Full disclosure, I, the author of this piece, am married to a barista quoted below. While this does not necessarily grant me coffee on command (I’m working on that!), it does provide me with a dual perspective; I am a paying customer, and a witness to the less visible aspects of the craft. I get to see the quiet labour that exists around a memorable coffee, and the capacity for human connection enabled by this shared ritual.The café is not a contemporary notion. Kiva Han is the oldest recorded coffee house which traded in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1475. Italy’s oldest coffee shop, Caffè Florian, dates back to 1720 and still stands today in St Mark’s Square. The Venetian café has survived 300 years, including war and foreign rule. How could this be? Because sitting for a hot drink is an enduring custom that brings unlikely people together on common ground. Or, as late food documentarian Anthony Bourdain articulated so well, “You may not understand or agree with the person next to you, but have a drink with them anyways.”
With a café seemingly on every corner these days, there is pressure on a barista to perform well. They get one shot (pun intended) to impress a new customer. But once they do, your local café can provide you with so much more than a good coffee.
Experienced baristas are highly sought after, and it is unlikely that someone with the acquired skill set will be readily accessible to cover casual shifts. This is especially true in regional communities where the talent pool is limited further. For a barista, taking a day off can provide the unique challenge of putting your reputation quite literally in someone else’s hands.
But how hard can it be to make a cup of coffee? Considering a decent cup is the sum of many fluctuating parts – quite hard, actually.
I asked a few Gippsland-based baristas how they would respond to this question
“But how hard can it be to make a cup of coffee?”—
“If someone asked me that, I would probably laugh, to be honest,” explains Kara, the senior barista at The Bean Pedlar in Yarram. “It’s a process that takes a lot of time and practice. I didn’t wake up one morning and magically make a good coffee.”
Tom Banders, barista at The Borough Department Store in Korumburra, adds to this, “Coffee making is a skill that’s very easy to learn, but extremely difficult to master.”
Joe Licciardi, aka Joe the Barista, who shares a space with Leongatha Health Foods, has rigorous experience in the coffee industry and hospitality training. “We can easily be taught a process, but the key is understanding why that process is in place,” Joe explains.
Coffee beans are the processed and roasted seeds of the fruit, or ‘cherry’, of the Coffea genus. Most of the commercial coffee in the world is grown in what is referred to as the ‘Coffee Belt’ – an equatorial zone between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn where the growing conditions are ideal.
A career barista will have an understanding, if not firsthand travel experience, of the global growing regions and, much like wine, how the terroir influences the harvest. They will be familiar with the different varieties, fermentation processes, roasting styles and industry trends therein. They can grasp the rationale of a cross-continent blend, say, what to expect from mixing 80% Brazilian beans with 20% Rwandan, and hold the mastery to choose which beans to complement with milk or which to let shine on their own.
The milk itself is something to be considered. A barista will take into account how the fat content and seasonal fluctuations might affect texture and taste. When it comes to dairy, the barista may even consider the breed of the cow; a Jersey cow will produce particularly creamy milk, while an Aussie Red will create a milk higher in protein.
Once taking stand behind the machine, further layers of technicality come into play. “It’s a multidisciplinary role,” explains Kara. “The most important thing is to make sure the machine is tuned correctly.” This is effectively setting the parameters of the espresso – the grind coarseness, dose, yield and brew time – which all contribute to the way the coffee is extracted. “This usually requires adjustments throughout the day.”
Joe adds, “You could set it at a level and be happy with it, and then all of a sudden it changes without warning.” This requires the barista to keep a constant measure of any variations in the extraction weights and times. This vigilance extends to noting any environmental changes such as temperature and humidity that occur after dialling-in the machine at the start of service.
“If you’re not conscious of any changes, then your coffee will be inconsistent and you’ll never understand why.”
All of the above needs to be in harmony before the barista can even think of texturising the milk perfectly or flexing on their latte art.
“But you’re not just paying for a cup of coffee,” says Tom. “So, in an oversaturated market, what else does the barista offer? You must provide quality service and true hospitality. That can ultimately be more important to a lot of customers than the actual quality of the cup.”
In a regional setting, the local café can be the binding force of a community. It is our watering hole, our meeting place, our simple pleasure, and great coffee usually only forms part of the reason we keep coming back.
Joe the Barista agrees. “The pandemic helped us understand the importance of connecting with people for our mental health. Offering a venue to connect is a great way to give people permission for time out of their busy lives.”
“You can have the mechanics of making the coffee down,” explains Tom, “but a café is also a place for incidental socialising with staff and other customers. People come back for the interactions, not only the theatre of coffee making.”
Kara adds, “It feels strange to say, but in all honesty, I think my role is quite important within the community.” The Bean Pedlar, a Yarram institution, is valuable in ways that extend beyond the boundaries of making coffee. “Our team get out in the community and work at social events, including sponsoring the local football and netball clubs.”
Perhaps the most important impact though is made at the micro level. “Customers want to be recognised. They appreciate the small things, like asking how their day is.”
Tom recounts a story told to him by a customer who visited a previous café for three years. “He had to give his order and name every time,” explains Tom. “When he returned here, we greeted him by his name right away. People notice these things. Now, his coffee is ready before he has ordered it.”
While I fully appreciate that achieving a perfect cup of coffee is low-key sorcery, I have come to understand that the space held by a café is where the magic sits.
In a landscape of increasingly divisive messaging and the inward vacuum of our devices, the outward signals of humanity are what will keep us united. While we certainly benefit energetically from our caffeine-laced habit, it is not the only gain. The comfort of ritual, the sharing of conversation, the certainty of a familiar face and, perhaps most importantly, “creating a place of welcome and belonging”, as one barista put it, is actually worth a whole lot more.
Joe the Barista
33 Bair St, Leongatha
The Bean Pedlar
259 Commercial Rd, Yarram
The Borough Dept. Store
63-67 Commercial St, Korumburra