SometimesRhymes — RT Packard's Blog

The slightly erratic online musings of a radio host/producer, journalist, atheist, blogger, writer, freethinker, nerd and Whovian.
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It’s time for me to weigh in on a topic that I’ve heard much debate about recently. Actually, to be honest, I’ve always heard the arguments for and against it, but they’ve become especially relevant now that I’m back in the coffee industry. The topic at hand, of course, is whether one should tip his or her barista at a coffee shop.

Obviously, unlike waitstaff at restaurants, baristas do tend to make minimum wage or above, but then, the same can be said for many bartenders, whom one would never dare to stiff on the tip. Unfortunately, most customers don’t make the correlation between a barista and a bartender, even if a simple translation from Italian would reveal that “barista” literally DOES mean “bartender.”

So, why then should you tip your barista? Is their job really as difficult as a bartenders? Read on below the break to find out.

1. Making a good cup of coffee is a lot harder than you think.
Do note that I’m only talking about standard drip coffee here, we’ll touch on how much more complicated things get when espresso and steamed milk enter the equation in just a bit. Anyway, when you order that 16 or 12 ounce cup of black coffee, you may think that all the barista has to do is push a lever and, if requested, leave some room for cream; not that hard of a task, really. But, in reality, before that coffee was even brewed, a lot of work took place: First, freshly roasted coffee (no less than two, no more than ten days off the roast) is weighed out to within a thousandth of a gram, ground to exact specifications, evenly leveled into a filter and infused with an exact quantity of water for an exact period of time. If ANY one of these variables is off in the slightest degree, it will cause the cup to come out less than perfect. Oh, and a good barista also has to switch out airpots of coffee every hour and rinse them between brew cycles. If you think it’s as easy as opening a big tin of Folger’s, putting a few scoops in a filter, adding water, then pressing a button, you are gravely mistaken.

2. There’s no such thing as a $4 cup of coffee, and even if there were, that’s not a reason to skimp your barista.
Oftentimes, one of the most common (and most asinine) comments I hear justifying the practice of withholding barista’s tips is that a cup of coffee costs too much, and “after I paid you $4 for a cup of COFFEE, how can you have the nerve to expect me to PAY YOU MORE?” This relies on the myth that an espresso drink, like a latte or a cappuccino or a mocha, is equivalent to a black cup of java. Again, in actuality, these drinks are complex creations that require a variety of elements to come together perfectly (which we’ll touch on more in-depth in a later point). Further, calling a cup of frothed milk with about two ounces of espresso a coffee is like calling an apple pie a fruit: sure, the base ingredient may be in there, but what you’re actually enjoying is more akin to a dessert.

3. It takes a lot of practice and skill to pull off a good espresso or coffee drink.
Most likely, there’s a reason you’re stopping by a coffee shop rather than brewing your own coffee in the morning. Some of you may be rushed and just crunched for time, sure, but a vast majority of people realize the coffee just tastes better. That’s because, as I’ve mentioned, there are a number of steps that need to be done precisely in order to produce the finished product you’re buying. And, a barista has to just know this order of operations instinctively, so he or she can handle the busy rushes and make everything as seamless as possible for the customers. After training, a good barista will be able to handle nearly any rush of customers, all while making sure they weigh out the appropriate amount of coffee for each drink, grind it to the right fineness, add the appropriate amount of water at the exact temperature, then combine them all together. For espresso drinks, there’s also the added issue of tamping the grounds with just the right amount of pressure, monitoring the flow and time of espresso pulled from the machine to ensure a quality shot, as well as steaming milk with perfect microfoam (non-visible bubbles that creates a silky texture, NOT those super-visible soap-like bubbles that just waste space). If you think you could handle your barista’s job, I implore you to take a few lessons in the art of espresso making; I promise you, you’ll be longing for TS-Reports and office-style monotony within minutes.

4. There’s just as much knowledge required for a barista job as a wine sommelier or professional bartender.
Just as either of these alcohol-centric workers could run off a list of descriptions for nearly any wine, beer or mixed drink, so too can a quality barista describe in excessive details the qualities of whatever cup you’re drinking. Then, there’s the drink memorization to take into account: the differences, often incredibly minor, in terms of milk foaming technique, ingredient order and quantities add up to an almost infinite number of possible combinations. Finally, a barista also needs to know how to operate difficult, expensive equipment; those grinders and espresso machines require precise care and frequent cleaning, neither of which are something a layperson would readily know how to do. Again, anyone who doubts the skill can just sign up for a few classes and come out with a more realistic opinion (and a number of hand/wrist burns from the steam wand…).

5. There are certain, special bonuses associated with tipping your barista.
Know how when you go to a bar where the bartender knows you (and knows you leave tips), and you’ll occasionally get a free pint? Or how when you order a shot, you’ll get it filled to the brim, rather than the 1.5 ounce line? The same basic principle applies here. A barista who knows you’re going to tip, or at least that you tip regularly, is more likely to offer you small perks or bonuses. For instance, there may be an extra shot of espresso that’s about to go to waste they’ll offer to toss into your drink. Or, perhaps you’re running a bit low on cash one morning; if a barista knows you’ve helped him or her out a lot in the past, he or she will be more willing to reach into their own pockets and cover you for a day. The exact limits on these freebies are dictated by each shop’s owner, but at the very least, the increased speed of service is more than worth it.

This list doesn’t even touch on some of the other reasons you should always give your barista a little love in exchange for your latte. Many well-trained baristas can draw latte art with the milk foam on top of your drinks, creating intricate, edible works of art. But, this is like the waitress who folds your napkins into cute shapes: an extra, above-and-beyond addition, not a regular staple of the service. While you should always leave a little something for your barista, these are the ones who deserve special attention and praise.

So, just how much does your barista deserve for his or her efforts? Follow the same rule of thumb you’d follow with a bartender: tip a dollar or more per drink. If you absolutely can’t afford to tip that much, just the change from your transaction will make any barista satisfied. If, however, you just don’t want to tip, start making your coffee at home; you won’t run the risk with most baristas of having decaf switched for your caffeinated order (though I’ve heard tale of a few who do) but, they all remember the non-tippers and, rest assured, these stingy customers don’t ever receive any special treatment.
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