10 Things You May Not Know About The People Who Make Your Coffee

<!––>The Chicago Red Eye has a list of 10 things you may not know about the men and women who make your lattes and whatnot. This one is gross, but important:

Just because their finger is black doesn’t mean it’s dirty.

Many baristas get “espresso finger,” which is when their index finger looks blackened because they’ve been leveling coffee grounds on the portafilter all day.

The sullied finger can stay dark even after repeated washings.

“Sometimes I keep it in my pocket so people don’t see,” said Intelligentsia barista Michael Phillips.

We can see how that might be awkward.

Barista diaries[Chicago Red Eye]
(Photo:Matthew Oliphant)

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  1. stephenjames716 says:

    what what in the….

  2. chemmy says:

    must be a slow news day….

  3. socritic says:

    hmm. i worked as a barista in a coffee shop, made PLENTY of coffee all day, NEVER had a blackened finger. why are they touching anything with bare hands? there is a coffee flattening device on the bean grinder or a handheld one, and gloves if you really want to do it with your fingers.

  4. snoop-blog says:

    i’m waiting for the “how is this news?” comment

  5. snoop-blog says:

    @socritic: ah ha, so now there’s 11 things we didn’t know about the people who make our coffee.

  6. Robobot says:

    I love the term “espresso finger!” It is the chronic illness sweeping my coffee shop.

    My hands are a mess, really. Between all the burns, the grounds under my nails, and the nasty chemicals we use for cleaning, I have construction worker hands. I have been fantasizing about getting manicures and fake nails for years, but I don’t want to lose chips of paint-or worse, a fake nail- in a drink.

  7. Kat@Work says:

    @socritic: Ditto, I used to be a barista too. I never touched the coffee – there’s no damn need to. Remind me never to buy coffee at this barista’s coffee shop…

  8. sharonlives says:

    why are they using their fingers to level coffee???? gross.

  9. Kat@Work says:

    @Quietly: “Between all the burns, the grounds under my nails, and the nasty chemicals we use for cleaning…”

    WTF man? That’s gross. Is your coffee shop’s owner too cheap to spring for the correct equipment? Not to mention, those nasty chemicals – they probably end up in the drinks from either your hands or residue on the equipment. mmmm – tasty.

    And people wonder why I never drink coffee…

  10. bohemian says:

    #12 they are a good source for hooking you up with extra coffee and goodies.
    All those oopses and day old baked goods gotta go somewhere.

  11. The coffee smell that penetrates baristas’ skin is perhaps most noticeable in the shower, Spohnholtz said. The steam produces a kind of coffee aromatherapy.

    wow, just wow

  12. katylostherart says:

    @socritic: agreed. why are you dipping your finger in the grounds all day? i only got massive amounts of coffee beans on me if i spilled something. 3 years as a coffee bitch and i didn’t have stained appendages.

    be a neater person, especially in food service.

  13. katylostherart says:

    @Quietly: fake nails, or failure to wear gloves over them, are against the health code in many states and within company policies for exactly that reason.

  14. AMetamorphosis says:

    … and here I thought it was only because they used their finger to stir my coffee … ( grin )

  15. Robobot says:

    @Kat@Work: Nah, we are really anal about cleanliness. It’s important to us. We even clean up after the cleaning products with lots of water. It takes me about 40 minutes to do dishes every night. Everything is health department mandated, the equipment, the cleaning supplies, etc.

    I should have mention that it’s not the residue from cleaning supplies that makes my hands less-than-lady-like. It’s just that my hands are dry and red from reactions to the chemicals over time.

  16. Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ) says:

    “9. They develop crushes on their customers.
    The ‘coffee crush’ can be a key distraction for many baristas, Spohnholtz said, as it gives them something to look forward to and strategize about.”

    If only… if only…
    I LOVE YOU MELISSA! <3

  17. Cthumer says:

    “Just because their finger is black doesn’t mean it’s dirty.”

    But it does mean they dipped it in your $5 drink. :)

    I once caught an employee at Subway making the tuna salad, up to his elbows in a giant tub of tuna fish and mayonaise, mixing with his bare hands. Bleah.

  18. homerj says:

    You’re not a damned “barista”–you’re counter help at a damn coffee shop. Stop making your job sound more important than what it is.

