signature thick consistency of a latte and what makes a cappuccino leave a foamy mustache around your mouth. Preparing milk for espresso drinks involves introducing steaming hot water into cold milk. The reason why hot steam is poured into the milk is that it coagulates the milk's whey proteins.  

The ideal milk consistency should resemble mixed wet paint when swirled after steaming, with enough body and structure for satisfaction with each sip. Due to the spherical shape of casein proteins, molecules in milk envelop the introduced air, preventing the creation of an all-froth, no-drink concoction.

Milk with higher protein percentages will make for creamier drinks. This means that alternative milks like almond or soy are harder to foam in order to create the correct consistency without burning. (This does not include oat milk, whose thicker structure has made it a recent barista favorite.)

#(Barista)SpoonTip: Lattes give more bang for your buck over cappuccinos, unless you specifically want a lower milk-to-espresso ratio.

2. The after-effects of a long shift

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Kelsey Emery

After my first week as a barista, I ditched my ripped-up Vans and started wearing sturdier shoes with thick inserts in preparation for my daily shift. With each passing hour at work, my step count increases dramatically. In addition to preparing iced drinks and smoothies, banging the grounds out of the espresso portafilter makes for sore soles and aching legs at the end of the day.

Another consequence of taking on a long-shift is the smell. Like a signature perfume, the defining smell of a combination of old coffee grounds and cooked, nearly-curdled milk covers my clothes and works its way into my hands. This espresso scent isn’t like coffee ice cream or freshly brewed drip—it’s almost acidic. The milk smell is like that of burnt condensed milk, built up from constant contact with steaming. And it doesn’t come out with a little bit of soap either; it stays through several washes. The barista scent really takes the idea of becoming one with your work to a new level. 

In order to recover from a long shift, I now have found different ways to implement self-care into my work week. My new post-shift routine includes sipping my drink of the day (usually a macchiato with a pump of chocolate) outside and taking a much-needed nap. 

3. The importance of attention

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During a rush period of drink orders, organization is everything as one has to multitask: pulling espresso shots, pouring syrups, and steaming milk. Customers can get impatient, so to ensure quick delivery of drinks, attention to organization is essential. Besides the delivery time, the taste of the coffee improves with more attention to detail. I have learned to take the time necessary to clean out the portafilters of old grounds, which can dry over time and slip into new drinks.

From behind the bar, even little details like having a nicely folded towel or a clean station makes all the difference in controlling stress during hectic periods. I always keep iced water near the espresso bar to reduce the flush in my cheeks that arises during rush hours. When I first started working with warm drinks and a scalding hot metal steaming wand, burns were a common occurrence. Making sure everything is done with care and precision ensures that the customer and I both have a calm and injury-free coffee making and tasting experience.

4. The want to improve

coffee, kettle, espresso, beer, tea
Amy Cho

Making espresso-based drinks is definitely harder than it looks. With each shift, my fingertips seem to know what temperature to feel for, my memory also kicking into gear to recognize the correct drink consistency. However, seeing my seasoned co-workers handle heavy rush hours with ease, while simultaneously producing impressive latte art motivates me to an extent that I didn’t think would come out of working part-time in a coffee shop.

The satisfaction that comes with making drinks is tangible, measured by the countless times I've seen a customer smile at the shaped foam on top of their drink. There’s dedication behind working as a barista to create the best for the customers, regulars and first-timers alike. As with anything else, practice makes perfect, and with each latte made, I can work towards the achievable goal of making quality products for satisfied customers.

5. The fact that a little bit of kindness goes a long way

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Charlotte Ohana

The final and probably most important lesson that I learned from working as a barista is the importance of kindness. It makes such a profound difference in my day if someone makes small talk or thanks me for their drink. Even a seemingly trivial “have a nice day” is appreciated.

The same goes for smiling; after all, placing a coffee order is still a face-to-face interaction with a real person. With kindness comes patience, and people who understand that orders do build up are my personal favorites. Regulars that remember my name give me little bursts of motivation during a shift and make the job all the more personal.

#(Barista)SpoonTip: When ordering, remember to take out your headphones. Or, if you’re on a call, just take a brief pause as it will take only a few seconds to ring you up.

Being a barista has taught me so much more than just how to make drinks (albeit a valuable skill to have moving forward into the workplace). Working with people, especially in sometimes stressful situations, is something I can take with me beyond my time behind the bar.