2/28/2013 03:00:00 PM

Coffee Debates: Are Baristas the New Sommeliers?

Sommelier 2.0? 
People have started taking coffee as seriously as their vino. Baristas take care with crafting your cup of coffee; they’re an integral part of the final product. Consumers are starting to pay attention to where the beans come from and how they are brewed. The factors have brought folks behind the coffee counter to new professional heights, but will they ever get the respect shown to the wine expert at your favorite restaurant?

Becoming a sommelier is a lengthy process involving months of examinations, and requiring serious experience and palate. They’re seen as the premier experts on wine and only 129 people hold the title Master Sommelier title in North America. According to Lindsay Bailey, barista, shift lead and inventory manager at The Wormhole in Chicago, there already are training programs all over the United States for baristas, though none may be as widely recognized as the educational hurdles a Master Som must surmount.

The American Barista and Coffee School and Camp Pull-A-Shot offer training and certification programs that give baristas Barista Guild of America (BGA) certification. This, and a Q Grader certification, are two of the most highly regarded and credible certifications to have within the coffee community. They give a barista credibility and proof of knowledge that can help them get jobs. Many coffee shops or coffee roasters also have their own programs and set of standards to become "bar certified" that aren’t part of an official organization like the BGA. Being bar certified at Intelligentsia, for example, doesn't come with a plaque or a physical certificate, but comes with street cred.

Rachel Driver Speckan, Beverage Director at City Winery Chicago, has witnessed a parallel between the coffee and wine worlds. She’s collaborated with people in the coffee industry, and says, “Every coffee person I’ve met has had a really good wine palate. So many same experiences and same vocabulary.” She’s seen this connection in her own workplace too; City Winery’s head bartender also works as a barista.

Master Sommelier Shayn Bjornholm, Examination Director for The Court of Master Sommeliers, is in charge of creating and administering all examinations taken to become a Master Sommelier. He’s also worked with coffee roasters before, and saw that it’s just like building a wine program, tasting everything and figuring out what the customer will like. Speckan pointed out one difference between the two professions that makes the barista role more personal and varied. The barista is influencing the final product more, so individual skill is more apparent.

Bailey pointed out another difference, which points baristas away from a sommelier-like designation:. “The energy behind speciality coffee is just like that of mixologists and beer brewers, except for the component that it is an agricultural product that changes every single day, he said. “The sourcing, farming, processing, roasting and finally brewing can all affect the tiny nuances in a single cup of coffee,” said said.

Though there are similarities, Bjornholm mentioned one difficulty that fine coffees will have to overcome before they are as widely respected as wines. “The problem is, great roasteries are very small, there isn’t one big place to bring it to the masses,” he said. While he’s not sure what will bring it to the next step, he does think that a significant growth will happen. “There’s always a big moment, one thing happens that galvanizes a growth.” Until that tipping point, your barista may have more in common with your local bartender than your favorite sommelier.

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