When the Durham graduate James Hoffman took a part-time job in a department-store coffee bar, he did not imagine it would result in his being flown around the world, with people hanging on to his every word and clamouring for him to appear on their television programmes.
But this is what happened after Hoffman took the World Barista Championship title in Switzerland in May this year. Since then, he has been in demand as a coffee consultant and speaker. From Cumbria, with a degree in philosophy and East Asian and Central Eastern European studies, Hoffman didn't even like coffee when he started work, but he had always thought it was something he "should" like. So, like any good student, he started learning. "I trained myself to like espresso," he says. "It took a long time to educate my palate but in the end I taught myself."
Eventually, the barista business became a full-time job and he found himself extremely interested. Along the way, he met the then World Barista Champion and thought it was something he could try for. The rest is history.
The term "barista", Hoffman explains, is used by coffee chains to describe anyone who works with an espresso machine. The word translates from Italian as someone who works behind a bar. "And that's something we need to bring back if we are going to push coffee forward," he says. "We need a better relationship with the consumer."
So what makes a good cup of coffee? Hoffman says the answer lies in the brewing – and that's why barista training is important.
Domenico Nicoletti, a trainer at Caffe Society in Leeds, agrees. He worked as a chef before training as a barista. "It's so much more than just making a cup of coffee," he says. "You need a good machine that works properly; you need the right temperature; the pump that pushes the water through should have the same pressure; and the coffee should be ground properly."
And how you grind it depends on the coffee. "Not all coffees are the same," says Nicoletti, "and the temperature outside will affect the result, so you might need to change the grinder."
Hoffman's victory at the World Championships is in part due to his mastery of the machine, but it was also down to his signature drink, which features a ganache cream infused with fresh pipe tobacco – which is, he says, incredibly hard to find – and a biscotti foam on top. He prepared the drink as part of the compulsory 15-minute presentation, during which he had to make four espressos and four cappuccinos.
His win, he says, is also down to the types of coffee he used: single estate coffees for the espresso and a slightly strange choice for the cappuccino – a "blackcurranty" single estate from Kenyan Gethumbwini, which, when mixed with milk, became "jammy and sweet," he says.
Basic barista training is offered by most coffee companies, and the duration depends on each company's own training scheme. But it usually lasts one week. Baristas at the Caffè Nero chain spend two days alone learning how to make the perfect espresso, and then a further five days being trained by a "maestro".
Being a barista, Hoffman says, is far from the menial job it is sometimes treated as. That's why, when he gets back from Colombia and Costa Rica, he plans to open his own café and roasterie in London.
"The chains pay minimum wages in this country," he says. "We want to change that. We want to expect a lot from our workers and offer them some sort of progression. This can have a big effect on the industry."
Brewing up a storm
* Most coffee bars provide training for new baristas. Experience isn't necessary to start.
* The London School of Coffee offers one- and two-day training at all levels from basic to advanced and specialist drink skills (www.londonschoolofcoffee.com).
* Being a barista is akin to being a sommelier. There's no point making a cup of coffee if you don't know where it comes from. Read up on it before you start in The World Encyclopedia of Coffee by Mary Banks, Christine McFadden and Catherine Atkinson (Lorenz Books).
* When you've learnt your art, enter the UK Barista Championship (www.ukbaristachampionship.co.uk).
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