Sometimes coffee can be rank, but then so can life.
I was drinking coffee this morning as I looked through an old diary in order to find an idea on what to pen next. When I read about a love I had in a galaxy far far away.
I was in a relationship for three years with an older woman. I adored her. It was very passionate but we fought a lot, too. I do that. I was always conscious somewhere in the back of my mind she was seeing other women, as she had a lot of old female friends from back in the day. I was worried about one girl in particular and we fought about this. She lived in Barca, and I had the worst weekend in my life ever there.
I even caught pneumonia. Quite seriously. Intensive care and sick for six months.
However, still she would call me crazy and paranoid. So, I gave her space to prove I trusted her – but then she broke up with me, saying she needed to be single and didn’t want to be with anyone for at least eighteen months.
We tried to stay friends. I foolishly thought I could get back to where we were. Six months later, when we talked we argued, she admitted she was with this girl, but that it had only just happened. I did not believe that BS. It has been more than two years since we broke up and I still can’t get over that hurt and fucking betrayal. I feel like those years were a waste of my time and the memories are all imaginary – I deleted all those normal pictures. I have been consumed with anger, hurt for a while. I haven’t spoken to her in ages and have no intention to do so, but my instinct says they are still together.
I have worked on myself a lot the past two years, but can I forgive her? No. Am I moved on? I am. But sometimes I feel like I will never be able to love again or trust.
But fuck, I can’t blame Starbucks for that, or for single-handedly casting the final shovel of free trade earth on to the long-buried coffin of coffee happiness, but it’s certainly having a good go. The coffee chain is to encourage staff to express their personalities more. So, this may account for the record number of job applications to Starbucks to become a professional Barista.
It’s quite a step change given that, they weren’t allowed to dye their hair weird colours, and they definitely weren’t allowed to wear sandals, while continuing to call you – Mia – “Mai”, despite having written it correctly the cup.
This must surprise Italians. Because in Italy, where the word originates, it means just “bartender”, fresh coffee being available at most Italian bars, as alcohol generally is in French cafes. In the U.K., where we’re rather purposeful about our drinking, we like to separate our alcoholic and our caffeinated leisure time. And though coffee shops are not in the least bit new to Britain – the city of London grew out of them in the 17th century – we have never respected the drink enough to put a name to the people who sell it. Unlike the publicans, landlords, barmaids, barmen, sommeliers, wine waiters, even the mixologists, who kindly make us drunk.
The tremendous growth of the coffee chains has changed all this. Today, the coffee shop market in the UK is worth 10 times what it was in 1998, with 16,273 outlets currently estimated to be doing business. As they have joined our daily lives, so has a new kind of expert: the barista. While bartenders just pull a pint of someone else’s beer or wine into a glass and hand it to you, a barista actually makes different drinks before your eyes, and through a process you couldn’t replicate – at least not if there’s any fancy milk involved.
But what makes this job so desirable? It’s certainly not the money. Even a fully qualified “barista maestro” earns around £6.70. per hour (plus some bonuses and incentives). But no barista in a major coffee chain gets even to within £10,000 of the national average annual wage, which is £26,500.
At the chains, new baristas learn on the job, mostly by watching others and being watched, like in any shop. When they reach a higher level, such as a barista maestro, they go for more formal training sessions. But these are not stringent, drawn-out periods of study. Many simpler courses take only a few hours, less time than it takes to get the basic food-hygiene certificate. Besides, many of the skills of coffee-making, such as choosing the beans, the coarseness of the grind, the heat and pressure of the water, are often necessarily taken out of baristas’ control at the big chains.
And sometimes, in practice, things can be very desultory indeed. Trained on the job, and often by people who have only recently been trained themselves.
So, is glamorising this type of work with the word “barista” the coffee chains’ true masterstroke? Well, for the mostly young people who do it, making lots of money is not always the point. Bar work or jobs in restaurants and record shops have been employment staples for many years, yet they have never been well paid. When I worked shifts behind bars in my late teens, I was living either at home or in student accommodation. I wasn’t trying to house a family. Coffee shops can even employ people under the age of 18 on just £3.68 per hour if they choose, although most don’t.
There is even a Barista Magazine. There is the World Barista Championship. There is a whole look, with tattoos and trendy clothes, and an attitude – an odd combination of the laidback and the intensely serious – that marks out the career barista.
In short, Costa, Starbucks, Caffe Nero, Pret-a-Manger and the rest may offer a rather watery version of the barista lifestyle, but that lifestyle is real and admired. As is the drink. The growth of proper coffee’s popularity in Britain continues to amaze. Twice as many people go into a coffee shop each day now, compared with 2009. Big companies such as Tesco and Greggs are still piling in, and the size of the market as a whole is expected to grow by 25% in the next five years.
Still, the problem isn’t that the baristas are friendly. Or even that they have the audacity to call themselves baristas. The problem is that the coffee is rank. Like some girls.