Baristas and the boom in specialty coffee title image

Baristas have definitely paved their way in the coffee world. College students and hipsters with scrappy beards and refurbished furniture have one thing in common – they are notoriously likely to pick up a coffee shop job at some point. And becoming a barista is certainly cooler than anything else.

The vocational advent of baristas is a reality few haven’t noticed. One could perhaps argue that baristas were brought about by the boom in specialty coffee over the past decades. Though their ranks now seem to be growing slower than the specialty coffee industry itself.

Origin of baristas

The word’s etymology goes back to Italian: barista stands for bartender. While it originally refers to one whose business it is to serve hot drinks (espressos, cappuccinos, and other traditional coffee-based beverages) as well as alcohol and snacks, its modern meaning took on a slightly different connotation.

When you hear your friend say ‘barista’, you most likely imagine a modern-day coffee magician, an espresso aficionado if you like. Most of the time, though, it simply refers to a well-trained café staff member, one whose advice you’d happily take when venturing into the uncertain waters of flat white variations. 

This is not to say that the job is a child’s play. To be fair, baristas do require a significant amount of training to be considered professional. Not only do they need to know how to make all kinds of coffee drinks, but they need to be quite good at it. Making an outstanding espresso in the middle of rush hour is the least they are expected to deliver.

They must also be able to work well with milk and its non-dairy alternatives, and to make art with it. I am sure you can only truly savor your coffee with a nice daffodil shape on it. The appearance of alternative coffee preparation methods, including Chemex or AeroPress, has likewise made the job more demanding.

Last but not least, a capable barista gets along with an industrial-grade espresso machine. We are talking about expensive gadgets, starting at around $5,000 a piece, whose controls increasingly resemble a Prius dashboard. The bottom line is that mastery of all-things-café is now a given for baristas.

Baristas and the rise of specialty coffee

While we can imagine what a barista does, it is also interesting to look at some numbers to better understand the profession’s recent developments. Specialty coffee (where we would look for baristas) as a segment of the larger coffee industry has grown at an unbelievable rate since the 1990s. 

According to the Specialty Coffee Association, in 2015, the total number of specialty coffee shops in the U.S. reached 31,490. Assuming the same growth rate as in 2014, the number could have reached over 35,000 in 2020. While the pandemic wiped out a shocking percentage of these, latest sources suggest that the 2020 closing total was somewhere around 25,307.

This is still a staggering 1,434% increase since 1991, when the U.S. had only 1,650 specialty coffee shops. Correspondingly, specialty coffee’s market share in the U.S. has grown from 40% to 59% between 2010-2017.

Graph showing the market share of specialty coffee in America
Source: Specialty Coffee Association

The number of baristas over time did follow a roughly similar growth pattern. This is probably not shocking and would suggest the rise of specialty coffee in America created the barista as a profession.

But at some point, the its growth has slowed down while the number of specialty coffee shops has continued to rise sharply. According to data collected by a recruiting firm, the total number of baristas employed in the U.S. rose by 25% between 2004-2018.

However, the number of specialty coffee shops increased by 75% in the same period. Although it is difficult to tell whether this data is fully representative, the barista profession seems to have encountered a headwind, not to mention the effect of the global pandemic.

Graphs comparing the growth of baristas and specialty coffee shops in America
Source: Specialty Coffee Association,, Buzzing Coffee calculations

Enduring coffee craft

Despite the dwindling growth, for specialty coffee shop loyals, baristas are all the rage. No matter which part of the world you happen to be in, you are certain to find a top-quality coffee shop with a well-trained barista who will play around with your espresso till the break of dawn or until you’re happy with the taste notes. Couldn’t feel safer before your next trip, could you?

Baristas’ rise is also clear from the many dedicated events held globally, one of which is the well-known World Barista Championship. This “preeminent international coffee competition” aims to promote excellence and advance the barista profession.

It started in 2000 and each year it is held in a different country. If interested, World Coffee Events (WCE) provides a comprehensive list of all coffee-related events around the world, just so that you never fall short of the coffee proficiency expected in your social circle.

Events and organizations like these are there to stay. And they will ensure that specialty coffee and the barista profession are made visible to coffee power drinkers. Again, this is only to make sure that the strive for coffee perfection continues, so that we all can rest easy knowing that it will. 

Enjoyed reading this? Check out our blog.