8 Lessons Bartenders Can Learn from Baristas

A person using an espresso machine.
Bartenders and baristas share more than a root word. Find out how one craft can inform the other. Photo via iStock/Mikolette.

For Troy Sidle, owner of Canvas Bar Design (currently working on cocktail/coffee bar Steadfast Commons in Nashville) and a veteran in the coffee and cocktail world, the similarities between the two professions are endless. “A barista is just the Italian word for bartender,” he says. “It's two different skill sets, but ultimately the same job.”

Still, he and Amanda Whitt, a bartender and freelance coffee professional in New York City (with ten years of barista experience under her belt) agree that there are a few things bartenders might want to pay attention to from the barista world.

1. Go to the source

When Whitt began bartending after years serving coffee, she thought nothing of calling up the producer of a craft bourbon she was interested in knowing more about. “Because with coffee there wasn't a lot of published information about processing, about origin, it was considered very much a commonplace and totally acceptable thing for you to do, no matter what kind of barista you were, to reach out to the person who may purchase your coffee, may have traveled to its origin, may process your coffee, and if they speak English, even the person who grows your coffee, and ask them questions about it,” she says. She was surprised to find that many of her bartending colleagues had never attempted to make contact with liquor brands. For her, it’s been a positive experience. “They might be busy, but some of them are more approachable than you'd think, especially with the smaller brands.”

2. Get obsessed with your ingredients — even the non-alcoholic ones

“Ask a coffee professional about this one plant that produces one fruit and they can show you books and books that they have read about it,” says Sidle. “They can talk about the nature of that one ingredient and how its flavors come out in so many different ways depending on how you manipulate it, how it's grown, how it's dried, how it's processed, how it's roasted, to what level it's roasted, how it's extracted, the water temperature during that extraction and the many varieties of plants that produce that fruit and the seed that we eventually roast and consume as brewed coffee.” In his experience bartenders are obsessed with their ingredients as well, but that interest covers more ground. “Bartenders tend to obsess about the right way to make a combination of ingredients in a drink, whereas the barista is consumed with making that one ingredient taste good in a beverage. Learn everything there is to know about strawberries and that will likely inform making better drinks with strawberries.”

3. Get scrappy

One of Whitt’s favorite parts of coffee culture is the willingness to create DIY events, by baristas, for baristas. “We don't have as many brand sponsored events with barista-ing. We do a lot of things independently. I have no idea if it's better or worse that we do it that way,” she says. “All I know is that we don't wait for a sponsor to make an event happen because we're used to not having one. I'd love to see more bartenders have a crazy idea and try to follow through with maybe less money, and make these events happen and not have it come from the brand down but from bartender up.”

4. Respect the bean

At Steadfast, coffee is an important component in cocktails and desserts, but Sidle’s coffee background helps him handle coffee with care as a drink component. “One of the things that we decided at Steadfast Commons was that when we were combining spirits and coffee, we would use the spirit or the liqueur as a supplemental flavoring to the coffee, rather than trying to truly get a vodka Red Bull effect,” he says. “We decided if we wanted the flavor of chartreuse, or the flavor of grappa, or any particular thing that is a flavor tool that a bartender has, that that was the purpose of using it, not to have two ounces of an 80 proof spirit in the drink.”

“Coffee pros know how to use coffee, the flavor of coffee, much better than someone who's just thinking of it as a singular ingredient.” he says. “Coffee isn't a flavor. Coffee has flavors.”

Whether they serve coffee or not, Whitt feels that it’s important to recognize the importance of serving quality coffee, in the bar or elsewhere. “One thing I encounter in New York are bartenders who don't care about coffee,” she says. “I'm like 'Guys! Those people work really hard!’"

5. Get nerdy about precision

“When baristas pull a certain very specific amount of coffee, they think of it in grams, not in ounces,” says Sidle. “With programs and training that I do now I've gone from thinking of a cocktail as having two ounces of a spirit to having 50 milliliters. That has been a game changer for the speed and efficiency of learning and creating new cocktails.

For him, the learning curve was shockingly easy. “The jiggers are already out there and really, that's all you need. Every measuring cup is already in milliliters, bottles of booze come either in 750 milliliters or a liter so when you're trying to figure out how many cocktails you can get out of a bottle, it's much much easier.”

Whitt points out that baristas are constantly testing for and noting empirical data, like total dissolved solids. “We use gram scales, we use weights and this and that, and with bartending, they’ll talk about these things, they'll talk about them absolutely as far as experience on the palate but I see less of people showing evidence based results.” Still, she sees it as something to look into in the future, especially for large batch cocktails in kegs or bottles. “There's got to be a way to test for isolated variables that we find important. Dilution, PH with citrus. These are all things that we have the technology for.”

6. Keep it clean

“Working with coffee grounds that are constantly getting everywhere, and working in a brighter environment typically, baristas tend to work very cleanly — you just have to,” says Sidle. “I think that is a habit, if bartenders haven't worked in coffee before or haven't cooked before, then maybe that is a secondary aspect that gets overlooked a lot.”

7. Foster dialogue and cooperation — even if it means having difficult conversations

“At least in the shops I worked in, baristas were better communicators with each other than bartenders,” says Whitt. “I think that there's this very independent ‘know your shit or deal with it’ attitude that some bartenders get, whereas baristas are super cooperative because we're just happy to work with other people who know what they're doing. And so there's a lot more verbal communication, a lot more group participation even with people who might make you a little frustrated.”

Her coffee background has made her willing to take other professionals under her wing. “I think that baristas are a lot faster to jump in and say 'here's how I learned to do it.'”

Beyond day to day communication, Whitt finds that industry-wide communication about racial and gender inequality is more prevalent in the coffee industry as well. “I've seen a lot of discussion about gender and racial inequality in both bartending and baristas, but I think baristas are way ahead of bartenders in openly discussing it,” she says. “If you already really care about obtaining and drinking coffee from people who are being paid well for their product, you're more willing to maybe tackle inequality at every end of your supply chain, and so it's just something that's always part of our conversation.”

“I think that bartending might want to kind of evaluate why most of our most visible bartenders are white men," Whitt adds. "That's also a big problem in the barista world, a lot of the people who win the competitions and own the businesses are white men, but at least we're talking about it in coffee, it's less common that we're talking about it with bartending.”

8. Learn how to turn up the heat

“One of the biggest differences between the primary way that baristas work and the primary way that bartenders work is with the temperature of what they're serving,” says Sidle. “So many more flavor compounds come out when [coffee is] brewed warm. It's best consumed warm or hot. Whereas almost all cocktails need to be served as cold as you can shake them with ice. But occasionally a bartender needs to make a warm drink, and having the skill set of how to do that and temperature control in a hot context is very valuable.”

Whether you’re a bartender, barista, or a little of both, it’s clear that there is much to learn from the rich traditions on both sides.

Cara Strickland writes about food and drink for online and print publications. She’s always up for a conversation about cocktail history, preferably over a Corpse Reviver #2.

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