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The word barista comes from Italian, where it means a male or female "bartender" who typically works behind a counter, serving hot drinks (such as espresso), cold alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and snacks. The native plural in English is baristas, while in Italian the plural is baristi for masculine (literally meaning "barmen", "bartenders") or bariste for feminine (literally meaning "barmaids").
Baristas generally operate a commercial espresso machine, and their role is preparing and pulling the shot; the degree to which this is automated or done manually varies significantly, ranging from push-button operation to an involved manual process. Espresso is a notoriously finicky beverage, and good manual espresso making is considered a skilled task. Further, preparation of other beverages, particularly milk-based drinks such as cappuccinos and lattes, but also non-espresso coffee such as drip or press pot, requires additional work and skill for effective frothing, pouring and most often latte art.
The barista usually has been trained to operate the machine and to prepare the coffee based on the guidelines of the roaster or shop owner, while more experienced baristas may have discretion to vary preparation or experiment. To make the coffee well, there is a series of steps needing attention, including grinding the beans, extracting the coffee, frothing the milk and pouring.
Beyond the preparation of espresso and other beverages and general customer service, skilled baristas acquire knowledge of the entire process of coffee to effectively prepare a desired cup of coffee, including maintenance and programming of the machine, grinding methods, roasting, and coffee plant cultivation, similar to how a sommelier is familiar with the entire process of wine making and consumption. A barista can acquire these skills by attending training classes, but they are more commonly learned on the job.
Formal barista competitions originated in Norway, and one such is the World Barista Championships, held annually at varied international locations. Baristas worldwide compete, though they must first compete in a competition held in their own country to qualify to enter in the WBC.