A grande, skinny, decaff, almond latte to go, please

It's Starbucks coffee, but not as we know it. But then, with STUART HUSBAND behind the counter, it's little wonder

The range of jobs-for-life is ever-shrinking in a short-term-contract world, but a new vocation may be about to buck the trend; the barrista. This isn't some gangsta-rap version of an advocate; the only bar this lot are being called to is the kind that serves cappuccino. "Barista" is an Italian word meaning both bartender and coffee expert, and it's the title bestowed on those working at the sharp end of the UK's booming coffee culture.

Blame it on Central Perk and the Friends factor, but you can barely walk a block these days without inhaling the bean fumes wafting out of the Aromas, Coffee Republics, Costas, Pret a Mangers, and Starbucks. According to a recent report on the UK retail coffee-shop market by management consultants Allegra Strategies, there are currently 778 of these chain coffee shops in Britain, employing some 8,500 people. However, their numbers are growing at a rate of 71 per cent per year, and it's estimated that the 2.9 million cups of espresso-based coffee we currently consume per week will rise to 5.7 million by December 2001. Someday soon, it seems, we will all be baristas.

I thought I'd get in early by taking a Starbucks training course and trying my hand at baristadom. Starbucks is the new kid on the UK block, arriving a couple of years ago, but its takeover of Seattle Coffee Co means it now has 91 stores. (In its American homeland, its ubiquity is such that Dr Evil made it his HQ in Austin Powers 2, so he could take over the world unnoticed.)

All Starbucks employees (or "partners" as they are called) take a number of courses. These include "Communicating Coffee" (nothing to do with mumbling into your cappuccino), where they acquire an exhaustive knowledge the 12 types of whole bean coffee that the chain serves up; a food hygiene course, where they learn how to handle food and answer multiple-choice questions on things like bacterial replication rates (their numbers double every 10-20 minutes in unsanitary conditions, fact fans!); and today's course, "Espresso Bar" where we actually get to have a hands-on coffee experience.

We're welcomed into the basement of Starbucks' branch in Victoria, London, by Hannah, our trainer, a vibrant redhead. The dinginess of the room is offset by the various slogans and exhortations scrawled on the wall in lurid felt-tip. Mission Statements (among which is the dauntingly ambitious "develop enthusiastically satisfied customers all of the time") vies for space with a list of the Enemies Of Coffee (oxygen, moisture, and temperature, since you ask) and Objectives For Partners ("Have Fun!" seemingly being the most crucial).

As we don our pea-green Starbucks aprons, it quickly becomes apparent that we're going to have to digest a blizzard of technical terms as arcane as anything found in a Savile Row tailor's; Starbucks makes bespoke coffee, rather than the press-a-button kind found in some other chains. Hannah takes the willing students through the procedures. We pile our beans in the bean hopper, remove the coffee from the reservoir with the dosing lever into our portafilter, and tamp it down with a free tamp on our tamp mat. We then proceed to "love" our portafilter before inserting it into the machine by stroking its "ears" (the sticky-out bits on the side), thus removing the excess grains.

Once we've poured our shots by pressing one of the bewildering flight- deck array of buttons on the machine, we dump the "coffee cookie" (the gunk left in the portafilter) into the "knockout box" (the box that the coffee cookie is, er, knocked out in).

But if the words are dizzying, the numbers are just plain stupefying: the shots (which should have "the consistency of honey dripping off a spoon," sighs Hannah, dreamily) should take 18-23 seconds to pour; any less and they're too weak, any more and they're too stale - either way, they have to be thrown away; once they're poured, the drink has to be served in 10 seconds, otherwise the "crema", the "head" of the liquid, starts to lose its lustre.

