Who is the heartbeat of America? The barista of course!

Baristas are the ones who hand over our lifeblood each and every morning, the ones who pass us a smile and a cup of our fuel for the day. Baristas are experts in their field, and because they meet so many of us in our darkest hours (the pre-coffee ones!), they are bound to have a bevy of secrets. They also hold a goldmine of coffee tips that surely explain why we love them and coffee so very much.

Being a Pacific Northwest gal myself, you better believe that I had a stint in the coffee industry. In fact, “barista” sits on my resume as my very first job, and to this day, I still claim it as a favorite. There’s just nothing like rising at 4 a.m. to sling mochas and cappuccinos with your best friend/coworker while chatting with the regulars. No doubt, coffee is a community, a product, and a very special part of most people’s daily routine.

Now, 15 years later post-barista shifts, I’m on the other side of the drive-thru. I’m the tired-looking soul with the complicated drink order—a grande double decaf americano with two pumps white mocha, two pumps cinnamon dolce and extra steamed cream. Oh yes, you better believe I rattle that off to my favorite barista, Debbie, more mornings than not, and yes, she repeats it back perfectly and reminds me that I like cinnamon sprinkle on top, too. That’s a gold star barista for you, one that believes in the craft, cares for her people, and has a rockstar memory.

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Debbie isn’t the only amazing barista I know though. Over the years I have worked with many and have been served by even more. When I put out a call for their insight, they were quick to reply. Baristas aren’t afraid to share what they know; in fact, they’re eager! So, here’s the scoop on their greatest secrets and the coffee essentials they want you, the coffee lover, to know!

Macchia-Oh No

When my husband and I were dating, he had the gall to order a stirred caramel macchiato. I didn’t squash him with my coffee knowledge right off the bat, but I did tell him that ordering a stirred caramel macchiato is pretty much an oxymoron.

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Bianca, who worked in the coffee industry for five-plus years, breaks down a macchiato’s construction to further explain: “The Starbucks [caramel] macchiato is a version of a latte; the milk is flavored with a bit of vanilla, topped with foamed milk (like a cappuccino), the espresso is dropped through the foam to ‘mark’ the drink, and heavy caramel syrup is drizzled on top. This drink is not stirred!”

I repeat, a true macchiato is layered, not stirred!

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Bianca’s secret when it comes to macchiatos? “Caramel macchiato drinkers would be happier if they ordered a caramel vanilla latte; you’d be paying for two extra flavors, but if you compare the price of a latte with two flavors to a caramel macchiato, there is an up-charge for that caramel macchiato,” she says. “Marketing at its best!”

Drink coffee for more than the caffeine.

Coffee is community. We gather at shops for meetings, and we meet up with friends. And, sometimes, as Karla, a barista and coffee shop manager shares, we build new relationships.

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“A group of five old, retired men who didn’t know each other frequented my shop. The thing that they had in common was they were up at 5 a.m. to drink a cup of coffee,” she says. “When they kept seeing each other on a regular basis, they struck a conversation with one other. From then on it was history. It’s been about seven years, maybe more, that this group of men have met most mornings.”

Coffee brings people together. That’s just one story from the customer front though. Karla, and another barista, Leah, truly believe that coffee gave them some of their greatest bonds. “My guests, coworkers, and boss have become family to me,” says Karla.

“I met my life long bestie because of coffee,” chimes in Leah.

Light-roast is where it’s at.

When you think coffee, you think black. But if you really need boost, white coffee is the ticket! Rather than just being a regular cup of coffee with a lot of creamer added, it’s the product of a special roasting (or lack thereof) process.

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Coffee beans before being picked and roasted

“I like to tell our guests that the lighter the roast, the more caffeine it has,” Karla shares. “The longer the bean is roasted, the more the caffeine is taken out.”

White coffee beans are roasted at a much lower temperature than most beans; they’re so under-roasted, they usually need a special grinder to make it through their tough exterior. So if white beans are an option at your local shop, and you need a big time pick me up—order it! Otherwise, go for the lightest roast possible.

