Coffee is in many ways comparable to wine (see Wine is to Coffee), but it separates itself as the more labor intensive of the two beverages in the final stage: preparation.
When a vintner corks a wine bottle, his work remains intact until you uncork it drink it. There is no necessary “wine preparer” to be the final link in the wine chain, but the professional coffee preparer, the barista, is arguably the most crucial link in the coffee chain just because his or her job is at the end. If a barista messes up, all the work that’s gone into the coffee up until that point is lost.
I usually make my coffee in some version of a drip percolator, or buy it from a corner deli making it that way. I pretty much considered baristas as adding unnecessary flourish to a task that could be accomplished quite simply. I mean, how hard is it to make an espresso? I worked at an Italian restaurant in high school and served a few cappuccinos for dessert; it certainly didn’t seem like rocket science. But the more professionally prepared espresso drinks I’ve had in Costa Rica and Panama, the more I’ve been able to say, as a long-time non-believer, that, “wow, now that tastes different.”
The more baristas I’ve met, the more I’m also learning that not only does their work take practice and skill, they don’t take their job lightly. Their role is not inherently necessary; coffee does always require one more step than wine in that roasted beans have to be prepared by someone somehow, but they can be converted to drinkable coffee with less machinery and manipulation than that of espresso. But there are some aspects of coffee flavor, body, aroma (all those same qualities you look for in a good wine) that you just don’t get without the craft of a barista.
And the baristas feel this burden; they know it is on them to unlock all that a particular coffee has to offer. One Dutch barista visiting a coffee farm for the first time told me, “it takes around 20 seconds to make an espresso. From the time the coffee plant flowers until the time I put the roasted beans in the grinder usually takes around 8 months! I have 20 seconds to get it right to not ruin all the work the people before me have been doing for 8 months.” And much longer if you start the timer from when the coffee tree seed germinated.
Baristas are cognizant of the responsibility they have to all the people who’ve put in devoted work before them.
The people who tended the seedlings.
The people who pruned the trees.
The people who harvested the cherries.
The people who transported them.
The people who depulped and washed them.
The people who dried the beans.
The people who hulled and sorted them.
The people who shipped them.
The people who roasted them.
And after all that the barista has about 20 seconds to do it right, or all that work will be in vain. The fact that high quality coffee even makes it to baristas’ hands is a bit of a miracle in the first place, considering that if someone makes an error in any of those steps it would not reach that highest level of quality. So when baristas have near-miraculous coffee in their hands, they feel the burden of not being the weak link that screws it all up.
Baristas and their creations might be the most elaborate iteration of coffee preparation, but at the root of all the flourish is an understanding that the meticulous (sometimes damn near obsessive) treatment of the coffee is done out of respect for all the people who’ve put in so much work before them.