The role of the barista is changing in specialty coffee


The barista is one of the most important supply chain actors in the coffee industry. Often considered the “face” of coffee shops, baristas help to balance the art and science of making coffee. Their job is to not only consistently serve high-quality drinks, but to also provide excellent customer service and hospitality to every person who walks through the door.

As specialty coffee has evolved in recent years, so too has the role of the barista. Now more than ever, serving great coffee and welcoming customers is seen by many as the bare minimum. Baristas also need to disseminate accessible information about coffee production and act as a bridge between producers and consumers.

Simultaneously, baristas have had to adapt to the industry’s increasing reliance on automation and technology to improve efficiency and extraction – and this has ultimately shaped their role in many new ways.

To learn more, I spoke to Roosa Jalonen, European Sales Director at Forest Green Coffee and competition coach, and Carlos Medina, head roaster at Espacio Tuesta and 2023 World Brewers Cup Champion.

You may also like our article on why the barista-to-roaster career step might not be as logical as it seems.

A barista pours latte art into a takeaway cup in a coffee shop.A barista pours latte art into a takeaway cup in a coffee shop.

The ongoing evolution of the barista

For some time – and unrightfully so – the barista position wasn’t the most highly regarded by many people in the coffee industry and beyond. Often seen as a stopgap job rather than a viable career option, baristas would typically receive little investment from their employers.

Naturally, this would lead to increased job dissatisfaction and higher turnover rates in coffee shops, which is a problem that the hospitality industry has been facing for some time. According to an article published in The Caterer, an average of 6% of UK hospitality staff left their jobs every month in the first half of 2022.

In the specialty coffee sector specifically, however, many have shifted their perspective on the role of the barista to become much more positive and appreciative. There are several key reasons for this, but mostly because baristas’ skills and knowledge have become much more advanced.

Roosa Jalonen is a coffee specialist and Q grader in London, and has previously worked as a barista in several coffee shops.

“As a barista, you need to know the basics of how to prepare coffee and steam milk,” she says. “In many cafés, baristas are also expected to be able to pour latte art and dial in different coffees, which requires more skills than many other service roles.”

And as customers have become more interested in learning about specialty coffee, baristas are also expected to know more about coffee production than ever before. This includes information about:

  • Different coffee origins and varieties
  • How different processing methods affect flavour profiles
  • The producer, farm, or co-operative which grew the coffee

Carlos Medina is a seasoned coffee competitor, and is the 2020 Chilean Barista Champion. 

“Nowadays, it’s easier to learn about coffee,” he says. “There are so many different online resources, books, and courses available.”

A barista distributes ground coffee in a portafilter.A barista distributes ground coffee in a portafilter.

Taking different career directions

As in any industry or profession, there will come a time for most baristas when they will want to progress in their careers. While some may choose to remain in the coffee shop setting – such as supervisor or management positions – others might decide to move into different areas of the industry.

Roasting is often a logical career step after working as a barista, as Roosa explains.

“Many roasters create recipes for their coffees and share best brewing parameters with the baristas working in the front of house, which often means there needs to be concise communication and plenty of interaction between roasters and baristas,” she says.

Roosa adds that she followed this career trajectory, but emphasises that: “there are plenty more opportunities, including management, product development, sales, and so on.”

And this is especially important to note, as transitioning from barista to roaster isn’t always easy.

“At least here in Chile, it’s really hard to find an opportunity to work in a roastery because there aren’t that many,” Carlos says. “It’s even harder to find a job as a head or assistant roaster because there aren’t many vacancies for these roles.”

Competitions: Elevating skills and expertise

For baristas, exploring other career options other than roasting can be valuable – particularly for those who may want to enhance the skills and knowledge they already have even further.

In recent years, the growing prominence and influence of coffee competitions – most notably the World Barista Championship – has created something of a new career path for baristas. Competing can help baristas acquire skills they may not be able to fully develop in a coffee shop setting, such as public speaking and working under more intense pressure.

“In my personal experience, a barista champion needs to be someone who is really willing to earn that title,” Carlos tells me. “This includes having a lot of passion, discipline, and a dedication to learn and try new things, as well as being creative, adaptable, and having a lot of patience. 

“Earning a title like that, however, can take some time and several attempts, so competitors need to know that beforehand,” he adds.

A female barista steams milk in a coffee shop.A female barista steams milk in a coffee shop.

Improving diversity and inclusivity

Specialty coffee prides itself on being a diverse and inclusive industry. And while there will always be room for improvement, of course, some of the positive changes that have been made so far are most noticeable in the barista community.

There are a number of grassroots organisations and non-profits – such as Glitter Cat Barista and Go Fund Bean (which sadly ceased operations in 2024) – which provide barista and competition training, mentorship, and support to members of marginalised communities.

In doing so, starting a career in specialty coffee as a barista or any other profession becomes much more accessible. And the industry as a whole can reap the benefits – with the voices and perspectives of a more diverse group of people taken into consideration.

Roosa says the hiring process itself plays a huge role in this.

“I went to a training session organised by Fair Shot, which is a social enterprise café helping young adults with learning disabilities and autism to find jobs in hospitality,” she tells me. “Their work is absolutely amazing, and they have a well-organised training programme to give this community an equal and fair chance at obtaining and maintaining employment.”

Resources for learning more about coffee, however, are not always accessible to everyone – including people in majority non-English speaking countries.

“For Latin American and other Spanish-speaking countries like Chile, almost all of the information available about specialty coffee is in English,” Carlos says. “So for many people, there is a language barrier that makes learning more complicated.”

This is an issue that has also been raised in other areas of the coffee industry, including competitions like the World Barista Championship. Ultimately, for coffee education to be truly inclusive and accessible, companies, individuals, and organisations need more support to create resources in many different languages.

A person prepares several V60 pour overs in a coffee shop.A person prepares several V60 pour overs in a coffee shop.

Baristas vs. automation

Similar to other areas of the coffee supply chain, automation is playing an increasingly bigger role in coffee shops. As one example of many, automated pour over brewers have become more commonly used to help improve extraction efficiency and consistency.

“I believe the role of the barista has definitely changed. It’s still about serving coffee, but I would say there are plenty of things that have shifted,” Roosa says. “Even the way of making coffee is different from what it was ten years ago when I worked as a barista. There are many new tools that optimise workflow – making coffee extraction even more automated.”

In turn, baristas have had to learn how to work in harmony with technology – and even use it to their advantage. Preparing coffee with automated pour over brewers, for instance, allows them more time to interact with customers and enhance their overall experience.

Knowledge sharing

“We will always need baristas to calibrate machines, to create beverages and recipes, and to choose which coffees to serve,” Carlos tells me. “But I think the barista role will evolve into something more intellectual in the future.”

Undoubtedly, baristas’ knowledge of the entire coffee supply chain will continue to increase in the coming years – allowing them to take on more of an educator role in specialty coffee.

A barista pours latte art in a mug.A barista pours latte art in a mug.

Being passionate about coffee – as well as having the skills and knowledge to prepare it to high standards – is key for any barista. But at the same, it’s clear that the role of the barista has changed in recent years – and will continue to evolve even further.

And with baristas having such a crucial customer-facing role, their position in the industry will have a huge impact on consumers, too.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how the espresso machine influences barista workflow.

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