Coffee shops are a safe haven where two basic human needs—getting your daily dose of caffeine and a friendly conversation—can be reliably met upon each visit. As a formerly certified barista with four years of experience, I’ll attest that the work baristas are doing behind the coffee bar is no joke. Between keeping up with the flow of customers and making sure everyone’s orders are accurate, these workers do an impressive amount of work to supply you with a great beverage. And the greatest baristas of all have a couple tricks up their sleeves that improve the quality of your favorite coffee drinks. Here are ten of their best practices for a truly great cup.
Drenching mugs in hot water
The worst feeling is having your coffee turn cold even though you saw heaps of steam billowing out from its surface only moments before. A great barista will A deploy one small but mighty trick to ensure your drink isn’t lukewarm when it reaches your hands: They’ll fill a ceramic mug with hot water, let it sit for a minute, then pour it back out. This leaves the mug nice and warm before the hot drink is placed in it, and the drink stays hot for longer because it isn’t fighting against a cold vessel. (The ceramic mug is one major advantage to ordering your coffee “for here” at your local cafe.)
Blending sweeteners directly with espresso
Whether you’re enjoying an iced latte or a hot cappuccino, it’s never pleasant to have sugary bits floating in your coffee drink. But there’s a way baristas can prevent this improper sugar distribution from happening. When an espresso shot is pulled, it comes out hot. When a sweetener like a sugar packet is added immediately into the lone shot of espresso, the concentrated heat makes the crystals melt quicker. As the two become one, the sweetness blends seamlessly, resulting in a balanced beverage with no sugar clumps.
Using proper milk foaming techniques
Experienced baristas know that creating foam is an art all its own. Learning to maneuver the steam wand (the part of an espresso machine responsible for foaming milk) isn’t as simple as it might seem, since the technique changes based on which drink is being prepared. A cappuccino, for instance, requires more foam than a latte. This means the milk needs more air, so it will be steamed for a little longer. Meanwhile, plant-based milks made from almonds or oats contain more water and less fat than whole milk, so the steaming will be quicker, as las there’s less fat to foam up with air. A successful milk steaming won’t sound too loud—if it does, this means the milk is receiving too much air.
Making sure espresso is not over-extracted
An espresso drink (a cappuccino, latte, cortado, or any other beverage composed of an espresso shot blended with milk) can either be the best or worst part of one’s day, depending on how it’s made. A well-balanced espresso drink won’t taste acidic or acrid; depending on the blend, it should have smooth, even notes of chocolate, toffee, or even fruit. When espresso takes on a sour flavor, the barista most likely pulled a shot without using enough espresso. This makes the water course through the grounds too quickly, so there’s no time for it to extract evenly. This results in a short shot lacking in volume, and therefore no smooth flavor. A top-notch barista knows how to avoid this by using proper measurements.
Using the right coffee filter
We’ve all been there: You order a dark roast, only to find coffee grounds floating around in your drink, with the promise of more waiting at the bottom of the cup. Why does this happen? Before preparing a fresh batch of java, experienced baristas know the importance of the paper filter. Should the filter be too small, the grinds will expand once they’re saturated with the hot water, sending them up over the edges of the filter and into the funnel where they can flow outward into your drink. Ideally, the paper filter is snug inside the funnel and provides total coverage, allowing for the machine’s water stream to go right through without overflow.
Pulling tea bags before it’s too late
Baristas don’t just understand coffee—they know their way around a mug of tea, too. If you’re a tea drinker, your taste buds may have, unfortunately, been victim to some horrible tasting brews. Here’s the first thing to know: All tea comes from the same leaf. It doesn’t matter if you’re drinking white, green, or black tea—all varieties come from a plant known as Camellia sinensis, and its leaves simply undergo different harvest times and heating methods. A skilled barista will know that different tea varieties require different steeping times. Green tea generally needs less than three minutes to steep, and a great barista will pull the tea bag from the hot water at the right moment, instead of letting it sit, overheating the leaves and rendering the tea metallic in taste.
Grinding coffee beans right before brewing
This simple-but-true coffee knowledge isn’t just limited to baristas hard at work in your local cafe. Grinding coffee beans right before using them will make drip coffee taste fresh, no matter where it’s brewed. This is because grinding beans in advance, even if you do so the night before you plan to use them, will leave them to oxidize, making them lose their flavor and overall oomph. Coffee has a tricky relationship with oxygen; too much will result in a sour and bitter cup of joe instead of a well-rounded brew. By waiting until the last minute to grind the beans, baristas allow the best flavor to flow from the beans right on cue.
Mastering the art of tamping espresso
Another key to a successful cup of caffeine is mastering the art of tamping espresso. What does this mean? Well, before an espresso shot is pulled, it must be placed in a portafilter, a tool with a small metal basket to hold the grounds and a handle to attach it to the espresso machine. A barista with the magic touch knows that the espresso, once measured and poured into the portafilter, will need to be evenly distributed, rather than piled unevenly like an ant hill. Tamping down the espresso ensures a clean, equally spread layer so that when the shot is pulled, it doesn’t come out over- or under-extracted.
Making sure the coffee grinder is properly dialed
Ah, dialing in the coffee grinder—every barista’s favorite part of their job (sigh!). Dialing in, a tricky affair, refers to the process of making sure a grinder is on the correct setting to produce the perfect coffee grind. When the coffee beans go from beans to grinds, it can’t come out too packed or too loose. If grinds are too packed in, it won’t allow for water to pass through it when pulling an espresso shot, much like water trying to pass through sand. On the other end, a loose grind is like water passing through pebbles: the water moves through too easily, resulting in a watery espresso shot. A great barista will adjust the grinder to the right setting every morning, a process known as dialing in.
Making iced drinks before hot drinks
It sounds obvious, but it’s the key to good service. Experienced baristas will make sure to prioritize cold drinks before hot ones so that hot drinks won’t be waiting out on the counter for longer than needed, losing their warmth with each passing minute. It’s not ideal to reheat espresso drinks by steaming them all over again, because the quality of the drink falls flat.