“Barista” was always such a mysterious word for me. The term conjured thoughts of art, culture, decadence, luxury, skill, and not a little bit of confusion. What does a barista do? How do you become a barista? Why? The stereotype of the English-Major-turned-barista resonates pretty strongly with me, but more on that later. Last August, I finally learned what it means to be a barista, and trust me: it is anything but decadent. Being a barista is very much like being a monk, but first, the backstory.
The Mornings… God, the Mornings…
July 2015. I am two months away from marrying my best friend; my work partner, and consequently my job, has just moved to California; and there I sit, hat in hand, resting uncomfortably on a newly furnished M.A. in – yep, you guessed it – English Literature. There was an unbelievable amount of pressure to perform. I needed a job to support my wife; I needed a car to get me there; I needed an apartment to house us. What I needed was a business degree. In lieu, I loaded a hundred resumes into a tee-shirt launcher and drove around town, firing at every business park and storefront I could find.
In the end, I got lucky. At a social event, while sipping some stale, burnt coffee, I reconnected with an old family friend, and he offered me a job at a coffee shop, Brew Ha Ha at the Colony, where he was manager. Oh boy! “You’ll start paid training in August for a month working mornings,” he said, and then with more hesitance, “Are you a morning person?” “Yes!” I declared without pause. “I love mornings!” A month later, I was on the following schedule:
4:25 AM – Roll stubbornly out of bed, brain not fully awake.
4:45 – Stumble into your car, half-dressed and late.
5:17 – Arrive at an empty parking lot, sun nowhere to be found (way worse in the winter).
5:25 – Clock in, let the circus begin.
5:30 – Open.
12:30 – Stumble out into the light like Hercules swimming in the River Styx.
So, is it worth it?
Monks on Caffeine
Six months later, I am still at Brew Ha Ha, and I love it! But, it is not what I thought being a barista would be like. Incidentally, as an English student, I focused on Medieval English Literature, and in this literature, there are TONS of monks. They are in stories, they recorded stories, and they altered stories as they saw fit. They are actually incredibly important to the English literary canon and the development of our current historical narrative. But, alas, I am slipping into old habits. Anyway, I started seeing a lot of similarities between my life and those of the monks about whom I spent so many evenings reading. Here’s my experience, in a nutshell:
8. Early Mornings – Monks woke up at 3:30 AM. Every morning. ‘Nuff said.
7. Repetitive Action – Monks did the same things every single day, with little variation. As a barista, you’ll get very good at what you are doing very quickly, because you do it so frequently. So. Frequently. More on that in 5 and 4.
6. Patience and Prayer – Monks spent hours upon hours in prayer. Working behind a coffee bar, you’ll spend half of your day praying you don’t bludgeon a customer for changing their order three separate times while you make their drink. (We still love you all!)
5. Practiced Skill – Monks were often skilled craftsman – weavers, woodworkers, etc. – because it was their only means of entertainment during long winters stuck by the fire. As a barista, you’ll become very skilled at pulling espresso shots, steaming milk, and pouring latte art, because otherwise the line out the door will start to get restless. You won’t like them when they’re restless.
4. Cleanliness – Perhaps the biggest misconception about being a barista is that all you do all day is the fun stuff from Number 5. There is a lot of that, eventually, but especially when you start, just as monks practice spiritual cleanliness, you’ll be running dishwasher loads, scrubbing pots, pans, kegs, and urns, and sweeping and mopping about 90% of your day. Good coffee is clean coffee.
3. Cooperation – Monks of old achieved a lot before the sun even rose each day by working together. Working on a determined team at a coffee shop means you can push out 30 drink orders, 20 food orders, brew more coffee, empty the trashes, and entertain wandering children – all in about 15 minutes.
2. Brewing and Roasting – 1,000 years ago, and even today, monks were and are brewing some of the best beer in the world. It is the best because they do it every single day. (Are you seeing a pattern? Perhaps a repetitive one?) If you become a barista at an artisan coffee bar, like Brew Ha Ha, there will probably be a roaster, and you will smell it. As a barista, you will see roasting, or at least discuss it, almost every single day. You will also brew, of course. If you don’t like changing the coffee filter on your drip pot at home, don’t become a barista.
1. Studying – Monks were so vital to English literature (and many other literary traditions), because they spent so much time reading and writing. They were the preservers of huge amounts of orally transmitted history and culture. At Brew Ha Ha, I am constantly challenged to learn more. We have to pass a coffee knowledge test just to be allowed to interact with customers. Then there is the “Bar Exam,” a test of our espresso grinding and brewing knowledge, as well as our milk-steaming and latte art creation abilities. And, a lot of this stuff is NOT like riding a bike. You take a break, you stop reading, you stop learning, and you lose it.
So, do you think you can be a Coffee Monk? Why not give it a try?
As it turns out, Brew Ha Ha is accepting applications right now for some summer help, paid training and all!
If you’re interested, or you liked (or hated) what we had to say, shoot us an email! You can direct your hatred to me, Joe, because it is all my fault.
Oh, Number 0. – Penance for mistakes, grammatical, factual, and otherwise.
Chief of Coffee Relations
Brew Ha Ha at the Colony