This blog post is dedicated to Stephen who encouraged me to start writing again.
Hands-free steaming has been a long debated idea since I started working as a barista. It’s widely accepted as a good idea until it isn’t.
First, let’s talk about what’s required to obtain well steamed milk. To start, we want to position our steam wand so that our milk spins in a whirlpool when we activate the steam wand. To do this, I place my steam wand about a fingers width away from the side wall pointing down and slightly towards the handle of my pitcher. Additionally, we want to add air immediately when we turn on our steam wand. We can do this by dipping the steam wand into our milk until just half of the steam wand tip is exposed. If we’ve done everything correctly, we should hear a slight paper tearing sound indicating proper aeration when we turn on our steam wand. If you hear a high pitched hiss, you haven’t added enough air. If large bubbles start to form and it sounds like a jet engine pouring up, you’ve added too much air at once. Because we are adding air and reincorporating it with our whirlpool, the volume of our milk should be increasing— thus, if we’ve stayed perfectly still, our steam wand tip should be completely submerged and not add excessive air to our milk. From this point on, our milk should simply be spinning in our pitcher until we’ve reached proper temperature.
Why we should steam hands free:
So, if we’ve set ourselves up for success with our positioning before turning our steam wand, we should have no problem never touching our milk pitchers while steaming other than to check temperature. Why is this important? Consistency, productivity, reduced labor cost. Hands free milk steaming supports all of these things. It’s repeatable. I’m a very finicky person in general, I’m clumsy, I drop things, I trip over dandelions. That being said, I have steamed 100s if not 1000s of drinks this way, and I have never dropped a milk pitcher while steaming hands free. My milk steams the same way every time, so I don’t have to worry about whether I lifted my milk pitcher a centimeter too much or too little when I want to stop adding air. And my favorite part about all of this, productivity! I can start prepping other milk pitchers, I can pour lattes, and can start dosing another espresso. I’ll include more about my bar flow on another post. But the basis for running a 2 group Linea PB by yourself with no ‘milk buddy’ while having both group heads and steam wands activated at virtually all times is hands free steaming. And in a cafe that’s serving over 150 customers/hour, I fall off and lose rhythm on bar if all above things are not in affect.
Why we shouldn’t steam hands free:
So why is there so much resistance to hands free steaming if there are so many benefits? It all starts with training. In ‘Latte Art’ classes that I’ve taught, they all start with milk steaming. You can learn the fundamentals on how to steam milk in under 2 hours. However, building the muscle memory and being able to make micro adjustments on the fly with customers talking to you and drinks lining up can take weeks to months of practice on bar. If you lose an ounce of focus, hands free steaming is extremely easy to mess up when starting out. So when baristas are first learning it, they will take extra pre-caution to set the position of their milk pitcher because it’s new, it feels awkward, but this will slow down your bar flow tremendously. And when companies only have a few weeks to train people to be baristas, there isn’t enough time to master bar flow techniques like hands free steaming. Solution: invest training time in store after the barista has become comfortable being on bar. I think companies have done an amazing job at creating baristas that are proficient in their craft. But I also believe there is so much potential for improvement after 6 months of becoming comfortable on bar. Hands free steaming isn’t necessarily a skill I would build into an initial barista training course. However, I think it opens a great growth opportunity for people who want to become better/ higher value baristas. And we can do that through an advanced barista training course that includes these types of skills. Upon completion of this course, you have then become more valuable to your cafe because you can produce product much faster at the same or higher quality. I hear a lot of baristas feel like they’ve hit a ceiling, but they don’t want to move into education or management. Baristas who have been working behind the bar for 2 + years should always have the opportunity to learn new skills, and this is what I see missing in our industry. If you’re a barista, challenge yourself to learn more. If you’re a trainer, challenge yourself to teach more. Both of these jobs can become mundane when you’re doing or teaching the same thing every day. But if we all challenge ourselves a little more each day, our industry can only grow.
Edit: In recent tests, I found I can make 2x 12 oz lattes 40 seconds faster using hands free steaming (1 minute and 5 seconds). That's enough time to prepare 2 additional espressos that you wouldn't have had before.
Your turn: What benefits/downfalls have you found with handsfree steaming? What techniques do you use to expedite your bar flow?