Called to the bar

What goes into serving us our coffee shop favourites

How much should the perfect latte weigh? And what is the optimum temperature of milk? Well, I can tell you that it’s 330g and somewhere between 55-60°C, respectively. Indeed, after a few hours spent at Pret A Manger’s barista academy in London, I quickly learnt that there’s more to making a good coffee than meets the eye.

At the food and drink chain, a barista is only deemed qualified to decant your drink after 12 weeks’ theory and practical training. After which, graduates are expected to have expert knowledge of making every beverage in the book.

But being able to churn out coffees isn’t conducive to a great customer experience, so what exactly makes a good barista? According to Lesley Cox, Pret’s barista trainer, it’s all about the attention to detail: “It’s like a conductor with his orchestra, everything works in a smooth way, yet there’s a lot going on.”

Hot stuff: serving up a cup

A good barista should also be able to multi-task. “If you stand back and watch, you’ll notice them constantly cleaning the equipment while making and remembering orders. A lot of baristas thrive under that pressure,” she says. Cox showed me the basics – frothing and “stretching” the milk, while creating an espresso base with a golden coverage of crema. After a few attempts, I was ready to leave the safe confines of the training room.

In a nearby Pret store I meet my mentor, Laji. A 24-year-old student, Laji has been an employee for four years and a barista for 18 months.

Confidently putting on the apron, I was ready. This was my time to shine.

But, before I could declare: ‘Bean there, done that’, it was over. After getting the angle of my steam arm wrong, it spiralled out of control and I ended up with a scale-tipping latte with a taste to match the bitter disappointment of my efforts.

I should note that Laji’s cup weighed a textbook 331g. The next time you’re waiting in line for a coffee and wonder ‘How hard can it be?’, let me tell you – quite hard. As each barista must display a balance of science, art and showmanship, I’ve seen there’s more that goes into your cup than just coffee.

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