    Just because it’s mostly snobby, smell their own farts idiots that go into these places to spend $5 on a rebranded cup of Sanka–doesn’t mean you’re anything special for making it. Why don’t you make something more worthwhile, like an Orange Julius?

  19. Pinkbunny says:

    Sorry folks but, if you’re using tools to level your coffee you’re probably not working at a quality coffee shop (there are of course, some exceptions). Y’all must’ve been working at Starbucks or the like. Handmade artisan coffee is hand made. That means human hands touch it. The water temperature that goes through the portafilter (that’s the metal thing that your espresso comes out of)is incredibly hot and kills any “hand germs”. Anyway, y’all are silly. All food service workers touch your food to some degree. Oh, and the nasty chemicals are food grade cleaning agents that are hard on your hands but are safe to use near food. Sigh. Good Baristas work hard, are highly trained (at the coffee shop where I work it can take months to be allowed on the bar and training and evaluation are ongoing). They sacrifice their pretty, pretty hands for you and where’s the love?

  20. Kat@Work says:

    @Quietly: Well that’s good – I can just picture some slave labor coffee shop. ;)

  21. Cattivella says:

    As a former coffeeshop worker all through high school and college I can confirm EVERYTHING other than black finger. I have never touched espresso with bare hands while making a drink – that’s what a tamper is for.

    I would like to take the time to especially confirm annoyance with Starbucks lingo. I can’t tell you how many people meant small, medium, or large when using the word “tall”. If anyone ordered using Starbucks lingo, you automatically had to clarify which size they meant, because it was never consistent. Also, Starbuck’s use of “macchiato” in caramel macchiato is a bane on every indie coffeeshop worker.

  22. Cattivella says:

    @Pinkbunny: I worked at a very high quality indie coffeeshop where it took months of training to be allowed on bar – we never used fingers for leveling coffee. @

    href=”#c5457159″>homerj: You must not be a specialty coffee drinker, because if you were you’d know that there’s a HUGE difference between an unskilled barista and a skilled barista with how your drink comes out.

  23. Alexander says:

    I get a kick out the whole “Barista” term. I worked at a coffee shop for 4 years during college, I was a server/cashier and that is that. I don’t remember ever getting the black finger though.

  24. katylostherart says:

    @Pinkbunny: um… no.

    that little round stamp thing that turns your espresso into a compact hockey puck is not a sign of low quality, it’s a sign that someone came up with something that was more effective than human fingers at leveling the grounds in the filter. i mean honestly something that presses into the grounds applying the same pressure to all the surface area is more effective than human fingers which apply various pressures on one centimeter squared areas.

    i’ve actually never seen any barista not use one even at the independent shops. wtf cheap employers, get your people supplies.

  25. homerj says:

    @Cattivella: Shenanigans.

    It’s damn coffee, it’s not like you’re mixing the 11 herbs & spices for KFC back there. “Barista” is a made up word for people to feel like they are better because they work at Starbucks and not Wendy’s.

  26. katylostherart says:

    @Cattivella: so that’s what the hockey puck makers were called.

    *plays the more you know jingle in head*

  27. consumersaur says:

    I’m amazed at how coveted the “barista” has become among largely unskilled, low-paid restaurant workers. They have some lore surrounding them — like they are the elite 20 or 30-something hipster ninjas who purposely parleyed their film and art history degrees into the noble plight of snobby consumer refreshment.

  28. flidget says:

    The Starbucks one should also have included “if we made frappucinos, they’d be on the damn menu.”

  29. synergy says:

    That’s gross. Did it never occur to these people that they shouldn’t be putting any part of themselves in something people are about to eat?? Where do these people work again so that I make sure and tell everyone I know not to go there???

  30. FatLynn says:

    Quoting the redeye? Wow, this is a new low.

  31. howie_in_az says:

    @homerj: Don’t you know that Starbucks is a fashion boutique that markets burnt water as liquid jewelry?

  32. Topcat says:

    @socritic: Totally, I was a coffee-slinger for a couple years and never developed a blackened finger because I never touched the damn coffee.