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There is a scientific difference between the light and dark roasts. Now, know that it technically amounts to just a 5.4 percent difference in caffeine content, but maybe those few extra milligrams are what you need to get into high gear!

Take time to read the menu.

Starbucks culture has so overtaken the coffee industry that when you pop into a local shop, you might be tempted to order a “venti,” but pay attention, read the menu, and order what that location has to offer.

Ordering the Starbucks way when you’re not at Starbucks is a pet peeve of many baristas. Then again, you may run into a barista with a heart of gold like Karla who says it doesn’t technically matter, “Tall, grande, venti; 12, 16, 20 ounce; or small, medium, large. I take no offense on how you state the cup size. It’s all the same.”

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It goes beyond the size options though. In fact, reading the menu just might lead you to discover some thing better than your staple Starbucks drink—see what the other guys have! I recently fell in love with a white chocolate s’more mocha when I decided to get out of my comfort zone and try something new I read on the menu board.

Ask questions, everyone will be happier.

Every barista I talked to exuded not their love for coffee, but their love for people. So when they cheerily ask you how your day’s going, reply and ask about their day in response.

Make those few moments you have while ordering count. Start a conversation and get to know your barista, they’re amazing people! To fellow baristas, Mallory, a former barista, shares, “Build relationships with your customers and speak life to them—being a barista is a great opportunity to show kindness!”

The Tip Question

Here’s the deal, tipping is not required, but my oh my, is it appreciated. Even the change from your latte total adds up. And if you’re not paying with cash, consider rounding up to the next dollar.

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Even though fancy drinks have gotten expensive over the years, remember that the price of your order doesn’t necessarily mean your barista is earning more. Tips are part of their livelihood, so love your barista with a quarter, a dollar, or truly make their day and toss a whole $5 in every once in awhile.

Seattle espresso is a whole new genre.

Bianca made a great delineation between Seattle’s coffee boom and traditional espresso a la Europe.

“As a world traveler, I have developed the understanding that there is a huge difference between the cultures of ‘Seattle espresso’ and ‘European espresso,'” she says. “This was much to my husband’s dismay when we were in Europe a couple years ago, and no one understood what we were trying to explain when he just wanted to order a latte. Such a thing doesn’t really exist in Europe.”

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So to say the least, what you’ll experience in regard to coffee in the Pacific Northwest is very different than what you’ll see in other parts of the country and across oceans.

A Note About Health

Leah, a former barista, hobby nutritionist, and coffee guru, passes on these two tips: “Americanos with a flavor and cream are the best way to enjoy a treat without breaking the bank or your calorie allowance, and just because breves have fewer carbs than a latte, that does not make them healthy or low carb.”

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On that same note, remember that blended drinks are often like a milkshake—don’t drink one every morning! The recipe my shop followed back in the day called for over a cup of ice cream base: delicious, but calorie-laden.

Being polite really is important.

It’s a shame that politeness is even being touted as a “secret,” but Kristy, a barista of 10 years, shares, “The old saying, ‘Treat others as you would like to be treated.’ is becoming just that: an old saying instead of a way of life. I would encourage customers to always treat others [staff and fellow customers] with the same respect and friendliness they expect.”

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That’s right, no matter how desperately java is calling your name, pause, put your phone down, and say “please” and “thank you.” Your kindness will be appreciated.

Cheers to Our Caffeine-Slinging Peers

Did you discover a coffee tip you hadn’t heard before or gain insight into the barista life? I hope so! Most of all, I loved hearing the joy that serving coffee brings to so many baristas. For them, coffee is truly a vehicle for showing kindness to others, and that is a beautiful thing. Mochas, americanos, and cold-brews aside, coffee is about community, and we get to be a part of it!

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Next time you see your favorite barista, thank them for all they do. Their expertise in caring for people while serving our coffee of choice—whether that be black, bold, or creamy—are worth all of our appreciation. They keep us fueled, smiling, and coming back for more. Long live the barista!