Coffee. It’s the only thing that gets some of us out of bed in the morning. It fuels the world’s workforce, with more than 1.3bn cups consumed around the world every day according to coffee researchers Allegra Strategies.
More than 1.3bn cups are consumed around the world every day
Yet unlike wine sommeliers, the baristas making and serving your skinny, frothy, cappuccino or latte haven’t always been taken seriously. Working in the coffee industry has been thought of as an in-between job, something you’d do to get you through college or help bolster the sporadic income from an acting career. For decades, working in coffee was a stopgap on the way to another, more important career goal. Things however are changing.
It’s a huge business - Allegra has calculated that cups drunk out of the home account for sales of around $60bn -$80bn per year globally and the coffee industry is now considered a viable career option in itself. Speciality coffee shops employ workers who are passionate about their trade and see it as an end in itself, not a route to their dream career. Poke your head into a fancy coffee joint in New York, Sydney or Singapore and the chances are you’ll be served by someone who waxes lyrical about their latest beans in the same way as a craft brewer eulogises on a favourite ale.
You’ll be served by someone who waxes lyrical about their latest beans
You won’t be earning an investment banker’s salary. In 2014 the Speciality Coffee Association of America found that, on average, baristas in speciality coffee shops in the US earned $22,000 a year basic salary. With an industry certification this salary rose to $24,500. Make the next step to become a roaster and you can expect on average $38,000, rising to nearly $40,000 with a certification. Baristas can also use their expertise to get a well-paid job in equipment sales and product sourcing.
Globally there are 40,000 professional baristas according to coffee research specialists, Allegra Strategies. Throw senior chain store baristas and senior brewers into the mix and the number swells to 200,000 in the US alone. Big chains such as Starbucks still account for the majority of coffee shops – a staggering 45,000 worldwide including 22,000 outlets but there are a sizeable number of independents; around 1,200 in the US and 450 in the UK.
London, for its part, is an independent coffee shop hot spot. In the heart of Fitzrovia, a trendy, enclave north of the frenetic hub, Oxford Street is a plethora of high-end joints so certain of their value to espresso drinkers that the presence of coffee behemoths seemingly on every street corner, doesn’t worry them.
“If a rival opens five doors down, it makes us focus even more on what we offer,” said Peter Dore-Smith, owner of coffee shop, Kaffeine. “We need to make sure our coffee, our food, our service, our atmosphere make our place somewhere people want to hang out.”
It’s that go-getting attitude that marks out small independent outlets as the industry pioneers. Among the big drivers of the rise of ‘barista craft’ worldwide are international coffee competitions. In 2000 the inaugural World Barista Championships were held in Monte Carlo and since then it’s spawned a host of other events globally.
Gareth Jones is the manager of the Fitzrovia branch of Workshop Coffee, a small chain. He takes his job and the chance to show off his skills in competitions, very seriously. But whilst winning is a bonus, the taking part is, in some ways, more important
“Baristas from around the world can get together, discuss ideas and move the industry forward. Competitions push you to improve, raise the quality and focus on the finer details.”
Taking the job seriously also brings financial rewards. Gareth earns around £25,000 ($37,000) a year and down the road, Claire Brice manager of Kaffeine boasts a salary of £32,000 ($48,000). Winning one of the big competitions can also mean thousands of dollars in equipment, trips abroad and of course the prestige of being the best.
It’s this change in attitude and expectation which has helped elevate the barista trade from a fill-in job for college students to a caffeine-fuelled career.
Do you have what it takes to be a coffee hot shot? Click on the arrow above as BBC Capital checks out London’s barista scene.
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