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Is This the End of the Barista? by George Sabados
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Posted Wed Dec 27, 2006, 1:00am
Subject: Is This the End of the Barista? by George Sabados

Is This the End of the Barista?
by George Sabados

George Sabados, an Australian coffee professional and former barista, considers whether recent advances in technology will lead to major changes for the barista... or possibly the extinction of the vocation.
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Posted Wed Dec 27, 2006, 11:10pm
Subject: Re: Is This the End of the Barista? by George Sabados

Hey folks - sorry for the missing (temporarily) thread for this article.

We'd like to extend an invitation to anyone who feels up to the task of writing a full blown rebuttal to this article. You're of course welcome to comment in the forums, but if you'd like to write a full article for CoffeeGeek countering George's comments, please contact our content editor, Cindy Taylor, at cindy at coffeegeek dot com.


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Posted Wed Dec 27, 2006, 11:28pm
Subject: Re: Is This the End of the Barista? by George Sabados

Interesting article.

I've personally said for a while that I do believe that the technology for a super-auto that can surpass the skill of a human barista exists, and that the day will come when such equipment hits the market.

However, despite the "glimmer of hope" that George affords us in the penultimate paragraph, it seems that I could summarize the article like this: The barista is dead, the barista is dead, the barista is dead, the barista is dead, the barista is dead, but then again maybe not... oh nevermind... the barista is dead!

A great deal of what George writes is limited to the Australian context, which is (from what I'm told) 100% espresso.  George's world of espresso appears to more resemble a commodity than a culinary craft or product.  That said, I don't really disagree with him... but I will dispute the comparison to silent film pianists and "bus conductors."  People generally don't particularly value food or drink from automatic equipment.  People equate such automation with cheap, fast, and relative low-quality.

It is my belief that what the bulk of consumers want out of a café is a consistently good cup of coffee with quick service and a degree of personality.

Maybe in Australia, with which I have no experience.  Here in the US, it is MY belief that what consumers want out of a café is an overall quality café experience, which includes consistent quality, good customer service, an appealing culture, other customers that they can relate to in some way, etc.  A skilled barista is, I believe, an integral part of establishing such a quality experience.

New age and smarter automatic machines that match or exceed the skills of a barista would find legitimacy in the marketplace quite quickly if the consumer immediately saw that they do produce a better quality, more consistent, and faster coffee. And if a café owner adds into the mix a personable (but low skilled) operator who is taught a little about the coffee and how to pour the milk, what then?

There are many relative-terms (like "better quality" and "low skilled") in this article.  I don't really know what George means.  Either way, I've met many, many "personable but low skilled" foodservice people out there.  Most of them greet me with "Welcome to McDonalds, how may I help you?"  If that's the future, then kill me now.

All said, I don't really feel a need to defend the barista profession.  If George is right in his prognostication, then no amount of protesting, holding of breath, or kicking of shins will prevent the inevitable.  However, this article greatly piques my curiosity about the world of espresso coffee that Mr. Sabados describes.  In his market, there is apparently little room for quality improvements.  Again, I've never been to Australia, so I can't dispute anything of the sort.

What I do know is that the future of the barista here in North America is directly tied to the development of specialty coffee in the mainstream marketplace.  I believe that building on some of the press that specialty coffee has gotten this year, that 2007 will prove to be the BIG year for specialty coffee in the press, media, etc.  As this media coverage expands, the tenents of top-quality specialty coffee (espresso and otherwise) will reach a critical mass audience, increasing the demand for a top-quality coffee experience.  Superautos will always have their place, particularly in settings where there is less demand from the customers for a skilled, well-trained, and well-informed barista.  But the leading-edge will involve some sort of barista.

Perhaps that leading-edge barista will, in fact, be working on a souped-up-superauto, that steams milk and pulls shots better than any human could.  GREAT!  That gives us more time and energy to devote to educating customers about coffee origins, how to taste the finest coffees in the world, about varietals, etc.  In a 100% espresso environment, this might not make sense.  

