Show and Tell: The Barista

Continuing from last week’s post: Love coffee? Encourge baristas to love and take care of their bodies!

From here on, as I start commenting on the photos of baristas tamping and pouring milk, this shouldn’t be taken as critique of the baristas as there is no questioning that most of them can push out sublime coffees! This is merely to give you examples of the bad, the ugly and some good techniques. On to business (of being a pretentious douche).

Let’s start off with tamping, shall we. Note: I put the comment underneath the photos so you can have a look yourself and think about what you notice about their technique and posture, then you can compare what you see with my comment.

Barista 12 - check
Credit: SCASA

From this snapshot it appears as his head and shoulder are too far forward. It is an awkward position for his whole shoulder-neck-region. The group handle is angled (left hand) making it more difficult to tamp evenly.

Barista 13 - check.jpg
Credit: Sprudge

This barista appears slightly off balance (will put tension on his lower back, think 200+ times), however I believe this produces a decent tamp. His angles look sharp through his elbow and wrist. Because he is leaning away he doesn’t put his shoulder far forward, while at the same time he gets a good view for determining an even tamp. His group handle is close to horizontal making the even tamp easier. Bring the head back.

Barista 14 - check.jpg
Credit: Coffee Geek

Although a great lean from the hips to use more of his chest muscles, his neck is too forward bent (notice the tamper is not even in the portafilter so for the sake of the analysis, imagine him mid-tamp).

Barista 6 - baristababes.jpg
Credit: Barista Babes

Sharp angles of the elbow and the wrist! And with a bigger forward lean he could orient the shoulder to a stronger position (where the shoulder is less forward). If you want to be nitpicky, he should bring his head back, and use his fingers to spread the pressure evenly in the hand.

Scapula edit v2.jpg
Credit: AnatomyZone

For the detail-hungry, read on, if you’re topped up skip to the photo after the video.

Watch how the scapula (shoulder blade) moves forward from 1:10-1:40. When it glides all the way forward, and slightly over the top of the rib cage, the shoulder is oriented in a way where it doesn’t handle pressures and tension well.

Why is it so? I’ll make it as brief as I can. From the video you can see that the scapula floats on the rib cage. It can do that because there are 17 muscles attached to it (here you should be going WOW! I HAD NO IDEA). It’s a exceptionally mobile bone that can float in practically any direction, however it is weaker the further away from its middle resting position. It moves upwards to where it can’t go further? Weaker shoulder. It moves around to where it can’t go further? Weaker shoulder. When someone says the shoulder has come forward they’re usually referring to these two movements, up and around.

Credit: Brian’s Coffee Spot

Looks forced from his facial expression, but the translation of force from his elbow through his wrist appears nice (might question whether it was an even tamp or not). Fairly upright posture and he gets a clean view of the tamp. He should bring his head back.

Barista 15 - check.jpg

Charles Babinski tamping. Neutral wrist, slight use of the fingers make the force translate very nicely. Check out his winning performance (~8m) in the World Barista Championship last year to get an idea of the flow and amount of force he uses. It’s virtually nothing.

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Three great examples of distributing force through the whole hand and the fingers!

I know as a barista, especially when you’re bringing another latte art Mona Lisa into existence (Disclaimer: I was never a great one), it’s easy to forget about where your body ends up. But look at that neck and how forward their heads sit. You might think what is the big deal? The truth of the matter is having the head in front of the body for an extended period of time is just not good for us humans.

Any baristas out there aware of your hand trembling when you make latte art? Where your head sits might be a part of the problem (what contributes way more is the admiring amount of caffeine pumping through your arteries).

Heavenly latte art skill is dependent on a lot of practice (but more importantly: all the milk a cow produces through a lifetime) and to be able to practice any skill we need proprioception. Propri-what? PRO-pree-o-SEP-shən. Shaun, that’s right. Think of it as Shaun the sheep. He sits on your shoulder, shouting into your ear many times a second, trying to help you be aware of where your hands are in relation to your body. When your head and shoulders come forward, Shaun has to hold on really hard not to fall off. While he is trying to hold on he has trouble shouting as often and as accurate as he would like. What does that mean? Poor communication and coordination. In other words, clumsy, shaky hands and poor latte art.

Proprioception. PRO-pree-o-SEP-shən. Shaun, that’s right. Think of it as Shaun the sheep. He sits on your shoulder, shouting into your ear many times a second, trying to help you be aware of where your hands are in relation to your body.

In your body that’s not the only communication breakdown (great song). Balance also suffers, confidence and mood dips and breathing becomes troublesome. Even the volume of the voice is dampened (did you know one of your throat muscles is attached to the shoulder blade?). All of this bites into the expression of the baristas true potential!

So let’s have a look at better ways of going about free pouring.

Barista 8 - Berkeley
Credit: Emilie Raguso/Berkeleyside

I believe this is one way of going about it. Bend your elbows to bring the cup and milk closer so you won’t have to bring your head too far forward (even though it’s still pretty far forward). Bring back and relax those shoulders. Great hand position on that mug, avoiding the points where customers put their lips.

Barista 9 - Rivard report
Credit: The Rivard Report

A different way of pouring. Even though he doesn’t bring it close he appears relaxed through his shoulders and he is not leaning excessively (better for the lower back).

Barista 10 - Brian moats.jpg
Credit: Brian Moats Photography

Her right shoulder appears hiked and tense but she stays fairly balanced.

Barista 11 - vania ling.jpg
Credit: Vanialing

Very good (from what I can tell), he appears relaxed without going too far forward.

Barista 16 - wolfpack coffee
Credit: Wolfpack Coffee

Also very good. He stays fairly upright and relaxed. Bring your head a tad further back.

Now, do you think it’s important to stand up straight while making latte art? Theoretically, yes. Indirectly through studies, yes. But to give you an idea whether that is true in a practical sense, check out the photos from this latte art championship. Notice their posture habits and how they ranked in the competition…What do you think? Does a tall posture equal an awesome performance?

My answer: I won’t give you the definite yes or no – check the photos yourself. However by improving posture, by having good posture, the repetitive load is aimed at parts of the body that has higher tolerance and adapts more efficiently. Longevity is the way! How can you consistently serve awesome coffee if you’re in pain and have to change your techniques all the time? Initially adapting to better posture will be hard. However as these new movements become habits, you’ll be able to extract glorious coffee for a lifetime.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristotles

TL;DR If you would love to reach your pinnacle of barista potential (or just feel better and do a better job), bring your head and shoulders back and be wary of your posture while free pouring and tamping. If you’re already in trouble, keep calm and go about Prevention / Prehab.

Voila! We’ve reached the end. The distance of this post ended up being lengthier than what I saw with my mind’s eye. I just want to say stand up straight! Just like Homo Erectus did 2 million years ago. Or we’ll undo their great feat. And we’ll never reach the next level of human evolution: homo coffeeus.

May your coffee be strong. And your Tuesday short.

Ciao ciao!

If you for some reason would like to check where my surge of ideas come from.


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