    Any current baristas reading this? You drop the grinds into the portafilter, use a hand-tamp (not the one on the machine…you won’t be able to do it hard enough) and then use the tamp to scrape the excess coffee off around the edges. No getting your finger gunk in my joe, thanks.

    Getting grimey fingers? Water alone will not remove coffee, as it’s the oils that are staining your skin. If you wash with soap, oily things-as if by magic-disappear! Wow!

  33. Cattivella says:

    @homerj: I’m not saying it takes some crazy skill to make regular brewed coffee, but it DOES take skill to properly steam and foam milk, make sure espresso is being ground at the right consistency depending on weather and temperature, make sure espresso is pulling in the right amount of time. If you don’t care if you have bitter or weak espresso in a cup full of burned milk with giant bubbles, please, be my guest and go to 7-11. For a quality latte/capp/macc, look to an experienced barista.

    BUT, there is no glory in being a barista, I certainly didn’t feel better or “holier than though” because I knew how to make good coffee. Those who do or act that way would be douchebags no matter their line of work.

  34. SacraBos says:

    @consumersaur: How right you are. I’ve thought the same thing when I’ve heard other similar redesignated job titles, like “Sanitation Engineer”.

  35. majortom1029 says:

    My local coffee shop makes coffee 10 times better then starbucks and doesnt use his finger.

    His bean grinder automatically puts the right amount of ground beans in the cup things so he doesnt have to level it off.(every time he makes a shot or so of coffee he grinds the beans.)

  36. Jaysyn was banned for: http://consumerist.com/5032912/the-subprime-meltdown-will-be-nothing-compared-to-the-prime-meltdown#c7042646 says:

    @synergy:

    I suggest you never, ever eat out again.

    Really.

    It’s for your own good.

  37. veronykah says:

    I’m guessing the whole “touching the coffee” thing is NOT about tamping the espresso, its the fact that there are grounds on the RIM of the unit used to hold the espresso, you can very skillfully take your finger and clean those off, otherwise they end up in the machine.
    All of you with your “OMG someones HANDS touched my food!” are so funny.
    Do you think chefs are in the back with GLOVES on? Nope.
    Does it bother you that BARTENDERS don’t use gloves when they touch your lime wedge, cherry or the rim of your glass?
    Get over it, you aren’t going to die.
    Not to mention, people tend to think that gloves mean clean when they are wearing them too…and touch all kinds of nasty things with them on and don’t change them, when perhaps with bare hands they would have washed them.

  38. highmodulus says:

    Let them have their title, who is it hurting? There is a bit of an art to a proper espresso, there are skills.

    BTW homerj, not really 11 herbs and spices in any noticeable quantity- it’s mostly salt and pepper. Google for the shocking details!

  39. highmodulus says:

    As I am feeling my googlefu is strong today- bam, here’s a link:

    [www.answerbag.com]

  40. catcherintheeye says:

    @chemmy: Must be a slow sitting at work doing nothing and posting for the hell of it day…

  41. dry-roasted-peanuts says:

    The man who makes my coffee is sleeping with my wife…

  42. MDT says:

    @Kat@Work:
    @Topcat:
    @socritic:

    Note: Just because you have tattoos, can work un-showered and play indie rock behind the counter doesn’t mean that you know anything about making real espresso. Using the leveler attached to the grinder??? Egads, you fricking philistine. That is not how you level a shot (or tamp one for that matter).

    While its true some shops are going with newer grinders that provide a very accurate grounds dispersion pattern that lessens the need for pre-tamp leveling, hand leveling after dosing is a totally common and recommended practice for serious espresso making. Whether it unavoidably leads to staining probably has to do with how many shifts you worked that week…

    Making good espresso is about even extraction of the ground beans. You want to push that steaming water through evenly so that you don’t have over or under extracted areas that can lead to off flavors. Having a uniform grind is key to this proposition, as is an even dispersion of the grounds. Not to mention proper water temp, roast and duration of the shot.

  43. The Bambino says:

    Jesus H, all you “don’t touch my food with your grubby finger it’s SOOOO gross” pretty much sum up what’s wrong with Americans today. What a bunch of pansy-ass whiners. Go hide in your closet where you’re “safe” from all these horrible germs. My God…

  44. jeff303 says:

    @FatLynn: Yeah the Red Eye? Aren’t they the paper seat coverings on the CTA?

