Every week in our staff tips column, we talk to leading hospitality professionals and ask them for their best advice on their topic of expertise.
This week we’re talking to Sarah Leslie, a coffee instructor from New York who has filled various coffee educator roles throughout the years.
She's worked as a trainer at various places doing wholesale classes and other coffee classes, and has volunteered with the Barista Guild and the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Assocation of America).
As she’s someone who continuously helps aspiring baristas get up to snuff with their coffee skills, we thought we could learn a thing or two from Sarah. Luckily she was happy to share some of her best tips for beginner baristas.
What do you think are some important skills for beginner baristas to focus on?
Ideally, you would start with where coffee comes from, what things impact the flavor. Then you’d go all right, let’s taste some coffee, let’s talk about it, and then let’s think about how we’re actually going to brew it. For a barista or someone interested in opening a coffee shop I would say some basic understanding of espresso would be good.
We are actually working on getting our classes to really encompass all aspects of the industry. So it’s not just about the barista in the café, it’s also about the manager, the wholesale person who sells the roasted beans, the roaster and everybody through the supply chain. We cover seed-to-cup, so where the coffee is grown and how it’s grown. What are all the steps and how do they impact the final flavor? I think that’s important to know for anyone who really wants to understand coffee.
What are some common misunderstandings or mistakes you see amongst beginner baristas?
There are a lot of really good baristas out there, and I think that people see them and think ‘it seems so effortless, it must be really easy’. They don’t realize how much practise we put into what we’re doing. I have a lot of beginner students who are frustrated because they realise it’s actually harder than it looks. It’s a common thing to have to accept that it takes practise and time.
Also, people get hung up on latte art sometimes. For a beginning barista it can be very hard to pour these really intricate designs and at the end of the day, it definitely matters, but it’s more important that the coffee tastes good. People spend a lot of time practising latte art and I just hope they spend as much time thinking about what their espresso tastes like, the right texture and temperature, not just the cool design.
What’s your tip for making good textured milk?
It helps if you start with old milk; so not room temperature, and a cold pitcher. And you need to be sure that you add all of the air before the milk reaches 100 degrees [Fahrenheit], which is when the milk is roughly the same temperature of your hand. So before the pitcher feels hot but when it stops feeling cold, you want to have added all the air by that point, otherwise you’ll get big bubbles.
And don’t be afraid of the steam wand. Turn it all the way on. A lot of people get nervous and only open it a little and don’t get the pressure they need. Don’t be intimidated by the process and don’t be afraid to spill some milk while you’re practising because that’s how you get better.
What are your best tips for extracting the perfect espresso?
Taste your espresso. Sometimes people taste and they just take a little sip off the top, but I encourage people to actually stir it. And take a big sip so that they get a sense of all the coffee, because espresso is a layered beverage. If you don’t stir it, you’re just getting the crema off the top.
And as you make adjustments, only change one variable at a time. So approach it scientifically in terms of adjusting parameters. And take good notes as you go, because the way you learn is to write down what worked and what didn’t. Over time you’ll have this log of what works for a particular coffee or for your café. And then you can share that with other baristas. Because the final thing is to talk to people as you taste if you can. A good way to learn is to just taste as much as you can.