Some of us need our coffee every day before we can handle other people, and then there are baristas, who surround themselves with people and coffee all day long. Prerequisites for life as a barista: must love people, love coffee, and love working hard. To hear more about how to get started as a barista and what life as a barista is actually like, we spoke with Michael Phillips, award-winning barista and director of training at Blue Bottle Coffee.
How did you get started as a barista?
I started off actually working in a production department where they packaged roasted coffee. I had no luck at getting hired in a cafe so this was my route into the industry. I also wanted to be a coffee roaster at the time so it made more sense. After working that job for a while, however, I participated in my first barista competition just as a way to learn more about coffee. I found that I really liked making drinks by doing this and decided to move into working in the cafes for that company.
How would you advise someone just starting out as a barista—anything from education and first steps to finding jobs and beyond?
The best thing you can do right off the bat is to find a company that makes coffee you love and has employees you want to work with. Then you simply keep showing up, being friendly, asking questions and applying every time there is a posting. There is a ton online you can read, you can get a pretty solid home espresso machine, brewing gear, coffee roaster, etc.… I did all of that but the real learning comes from getting into a professional space where they do it right and simply learning from them.
What kind of person would make a good barista? What are the biggest challenges?
You have to love people as it is a service industry job. You also have to really care about details that your average person would disregard. Seeing the value in working to be as specific and focused as possible while also paying attention to the experience your guests are having, and doing that every single day you work, is probably the biggest challenge.
Do you encounter any common misconceptions about life as a barista? Are there little-known or surprising facts about the history of the trade?
There seems to be an assumption that it is a relaxing and easy profession by some, and tragically those people often leave their career to open a cafe because of this idea... oh so wrong. It is a very physically and mentally demanding job. You are on your feet and most likely drinking far more coffee than you normally would in the effort to make sure it is tasting just right. This takes a toll on your body. On top of that you deal with all manner of guests, some lovely, some less lovely.… The term actually means bartender in Italian and in Italy many coffee shops are also bars with the barista making all of the drinks.
What is the pay like, generally, for beginners and more experienced baristas? What are some strategies to making a sustainable living being a barista?
This is entirely dependent on the type of cafe you work at. Most cafes start off at or near minimum wage and then your hourly tips can increase either very little or very substantially, totally cafe-dependent. An experienced veteran barista working at a great cafe as a lead of some sort but not a manager and getting good shifts could be in the range of $45k to $60k on the high end. However, the bottom end of the range can be as low as you can imagine.… A sustainable living comes from knowing what you want in life and making sure your job matches those aspirations. Some people love the life of working in a cafe and living in NY; that is a challenging combo if you also want to live on your own or support a family. There are more companies (Blue Bottle included) that are offering benefits to staff and trying hard to make the position more long-term but it is not easy.
You are a two-time U.S. Barista Championship winner and a World Barista Championship winner. What was it like to compete in those championships? What are you most proud of over the course of your career?
The championships are really intense. They can tend to look a little silly from the outside as I suppose anything that has been taken to such an extreme can. When you are in it, though, and you realize how much hard work on how many people’s behalf has to happen to have a chance to do well, it takes on a new level of meaning. I was representing farmers, pickers, roasters QC staff, my shop, the founder of the company, so many people.… Being able to win the world competition and share the glory with all of their efforts was easily a highlight. The effort that went into it, however, is shocking and I can only vaguely remember it. I competed for four years in total and if you are really going after it you almost never stop. Once one season ends you are already working on ideas for the next year, reviewing what other competitors did and trying to find an edge. I had never worked so hard for something in my life.
You are a trainer in the coffee industry. What is that like, and are there other career paths for veteran, successful baristas?
At this point I am actually the Director of Training which sadly means I rarely get to do much hands-on training unless it is for a new market where we do not have a department set up yet. When I was training regularly I loved it. Getting to help people realize the talent they have inside themselves and see those moments of breakthroughs when they finally get down something they have been working towards is incredibly fulfilling. Outside of training there are a few paths up in the industry. The most common is to move up through management of cafes, which is a great fit for some and not so great for others depending on their skill set. The more exciting and romantic options, however, tend to be green coffee buyer, roaster or quality control. These are positions inside the industry that many baristas covet but in all reality the position of barista does not prepare them for. However, being inside a company that has these roles means they can often work to develop skills outside of that role.
What is your philosophy on coffee education, and what has shaped that philosophy?
It has changed almost every year that I have been working in the industry.… It used to be a very academically focused approach, working hard on technical skills in the training lab. Then it started to lean more towards bringing hospitality into play as a focus, but that never really got the structure I had hoped. My current approach is working to train in context, making the lab training look more like actual shifts in the cafe and wrapping the technical in with the hospitality and layering on culture and mindset training as well.
Are there any other helpful resources or links on this topic you’d like to share?
There are a number of great videos and resources all over the web that you can find and it would be fairly biased to point you to one over the other. The best thing to do is look at as much as you can while constantly questioning the materials and taking nothing as sacred. Some of my favorites however are the “Nordic baristas cup” videos, the "tamper tantrum” video series and also Matt Perger has a great newsletter highlighting new materials called "barista hustle".