Thank God that I live in 'Merica!  Yee-HAW!  Bang-Bang! (<-- the sound of me shooting my guns into the air)

www.wreckingballcoffee.com - www.portafilter.net
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Posted Thu Dec 28, 2006, 12:08am
Subject: Re: Is This the End of the Barista? by George Sabados

I liked the article. In fact, for me, it really hit home as I just recently visited a machine manufacturer who also distributes high end super auto's.........

If I had to place bets, I'd go with George's "theatre piano player" analogy. I recently spoke to a machine manufacturer that distributes commercially placed super-autos. While he didn't tell me that they could replace a barista, he did say, (and I paraphrase), that their quality had come up considerably, and that in his opinion, super-autos would, within 10 years, be a formidable competitor for the job of shop barista.

Along with this article, I would have appreciated a reference list and brief description of super automatic machines now on the market. While I'm familiar with one manufacturer, I'm sure there are a few more out there. With a background in electrical and mechanical engineering, I see few physical-manufacturing limits to the building of a robotic barista. Scattered out there are enough processing controls and electronics to support such a venture. The issue, in my opinion, is financial. From a personnel standpoint, and the crux of this article, if I had to paint a picture of the future for specialty coffee locations, I would predict that a shop would have a "Director of Coffee", who would manage and monitor machine operations, quality, etc. In addition, he or she would also manage a staff of coffee technicians, servers and cleaning staff. For me, it makes perfect sense. I believe George alludes to this transition for the current barista.

Why isn't it, (the super-auto revolution), happening now? I believe it's the R&D costs required to create a robotic LM or Synesso level machine. The investment to get a project like this off the ground would probably look exceedingly high, with little promise of a quick return on investment, given the few major chains who would buy the first production run, and the few small entrepenuerial shop owners far thinking enough to invest what could easily be $50-$100k per machine. Remember......we're talking about a machine that monitors everything, and would be sensing everything from an analysis of the ground beans to the condition of the incoming water.....not to mention the precise tamping and then dumping of the porta-filter. Do we have the technology now? Yes. Would this be an inexpensive machine? No

Should baristas worry about their jobs for the next 5 to 10 years? In my opinion and speaking as an entrepenuer, only if they have no ambition to move beyond their current position. While being a skilled barista is a worthy occupation, with or without super-automatic machines, I believe that it can be a foundation for any number of opportunities within the food service industry; management or even ownership.

While I focused on the machine side of this article, I should add that as a marketing and sales person, I would agree with George's view of what specialty coffee clients are looking for in product and service levels. What he has observed in Australia works for me as an American marketing type. I would be more willing to invest in the super-auto if it could guarantee consistently high quality "whilst" I push a broad inventory of bakery goods, hardgoods and whatever else our square footage could support. Inversely, the further to the small square footage-kiosk side I find myself, the more I would be "all about the coffee".......and again, as the overhead and size of the operation enlarged, would I be more willing to transfer my focus to the broader sales opportunities beyond the coffee; thus making a "machine based employee" more acceptable.

A very interesting article, given the current expodential growth in machine technologies.

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Posted Thu Dec 28, 2006, 1:10am
Subject: Re: Is This the End of the Barista? by George Sabados

I reckon we are well on the way towards superautos in serious cafes.  Witness the use of volumetric machines and Swift grinders.  Or are they a passing fad?

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Posted Thu Dec 28, 2006, 5:06am
Subject: Re: Is This the End of the Barista? by George Sabados

Aren't we halfway there? Isn't McCharExplicative with their superautos selling most of the "espresso" in the US?

Marvin, forced to be a home barista
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Posted Thu Dec 28, 2006, 8:27am
Subject: Re: Is This the End of the Barista? by George Sabados

I doubt it.

Just like all services, while there is a push for more tech and better ways to do things, there is still a demand for the older methods. For years in the tech world they pushed decentralization, and a breaking away of mainframes... guess what we have in our office again. Even beer production went from small batch to automation out the ass to small batch and microbrew.

There are many reasons to this.

1) some customers simply will not accept a machine doing the work of a human. I see this all the time in the IT world where things that WOULD be easier automated are not because my bosses dont trust them to be.

2) Smaller bars simply cant pay for it.

3) Some bars simply WONT pay for it. There is a lot to be said about having a teeniebopper listening to his iPod push a few buttons, and a barista pull your shot while chatting things up with you. While I have no doubts that Starbucks will go for the former, there are a lot of bars who wont.

