The 7 Most Important Tell Tale signs you need to know when checking out a coffee shop
You’re desperate for your daily favourite caffeine fix and you want a good experience. But, you’re on the road or visiting friends in an area of town or city you’re unfamiliar with. Or maybe you find a new coffee shop and wander in to check it out. Perhaps you might just want to re-evaluate your favourite coffee shop. What telltale signs should you be looking for when walking into a coffee shop, those signs that tell you – with a high level of confidence – whether your caffeine fix for the day is going to be a great, fulfilling “my life is worth living” moment or one which is dismally, depressingly disappointing and questions whether life on earth has any meaning to it after all? (Short answer: No. Life without good coffee is just not worth it.)Coffee has potentially 1400 different flavours and aromas (as a comparison, the grape has around 90). All have varying degrees of solubility. But many of the very bitter, bite-off-your-tongue flavours are less soluble only being extracted when the shot pulled is over the 30 second time-frame. The longer it takes to pull the shot, the more these nasty, less-soluble extracts enter the espresso. Not good at all. Nasty. Conversely, if the shot takes less than 19 seconds, you’ll have an under-extracted espresso shot. Very unsatisfying. Frustrating, actually. Both for the customer and the coffee roaster. I know, I’ve been there. Both scenarios are totally unacceptable. You are quite within your rights (no matter how many caffeine addicts lined up behind you are staring at your back, looking for a suitable target as they reach for their back pocket flick knives), to ask the barista to pull the shot or shots again. You may get a filthy look from the barista. Fuck them. They have screwed up and need to pull the shot again. Not negotiable.
Tell Tale Sign #1 Check out the EquipmentCheck out the espresso machine. A good coffee shop will invest in a good espresso machine. It is the heart and soul of their business. They cannot make consistently good espresso drinks without a good espresso machine. Look for brands like La Marzocco, Simonelli, Rancilio Cimbali, Faema. If it is not a recognized brand or it looks a little small or old, don’t head for the door just yet. Some small businesses can still produce a good espresso by taking care of the other factors which contribute to a good espresso drink; water quality, barista training, espresso used, hygiene and maintenance. But, you might want to heighten your awareness if the espresso machine is not one of the traditional quality brands known to the industry. (PS How can you tell what brand it is? Espresso machine manufacturers normally take a lot of time promoting their brand on their machine. So just take a careful look). And just to balance things here. Don’t go “oh, they have a La Marzocco so my 4 shot caramel latte with 2% milk will be perfect”. Some coffee shop owners will spend enormous amounts of money buying a butt-big espresso machine just for show. The industry knows the tricks of the trade too well. Some untrained or greedy owners will go for the image of having a fancy “bells and whistles” espresso machine and then buy cheap espresso or they won’t spend the time and effort to properly train their barista’s or they don’t maintain their water quality or all of the above.
Tell Tale Sign #2: The baristaBefore we get into this one, please can you not judge a barista by their piercings, pony tails or tattoos. These are life choices which every barista has every right to. And be careful you differentiate between what looks like dirt (but is actually coffee grinds which go everywhere) and actual filth. First up, ask a few simple questions;
- What country of origin does their espresso originate from? Many use Brazilian or Colombian as a base for their espresso. My favourite will always be African coffees especially heirloom Ethiopians. And our Raven espresso (www.nitrocoffee.ie) will always be all African all Arabica. Origin is not going to make or break an espresso (the roaster will do that) but it is a “nice to know” factor.
- Single origin or not. If you want to go a step further ask this one. There are two schools here within the specialty coffee roasters: those who go for single origin and those who follow a more traditional espresso roast where a combination of coffees are used to provide an intricate complexity of flavours, balance and body to the espresso. If they go “single origin” you’re most probably in a coffee shop which follows trends or fads and you are more than likely going to have a very bright, bitter espresso with an after taste to dry out anything residing on your tonsils. (As you can surmise, I go with the traditional espresso roasting school).
- Where do they source their espresso from? I am an avid, nay rabid, supporter of my fellow small batch artisan coffee roasters. Now, to be fair, not all of them are great. But if the coffee shop is worthwhile spending money at, I highly recommend you find out who their roaster is. When they answer, you more than likely won’t know the actual roaster but a few follow-up questions like “oh, are they local” or “are they batch roasters” will give you all the information you need to figure out whether their roaster is corporate or not.
Tell Tale Sign #3: The Steam WandThe dreaded steam wand! Aahh!! Something to make for really scary nightmares… So you’re happy with the equipment and the barista. You’re ready to place an order for your favourite mocha with skim milk and whip cream on top (yes, people do order this!) but hold on…not just yet….