  45. wilmawonker says:

    My barrista told the chef at the coffee shop that I was one of the ‘cool’ customers yesterday. Yay!

  46. MeOhMy says:

    My ex-gf got some sort of RSI when she was working at starbucks. I believe it still plagues her to this day, 8 years later!

    I’m not sure why the “barista” title bothers people so much. Even those of you who obviously have no idea how drip coffee and espresso differ…it’s just a title for someone who makes espresso.

  47. KIRZEN2007 says:

    I’ll never get over how rediculously paranoid americans seem regarding sterilization. There are germs on everything, from the counter you picked your coffee cup off of, to the tools that were used to prepare it, to the milk they’re foaming for your latte.

    The ‘eww, that’s gross’ reaction is just unspeakably childish and inane. If you want your coffee carefully machine levelled, by a nurse on a disinfected counter, handled with gloves, then bloody well do it yourself at home, then you can be as picky as you like. Myself, I trust the person behind the counter, because if you don’t trust the people that are preparing your food, you’re best not to ever eat out again, period.

    If you think the people who made your meal were wearing clean, fresh gloves, and that all the ingredients were fresh and sterile, then you’re seriously delusional, go home.

  48. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    @jeff303:
    The RedEye is great for soaking up all the water that drips through the roof on a leaky 147 bus!

    Since I don’t buy coffee at a shop, but make my own, why do you have to level off the coffee after you put it in the filter?
    My coffee levels itself out every time, no matter how I pour it into the basket.

  49. Erskine says:

    @The Bambino:

    Let me paraphrase all of your comments to date:

    “Wwwwwwwhhhhhhiiiiiinnnnnneeeeee…..”

    There ya go!

  50. P_Smith says:

    I’d find “espresso finger” credible given the stains in my oft-used coffee mug.

    What really appalled me in one starbucks-knockoff place was the bastarda who was told to make my coffee. I had just seen that individual take a bag of garbage out of a can and tie the bag.

    He didn’t wash his hands after handling the garbage. He then started making coffee.

    I said I wanted my money back and the staff are saying, “What’s the big deal?” They acted as if I was being unreasonable and shouldn’t get my money back. And since the person had already touched the coffee implements, changing bastardas wouldn’t make a difference.

  51. MightyWeasel says:

    I’ve gotta agree with those saying to get over the germophobia. If you check with most government health departments, you’ll find that it is perfectly acceptable to touch food with bare hands, as long as they’re clean, although, I’ll admit I feel better when I see someone put on gloves.

    Think about this example though, Subway workers always put on gloves (here at least), but they wash their hands so fast before hand they couldn’t possibly be totally germ-free, then they handle the outside of the gloves to put them on. I’d prefer it if they spent 30 seconds washing their hands and then made my sandwich without gloves.

  52. loueloui says:

    I once worked at a Sonic drive in, and I can remember one of the jobs I dreaded was restocking the pickles in the hamburger dressing station. We had this humongous bucket of pickles in the cooler, and you would have to reach down in there and grab a handful.

    Sometimes if they were running low, you would have to stick most of your arm in there, and god help you if you had even the slightest cut or it would sting like crazy.

  53. humperdinck says:

    I smelled like onions for weeks after quitting my high school job at Subway.

  54. lockdog says:

    Dated a girl who actually worked at Billy Ray’s Achy Breaky Heart Diner out in BF eastern kentucky (flatwoods, maybe). All I can say is they must have never changed their fry oil. That poor girl’s pores were rancid, even if she was just out of the shower. Sad cause she was really cute and sweet, and also because I was a jerk at age 18.

    Carey, if you’re out there…I’m sorry!

  55. drjayphd says:

    @homerj: @homerj: Now show me on the map where the Starbucks barista who added a few of their bodily fluids to your frappucino works…

  56. MightyWeasel says:

    @loueloui: I’ve just got to know, why didn’t you pour out some of the pickle juice?

  57. CumaeanSibyl says:

    @MDT: You keep on typing but all I see is WONK WONK WONK.

  58. MrFreshy says:

    @MDT:

    Thanks for writing what i was going to write so i dont have to write it!

