By ALINA DIZIK
1. "We didn't exist 30 years ago."
Coffee is serious business: There are roughly 50,000 coffee shops in the U.S., posting $18 billion in annual sales, and according to a survey by the National Coffee Association, 24 percent of Americans reported drinking coffee outside the home in 2011. This wasn't always the case; before 1982, finding a perfectly pulled espresso was a rarity, and there was no special name for the person who served up your morning joe. Today, baristas are expected to master a wide variety of frothy concoctions, and an uptick in training has helped legitimize the profession. In addition to new-employee drill sessions, some chains, like Emeryville, Calif.-based Peet's Coffee & Tea, recertify their java masters on an annual basis. Indeed, for many, barista is a career choice, not a part-time job. "There's a giant misconception that baristas are all slackers and hipster kids," says Jason Dominy, outreach coordinator at Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters, a specialty roasting company in Olympia, Wash., and a barista of 15 years. "But a lot of the people have college degrees and are in coffee because they are incredibly passionate about the product."
2. "Actually, our coffee is underpriced."
As coffee-making has gotten elevated to an art form in recent years, the $1 cup has been rapidly disappearing. Not only are high-end coffee brands like Intelligentsia or Stumptown more expensive, but so is the common bean: Coffee futures were at a 10-year high in 2011, at more than $3 per pound, double the price in 2009. And other key ingredients, like milk and sugar, are not far behind. Then there's personnel -- a few serious coffee venues now pay as much as $17 an hour for top baristas. "It's becoming more artisan," says Marcus Boni, director of community development at the Specialty Coffee Association of America. To meet the rising overhead, some businesses adjust their pricing to stay competitive. Rather than charging, say, $3 for a basic coffee, they'll keep it closer to $2, then make up for it by upping specialty drinks to $5 or more. It's how they stay in business, says Tim Harford, author of "The Undercover Economist."
Corrections & Amplifications
A previous version of this story misstated the price of coffee futures.
3. "Need a bigger jolt? Don't reach for a venti."
Need an extra dose of caffeine? Simple -- order a bigger coffee. But the same rule doesn't apply for more complicated drinks, like a skinny mocha cappuccino. Often, larger sizes of such concoctions are topped off with milk or extra foam instead of additional espresso. The popular caramel macchiato from Starbucks, for example, gets two espresso shots whether it's a grande or venti, says Starbucks spokesperson Marianne Duong, and both small and medium lattes at Peet's likewise have two shots, according to Peet's communication manager Cheryl Magat. How to tell what you're getting? The complicated descriptions on the menu probably won't help. Instead, ask about the number of espresso shots in each drink at a given cup size -- most have two or three.
4. "Not all beans pack the same punch."
Differences in coffee beans account for more than just flavor; they actually impact the milligrams of caffeine in each cup. A Starbucks 12-ounce brewed coffee, for example, contains 260 milligrams of caffeine, while the same cup from Caribou contains 230 milligrams, according to Starbucks and Caribou coffee, respectively. After a few cups, these differences can add up, says Ted Kallmyer, former barista and editor of Energyfiend.com, a site that tracks beverage caffeine content through nutrition labels, lab tests and scientific journals. Pros say they can taste it: "Lighter roasted coffee, like Central and Latin American coffee, has more caffeine," says Dominy. Coffee companies aren't required by law to post caffeine content; however, most do so as a courtesy to their customers, says Kallmyer.
5. "Your Web surfing won't pay the rent."
Coffee shops walk a fine line between being a business and being an extension of customers' living rooms. Since many baristas rely heavily on tips for their income, customers lingering over their lattes without adequately tipping can put a serious dent in their take-home pay. As a general rule, suggests Dominy, if you plan to settle in with your laptop, it's best to make at least a small purchase every hour and tip accordingly. For their part, coffee shops sometimes take measures to tame loitering with subtle reminders that they're a business: They'll provide Wi-Fi passwords only with purchase, keep bathroom keys behind the counter or even post signs limiting table time. On the other hand, many places like to cultivate a more leisurely hangout vibe during off-peak hours, like early afternoon. For example, Ritual Coffee Roasters, a San Francisco roaster with four locations, often hosts free tastings for patrons interested in learning the differences between coffee beans.
6. "You might want to stick with the coffee."
Sure, the lemon poppy-seed scones, blueberry muffins or buttery croissants on display at your local coffee chain seem enticing -- that, after all, is the idea behind those bountiful glass-counter displays. But look before you leap; they may not live up to their promise. Coffee shops don't usually prepare their food in-house, so the offerings may not be that fresh or well-made. What's more, they're often high in fat, calories and sugar. Consumers may unwittingly end up snacking on, say, a 500-calorie scone. Even with chains like Starbucks revising their menu to include healthier choices, such selections are generally small in comparison with the cakes and muffins. Says Starbucks' Duong, "All of our food is under 500 calories," and natural flavors are used wherever possible.
7. "You can really milk us."
At Starbucks, extras such as soy milk or a shot of flavored syrup are offered free of charge to rewards-card holders. But sometimes these freebies come at the discretion of the server. "Most baristas would charge for an extra [espresso] shot, but things like whipped cream they wouldn't," says Kaitlynn Vogt, a University of Nebraska law student who spent four months working at Starbucks after college. But there are other ways to save as well. For one, you can create your own cheaper latte by asking for a double shot of espresso in a larger size cup, then pouring in milk at the condiments counter. And on a recent road trip, Vogt says she was able to get two free coffee refills after purchasing her first iced coffee earlier in the day with a prefilled Starbucks card. (Technically, paying with a Starbucks rewards card gets users free refills on brewed coffee only during the same visit at the same store, says Duong.)
8. "We've got a secret menu."
Tired of the usual offerings? Most coffee shops have at least a few unlisted drinks for patrons in the know. "For some shops, there are unwritten drinks, based on popular drinks some customers may ask for," Dominy says. Most established baristas can make off-the-list fare, he says, though managers prefer they stick to the menu. So what's popular in the unposted coffee drink arena? The Dirty Chai, a chai latte with a shot of espresso. Another is the Espresso Panna Cotta (listed on the Starbucks website, though not in stores), an espresso topped with whipped cream, he says. And if you're after a megadose of caffeine, order the Red Eye or Black Eye, a drip coffee plus one or two shots of espresso, respectively. At Starbucks, says Duong, one of the most popular off-menu orders is coffee served through a French press.
9. "We don't always clean our equipment."
Espresso machines are like cars -- they need constant upkeep. But when baristas are caught in the 4 p.m. rush, it's easy to let maintenance duties slide. If an espresso machine needs cleaning, you can taste it, says Scott Rao, author of The Professional Barista's Handbook. Coffee oils can go rancid easily, and caked-on grounds can mess with water flow, he says. And "if the steam wands have a lot of old, dried milk caked on the outside or inside of the wand, that can influence the milk flavor," Rao adds. (That spoiled milk can also be hazardous to your health.) The best way to gauge machine cleanliness, says Boni, is to taste the coffee black before adding any extras.
10. "Be nice, or we might 'decaf' you!"
It's tough to tell decaf from the real thing -- and aggravated baristas have been known to retaliate against rude or condescending customers by serving them the former when they asked for regular coffee. "I'm not proud of it, but I've done it," says Vogt. "People treat you like you're dumb because you're in the food industry." Typically, the unsuspecting party won't notice the difference and may even come back for more. But while "decaffing" is one thing, most baristas know better when it comes to the opposite, since swapping in caffeinated coffee for decaf can be a health risk. "You definitely don't give someone caffeine if they ask for decaf," says Vogt.