A barista is a person who prepares and (also, generally) serves espresso-based coffee drinks. In the United States, the term barista is also often applied to coffee shop employees who prepare both espresso and regular coffee drinks. Although the term barista technically applies to someone who has been professionally trained in preparing espresso, it may also be used to describe anyone with a high level of skill in making espresso shots and espresso drinks (such as lattes and cappuccinos).
The word barista originated in Italy, where it means a "bartender" who serves alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, including coffee and espresso drinks. The term is gender neutral when singular. In English, it is gender neutral when singular or plural (baristas), but in Italian, it is gender-specific when plural either the masculine "baristi," which means "barmen" or "bartenders," or the feminine "bariste," which means "barmaids".
Barista Job Description
Generally, baristas working in coffeehouses, coffee shops or coffee bars operate commercial espresso machines (rather than home espresso machines). While their job may sound simple, commercial espresso machines range in difficulty. Some are manual and requiring immense skill, training, and ability to adapt to the nuance of each batch of coffee, day's weather, drinker's preferences, etc. While other machines are "super-automatic," requiring no more than the loading of whole beans and the push of a button.
For more information on how baristas work the more complicated machines see this guide to preparing espresso shots.
Beyond making espresso, baristas also generally foam, froth and steam milk to make a wide range of espresso-based drinks and prepare coffee drinks, such as French press, pour over and drip coffee.
It is a barista's job to know the differences between drinks like the Cortado which is made with equal parts densely steamed milk to espresso and a flat white which is equal parts steamed and textured milk and espresso.
Barista Training & Expertise
While it is possible for a barista to acquire their job skills by attending barista training courses, they are usually learned on the job from longstanding employees. Many baristas take great pride in their skills and spend years honing specific techniques for crafting perfect drinks. This obsessive tendency to improve one's craft led to local and international barista competitions. Although formal barista competitions originated in Norway, the most famous and respected barista competition is now the World Barista Championships (or WBC), which like the Olympics, is located in a new country every year.
In addition to skill in manually preparing espresso shots and espresso drinks, some baristas are known for specializations such as latte art, coffee roasting, in-depth coffee knowledge or cold-brewed coffee. You're probably used to seeing leaves or hearts on top of your milk and espresso drinks. This flair of creativity isn't as easy as it looks.
It requires pouring the milk in such a way that as it rises to the surface it forms a particular design.
Other Meanings of "Barista"
In addition to one who makes espresso and related drinks, the term barista may also refer to Barista Magazine, the coffee shop Barista PDX in the espresso-loving city of Portland, Oregon, Barista Prima Coffeehouse K-Cups and the coffee chain Barista India (a Lavazza company).