Still with me? OK. A "short" cup tends to have one shot, though mochas and flavoured drinks have a few pumps of chocolate or syrup. A "tall" cup also has one shot, except for an Americano, which has two, while the mochas and flavoureds have three pumps. A "grande" cup has two shots of espresso, except for an Americano, which has three, and so on. A whole drink should be served in 60 seconds. You should make eye contact with a customer within 30 seconds of their entering the shop. The whole process between a customer entering and leaving the store should take no more than five minutes. "Don't worry," says Hannah blithely, "you'll soon pick it up."

Somewhat shell-shocked, we have a go at creating espresso. My tamping is a little indelicate, though I caress my portafilter fervently. Even so, my shots dribble out interminably, busting every time-limit in one fell swoop. We move like automatons, and it all gets a little too much for Hannah, who rushes in, a blur of elbows and free tamps, and immediately produces the perfect espresso, which we all gratefully fall upon. "OK," she says, eyes blazing. "Let's steam some milk!"

The steam wand, she gleefully informs us, is the "bogey bit" of the espresso machine; when it's not scalding people, it's blowing hot milk in their faces. A cloth is kept on top of the machine to give it a vigorous rubdown, and prevent it gunking up. And, inevitably, there are more numbers. The milk must be "aerated" to 150 degrees, after which the jug is "rocked and rolled" to create the foam.

I'm pretty good at creating the "whirlpool" as the wand is dipped in, though as the level rushes upward my immediate inclination is to throw the jug off to the side, inundating the counter with hot milk. Eventually, after I've burnt one jugful and been taken to task for repeatedly failing to rub my steam wand, I pour out a latte (five parts milk, two parts foam) and a cappuccino (four parts milk, three parts foam). They look like a latte and cappuccino. They even taste like a latte and cappuccino.

But Hannah, perhaps with more relish than is strictly necessary, explains that we won't just be asked for a latte and cappuccino in our stores. We'll be asked for the likes of a decaf triple almond semi-skimmed extra- frothy Americano. And, worse than that, we'll be expected to provide said drink in 60 seconds. "Have fun!" she trills as we troop desolately out of the basement.

Two days later, I report for duty at Starbucks' Chelsea branch - all dark-wood floors and picture windows - at an unfeasibly early hour. This time I'm given a black Starbucks T-shirt to wear under my apron, and Denny, the "bar co-ordinator", perhaps influenced by my ashen pallor, assigns me to shots. I'm pleased to discover that the number-rules go completely out of the window as the store gets busier, particularly as my shots seem stuck in either gush or drip mode.

I'm supposed to call the orders back to the till so they know I've got them, but I immediately get very confused ("venti, er, latte with, um, vanilla was it? Double extra something or other?"). Luckily, the capable Moira, a senior "partner" is on hand to nursemaid me ("four decaf shots in here, five pumps of mocha in there, no no - in there, OK we'll just pour that one away, no no - you're doing great," etc).

By 8am, the place is heaving and I'm hyperventilating, but when a queue of more than six or seven cups builds up, Denny charges in like the cavalry ("You should see it when it's really busy here," he shrugs, dispatching orders frenziedly, while I desultorily stroke the nearest steam wand). I try to make eye contact with customers, but as I'm either muttering to myself or hissing an oath as my portafilter steadfastly refuses to lock into the machine, they're not too keen to make eye contact with me. My respect - not to mention awe - grows by the second as Denny, Moira & Co dish out the half caf half decaf triple semi-skimmed extra-hot mochas or triple espresso companas with an ease bordering on the nonchalant. Though by now I've drunk about five espressos, so I could just be getting hysterical.

Then my chance arrives. "Regular latte!" OK then, here goes. Yank on dosing lever, into portafilter, love love love, hook it up to the machine, pour - 20 seconds - perfect, into the cup, milk just steamed, jug in left hand, pour pour pour, hold back foam with spoon, NOW brush foam in, bit slopped over the side oh well, reach for lid, fumble fumble, SHIT what's the matter? Won't fit, oh wrong size, get another, OK, hand it over smile make eye contact 58 seconds YES! "Latte to go!"

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