Cult of the barista

14 Oct 2014
Cult of the barista

Next week marks the start of the London Latte Art Smackdown organised by Kaffeine, in which baristas compete over a series of heats to be crowned London’s 2014 latte art champ. In the run up to the competition, Alex Stewart explores the cult of the barista.

Remember the hipster barista meme? Wearing a low-hanging black t-shirt, a Byronic scarf and glasses. Inked and scowling, the barista looks out at us, grave and intense. The meme crested its wave in 2011, apparently redolent of the self-regard, even pretension, of the specialist coffee scene. The pictured barista, Dustin Mattson, hit back, saying, “Yeah, it’s real representative of what I do to feed my family.” Fair point, but a tone had been set. Memes come about because they both amuse and seem to answer to a feeling that people have about something; in this case, it seemed like the Internet, and by extension, the world, was saying that speciality coffee and its main functionaries took themselves just a little too seriously.

Baristas are the front line of speciality coffee. They are front and centre, the people with whom you interact when you go into a café, yes, but also tested and lauded in competition, acquiring a certain celebrity within the coffee world, a social media following, recognisability. This a function of the intersection of a service industry with creativity: you see it with chefs too, because chefs and baristas both do something we can do, but do it so extravagantly better that, while we can identify with the process, we know the art eludes us. Baristas also have, of course, the knowledge, of brew ratios and roasts, and a lexicon specific to the world and initially impenetrable to the neophyte. There is, though let’s not get too theoretical about this, the physical separation of the bar, of the crenellations of machine and cups and grinders. These divide us from the barista, demarcate a small world that we can observe but not access, where the barista focuses, hunched and precise, over the weight of a shot or the temperature of the milk.  

But, the best baristas, and in London they are legion, are forever reaching out beyond that space. I have lost count of the number of times I have had involved, interesting conversations, have asked questions and learned from answers, have joked and chatted about my day or theirs. OK, there are one or two people who are sniffy or sneering, but they are a tiny minority and are immediately noticeable as outliers. Skilled and knowledgeable as they are, most baristas are inflamed with a passion for coffee and a passion to share that. They’ve mastered a difficult, enviable set of skills and, damn them, appear to have a huge amount of fun as a result. And that’s something to celebrate, not mock. Viva the barista!

Image by Kota Hata, courtesy Mother's Milk.

Read more about Kaffeine’s latte art competition on their blog.