Barista Phrasing

September 2, 2011

When my son was six, he could throw further than I could. Not because I have a weak arm, or because I throw like a girl, even though I am one. Even at six, he had probably thrown more rocks into rivers, ponds and the ocean than I have my entire life at six times his age. I think it is more than practice and repetition, although those play a big roll. He has natural, innate timing and mechanics that can’t be taught. In even simpler terms, he is coordinated. All the pieces come together naturally.

I was recently reading a collection of articles by one of my favorite authors, Malcom Gladwell. One in particular caught my attention. What the Dog Saw is about a dog whisperer. The premise is that dogs are very interested in us and get their cues from what we do and how we move, not simply by what we say. The “combinations of posture and gesture are called phrasing, and the great communicators are those who match their phrasing with their communicative intentions,” he writes. The dog whisperer has incredible innate phrasing that dogs can read. It is not a gimmick, just a natural flow of movement for this guy.

After reading the article, I realized that this concept is also true for becoming a good, even great, barista.

Phrasing on the bar translates into efficient, repeatable motions that have a certain timing. Being specific about movement translates to the customer your expertise as well as a complete grasp of the task at hand: making consistently incredible drinks time and time again. Another aspect of phrasing involves working with and around other people behind the bar: the “barista dance.” A good barista accounts for their own movements as well as for those around them. Bumping into co-workers and spilling drinks is not a great way to exude confidence and expertise.

Does this mean that if you are not naturally gifted with innate barista phrasing that you are doomed to fail? No.

Just because my son has a knack at throwing balls accurately and far, it does not mean that he will grow up to be a professional baseball player, especially if he does not practice. It is estimated that professionals who excel, in any walk of life, have spent a minimum of 10,000 hours practicing their trade. That applies to baristas too. So phrasing can be learned with time spent on the bar, but, it must be a conscious, concerted effort to identify and define your own personal phrasing.

Pay attention to your movements, and if you deviate, note the effect. Does working with one person feel natural while working with another person throw off your timing? Identify why and make adjustments to improve the coordination of the “dance.” Finally, be willing to incorporate changes as new technologies are introduced. A new espresso machine will change your phrasing, as will a new grinder, a new espresso blend, the age of the espresso blend and many others. One characteristic of a good barista is taking into account environmental changes from day to day, hour to hour, and adapting his or her phrasing.



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