4) still a huge home enthusiast market who will support the industry.

5) machines still break, and the more you put into them, the more likely something is going to muck up the works.

I'll worry when we get Star Trek inspired replicators out there ;-)
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Posted Thu Dec 28, 2006, 10:31am
Subject: Re: Is This the End of the Barista? by George Sabados


Falconfire Said:

I'll worry when we get Star Trek inspired replicators out there ;-)

Posted December 28, 2006 link

Ha!  I've just thought of a name for my first roast offering - Dark Matter.  

Along with Al, I would appreciate some references here - in particular, I'd like to know the name of the manufacturer of the "'smart' machine" of which George speaks which is "price competitive to most two-group semi-automatics" and offers "most consistent extraction of the highest standard".  My experience with the super-autos used at Starbucks and other cafes here in the states is markedly to the contrary.  I'd be willing to travel to try one of these, and also want to know what he means by price competitive...
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Posted Thu Dec 28, 2006, 1:00pm
Subject: Re: Is This the End of the Barista? by George Sabados

Here is a world champion barista and legend in the coffee world making the following claim about a superauto:

I ended up using this machine to extract espressos when evaluating my roasted coffees. It offered the most consistent extraction of the highest standard.

*$ has already replaced their baristi with (inferior) superautos. This move seems to have gone smoothly and successfully. What if they had replaced them with these super-superautos instead?

If I were a barista, I would find this article very scary. Unfortunately it has the ring of truth.
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Posted Thu Dec 28, 2006, 2:25pm
Subject: Re: Is This the End of the Barista? by George Sabados

Just a few thoughts, watching the snow fall today:

Folks get a bit glum this time of the year.  It's even been quantified as Seasonal Affective Disorder - brought on by shorter days with weaker sunlight.  Too, the Christmas holiday is over, and folks are dreading the arrival of credit card statements and the physiology isn't saturated with roast turkey. . .

Yep, I'd see some cause for concern when an economical model of ST:TNG equipment hits the shelves - till then?  Nope.

If anything, I see the article as a call to arms of sorts for the professional barista!  Stand and rise clearly above your previous "normal" year's efforts.  It, alone, will see the pool of talent swell as the speciality coffee bar deepens its commitment across demographics by quality of product as a comprehensive environment.

Were we predictably sated with a caffiene fix, the tablet form of the refined compound would have statistically insignificant competition.

Why seek out the live orchestral season?  Why investigate and celebrate a restaurant of regional specialities and consistent passion?  Why make love when physiological release can be broached mechanically?

Okay, yes, in Australia it's a different market, a markedly different society, so the perception could well be valid there - I wouldn't know.

Here, we have to face having a population of 300 million.  And it's easy to aquiesce to the faceless social pressures, to take edginess off, individually; it's easier to float than to swim to your own destination.

Maybe that's what the article really addresses.

I tend to sew my own clothes, bake my own bread, fix my own truck, cut my own hair, roast my own coffee, make my own music.  and people never cease to comment, "I'd love to do that too - if only I had the time."

McCharExpletive flourishes by the attentions of the floaters.  Places that run a pair of lever machines and see a barista serving up espresso to relish open to a line around the block.

Box wine serves for many.  I dedicate a signifiicant portion of my very modest means to keeping a few bottles of Folie a deux here, to go with those home made noodles and an elk steak.

I did buy a bottle of Jameson's, and roasted up some Nicaraguan, and some Ethopian.  I discovered some small-batch raw sugar, too - and raw cream.

And I've got Irish coffee the likes of which I'd never dreamed!

I'd make a point of going out and getting a table at a restaurant/club/cafe if I could know without a doubt that I would be served something at least that delightful by someone who shared a congruent and uninhibited passion for the whole process as did I.

But that's just me.

Could well be that the up-and-coming, multi-tasking, iPod connected kids who are going to inherit the planet won't develop an appreciation for many, if not all of the quiet things I pursue and enjoy, they may not have a clue why any of it is so worthwhile.

But if I'm a defeatist right out of the chute, all I can be sure of is getting run over without a second glance.

"The blessing lies not in living, merely, but in living well."  Seneca, 8 B.C.
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