Seven Things Every New Barista Should Know
If you just bought a new espresso machine, are thinking about taking the plunge into home espresso, or are tempted to apply to your favorite café but don’t have experience, look no further. This guide will debunk myths and tell you what’s really important so that you can spend less time perusing the internet for potentially misguided information and more time drinking great espresso.
1. First things first, buy good coffee.
One of the biggest mistakes we see new baristas make is buying cheap, old coffee to practice. Nothing is wrong with getting a good deal on coffee, but likely, if it’s saving you lots of money, you’ll be paying later on with your time and dignity. Make sure your coffee bag has a roast date on it. Ideally, you should be buying coffee that is 5-10 off the roast. Once coffee is roasted, it begins its decline by rapidly off-gassing and releasing co2 generated during the roasted process. For up to one month for most coffees, this is a good thing in a shot of espresso as it results in delicious crema. As it gets older, there becomes less and less for the water to extract from the coffee, and you’ll have to grind finer and finer. If you’ve pulled shots and they’ve sprayed everywhere or have looked very watery, your coffee is likely old. If you don’t choke your grinder and you can grind fine enough to pull a half-decent shot with old coffee, you’ll have to start from scratch with that new bag of freshly roasted specialty coffee. You’ll have a much better time if you buy quality beans from the getgo.
Need coffee recs? Look no further: Mistobox — personalized, well-roasted, fresh coffee delivered to your door.
2. The air keeping you alive is killing your coffee.
Though coffee is constantly off-gassing and time itself is killing us all, you can get the most out of that $20 bag of coffee simply by storing it properly. There are five main enemies of coffee: moisture, temperature, light, time, and oxygen. Coffee is an organic product — it’s the seed of a fruit and, if neglected, will become stale. Keep your coffee away from fluctuating or extreme temperatures, moisture and humidity, bright lights, and most importantly, oxygen. When coffee is exposed to oxygen, it expedites the aging process. Keep it in an air-tight or vacuumed-sealed container. Or, be diligent about pushing all of the air out of the coffee bag through the one-way air valve. The last enemy, time, is pretty unavoidable but if you figure out how to pause it, let us know.
Our favorite coffee storage option — the Fellow Atmos Canister.
3. It’s true. Having a (great) grinder is necessary.
Sorry, not sorry, but what you’ve heard about having an espresso grinder is true. Similarly to buying fresh coffee, this is the difference between a creamy, tasty shot and a terrible one. As we mentioned before, there is less to extract as coffee ages, so your coffee will be weaker in taste. Something that speeds this up even more is grinding your coffee. Since coffee is changing day-to-day, the way you grind will need to change daily. Having a grinder at home will allow you to keep your coffee in its freshest state and enable you to control how your shots pull. This is everything. You’re not doing things right if you’re not tweaking your grinder on the reg.
With that said, you don’t need to save 40% of your budget for a grinder necessarily, but you need something that grinds evenly. It’s a toss-up if buying pre-ground coffee or using a blade grinder makes for a worse shot. Some hobbies, like photography, for example, rely more on the eye of the photographer than the equipment itself. Espresso is different. Though you need to know what you’re doing, your espresso is only as good as your equipment and coffee. The essential attribute of a grinder is its ability to grind consistently evenly.
For recommendations on the best home grinders, check out our article on the top five home coffee and espresso grinders.
4. The most underrated accessory — a scale.
A scale will be your saving grace. Did you know that a tenth of a gram difference of ground coffee changes how your shot will pull and taste? If you’re trying to dial in a coffee (this is barista lingo for getting your shots pulling well), you’ll be able to make decisions, and changes to your recipe based on numbers and are actually repeatable. With that said, the most underrated barista tool is the scale, so make sure to budget for one when you’re looking into taking this to your home. As we said above, a tenth of a gram makes a difference, so you’re going to need something precise. The industry standard is the Acaia Lunar. If you’re looking to make coffee as good as the pros, you need to make coffee like the pros.
5. Follow a recipe.
An espresso recipe consists of three things: dose, yield, and time. The dose is how much ground coffee you’ll put into your espresso machine. The yield is the total weight, in grams, of your shot of espresso that you’ll pull out. Time is the total number of seconds it takes for your shot to pull from the moment you engage your pump until you have your final yield. The most common espresso recipe uses one part ground coffee to two parts espresso to be pulled between 25 and 30 seconds. It’s not going to be the optimal recipe for every single coffee, but it’s a great starting point and will likely still give you something enjoyable. You’ll use that scale you’re going to buy (hint hint— if you haven’t already) and measure out your dose. If you’re using a standard double basket, you’ll use 18 grams of coffee. Double that for your output. So, 36 grams of liquid espresso out in 25-30 seconds. We always recommend weighing coffee in grams and not measuring by volume because the volume of a shot of espresso changes based on the coffee you use and when it was roasted. Fresh coffee will have lots of crema and weigh less than a shot using older beans. If you get your yield in under 25 seconds, you’ll look to your grinder and make an adjustment finer. The finer the coffee, the more resistance and the slower your shot will pull. If your shot pulls well over 30 seconds, make your grind coarser to lessen the resistance. For more tips on pulling a shot, check out this read — Your Guide to Perfect Home Espresso.
6. Keep things simple.
It’s easy to get lost in the hobby, spend a lot of money on accessories and tools, and spend too much time with puck prep. We’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s best to keep things simple. When it comes time to prep your coffee before pulling a shot, less is best. Once you grind your coffee into your portafilter, keep the distribution and leveling to a minimum. Lightly lean into the tamp, applying slow and gentle pressure to both sides of the base until you feel resistance and the coffee stops moving in the basket. The amount of pressure is not essential. Keep it simple and make it something easily repeatable.Need help with consistency? Try a distribution tool.
7. Waste coffee to waste less coffee.
What a concept. The truth is, as coffee ages, one of the hardest things to achieve when starting is consistency. Purging your grinder is one of the most overlooked practices that can make a world of difference. Many grinders have up to a couple of grams of ground coffee that remain in the burr chamber. This is known as grind retention and means that an adjustment in grind size does not have an immediate effect, with some particles from the previous setting making their way into your dose. To make things easier for you, purge your grinder before pulling your first shot of the day, after making a grind adjustment, and when switching to a new bag of coffee— even if it’s the same blend and roast date (remember, storage makes a difference!).
Feeling less overwhelmed? Good. Drop any of your questions below, or check out Coffee School's Intro to Espresso for further espresso nerding out.