  59. MeOhMy says:

    @MightyWeasel:

    If you check with most government health departments, you’ll find that it is perfectly acceptable to touch food with bare hands, as long as they’re clean, although, I’ll admit I feel better when I see someone put on gloves.

    Goofy but true. In my prior life as a bagel-slinger, we always wore gloves when we started. Then the managers went to a conference where they presented a study that the gloves were less sanitary – the employees don’t change their gloves frequently, they get gunk on the gloves and don’t realize because they can’t feel it and it leads to cross-contamination, the non-sterile gloves are less-sterile than washed hands, etc.

    So they added pumps at the wash sinks with purell-type disinfectant and put the gloves away with a new employee guideline about handwashing techniques and when/how often to wash your hands and use the sanitizer.

    But the gloves gave the customers a nice false sense of security and customer demand led them to bring back the gloves.

  60. Echodork says:

    Soo… baristas like tips, and we shouldn’t do anything to annoy them.

    Thanks for the consumer tip!

  61. LVP says:

    @Chicago Red Eye]: “They reek of coffee.”

    More like used coffee grinds. I had to “air out” my clothes before washing them.

    There is no reason why a human hand should touch the coffee grinds. There are tampers on the machines, then there are handheld ones which are even better.

    Folks, make your coffee/espresso drink at home. Buy the beans, keep them in an air tight container and grind them yourself. Once you get the hang of it you will never want someone else making your drink for you.

  62. meadandale says:

    I have to laugh at all the people, especially the former ‘baristas’ who are poo-pooing the finger using people in the story.

    The finger isn’t used as a tamper, it’s used as a leveler. If you don’t LEVEL the grounds in the portafilter before you use the hand tamp, you won’t get an even puck, which will lead to a crappy shot.

    Being a true barista requires quite a bit of skill and experience, which clearly many of the people who’ve commented don’t have.

    However, most of the people employed as baristas, especially starbucks flunkies, no next to nothing about the art and science of coffee, particularly how to pull a quality espresso shot.

    And, FWIW, I’m not now nor have I ever been a Barista–I’m just someone who loves high quality coffee, owns a high end home espresso machine and grinder and actually knows how to pull a quality shot (better than any I’ve ever had in a coffee shop with maybe 2 exceptions).

  63. The Bambino says:

    @Erskine:

    Actually, you’ll notice that generally I’m pointing out what a bunch of candy-asses most people are. Because it’s true.

  64. e.varden says:

    @Kat@Work:

    Do people also wonder where you lost your sense of humor? (Like, behind your back?)

  65. Mary says:

    @socritic: Agreed.

    @meadandale: Maybe you don’t see that what they’re saying is that you level the grounds with the EDGE of the tamper. Anybody who has worked as a barista should be able to use a flat surface other than their finger to level grounds. If nothing else, have a knife on hand and level it with that.

    Leveling with your finger really shouldn’t be done.

  66. thesabre says:

    You people need to realize that the human body NEEDS germs so it can create antibodies. Those of you who are so afraid of a person touching your coffee grounds are one day going to get sick and die because your body didn’t have antibodies to help fight off the germs.

    How many of you will drop a potato chip on the floor, pick it up, blow it off, and eat it… but are afraid of a Starbucks employee touching your coffee?

  67. Mary says:

    @thesabre: I’m not so much afraid of somebody touching my coffee grounds (especially considering I don’t drink coffee and never have) as I am thinking that the people fixing the coffee probably don’t want to have blackened fingers, grinds under their nails, etc. I know when I worked at a cafe, I avoided touching things just because I didn’t want to be covered in food grime, I knew my hands were as cleans as they could get, I wanted to keep them that way.

  68. aduzik says:

    Let’s get something straight: leveling the coffee is not the same as tamping coffee. Good baristas level the coffee with their fingers for an even distribution and *THEN* tamp using a hand tamper, never that piece of plastic stuck to the front of the espresso grinder. That said, I worked at a coffee shop for years and never ended up with a “black finger”.

  69. Mary says:

    @aduzik: You can just as easily level the coffee with the edge of the hand tamper. It’s really, really simple. It makes it just as level as getting coffee grinds all over your finger, and turning your finger black.

    The piece of plastic on the front of the machine is useless. But a good hand tamper does the job.