The 7 Most Important Tell Tale signs you need to know when checking out a coffee shop

coffee, coffee shop, espresso, latte, latte art, hario, heirloom coffees

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.)

Tell Tale Sign #1 Check out the Equipment

Check 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.
rancilio xcelcius
Rancilio Xcelcius
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 barista

Before 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.
The Bald Barista (Dublin)
First up, ask a few simple questions;
  1. 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 ( 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
By the way, there may be a queue behind you of caffeine-desperate customers. This may become a life-threatening situation. Have the courtesy of not taking too long or heading into a Spanish Inquisition or trying to impress the barista. These questions are merely some background information – information that will guide you to understanding something about the source of the espresso beans and about the barista’s knowledge and training. All essential tell-tale signs.

Tell Tale Sign #3: The Steam Wand

The 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….

dirty steam wand


(PS I like to do this whilst I’m asking the barista those few questions above. It saves time. Remember those caffeine starved customers lined up behind you? You really don’t want to piss them off..) Here is where you want to maybe consider walking out of the coffee shop without your favourite fix.  It’s a pretty serious problem if the steam wand has a covering of white (or worse still, yellowing) milk on it. (PS In their defense, barista’s are sometimes snowed under and let this one go for a moment. But they should see this milked covered steam wand before you – and clean it quickly. Check to see if they use the steam from the steam wand when cleaning this muck off. Steam kills germs). My advice? Unless the barista reacts to the dirty steam wand pretty quickly, excuse yourself and walk away (politely, of course – no need to make a scene).

Tell Tale Sign #4: Time the espresso shot and make sure there is plenty of crema

Before going into the timing of the shot, please remember this simple rule. The crema – the glorious golden brown coloured stuff atop your espresso shot…..that is where the flavour is. That is where the quality is. No crema or little crema equals no flavour or little flavour. Okay. So the equipment is fine. Barista is good. The steam wand is clean. Go ahead – place your order but don’t rest up. Not just yet. More focus!
creama, espresso, cappuccino, latte, mocha,
Raven Coffee Espresso – crema to the top
From my time as a coffee shop owner who worked behind the counter – for 12 years – this one comes automatically to me. Count the number of seconds from the time the barista hits the start button on the espresso machine to pull the shot or shots (you’ll hear a deep thud or a distinct thwak – depending on the make of espresso machine) until the espresso shot is pulled. Again the machine will give out a deep thud or distinct thwak. The time it takes to pull the shot is critical. Let me say it again…CRITICAL! Everything may be perfect – the equipment, the espresso, the water….but either because of a bad tamp (when the barista tamps the espresso into the porter filter basket) or an incorrect grind size, or both – the shot is pulled too long or too short. A good shot can be pulled anywhere from 19-30 seconds. If the espresso has Robusta coffee in it (you might want to ask that question), better not go beyond 25 seconds. Otherwise some nasty bitter flavours will be extracted into the espresso shot. Our Raven’s espresso is all African, all Arabica, all the time. I suggest to our coffee shop customers to pull espresso shots anywhere between 26-32 seconds. 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 #5: Listen to the steaming of the milk

Right now McDonald’s is running an ad which frankly, infuriates me. If I had any Mediterranean blood in me, I may start throwing things at the TV (if I had one). The ad has a person ordering a latte or such in a coffee shop. They have a teeth-gnashing overly extended play (with stuttering sound effects) about the micro bubbles in the latte. It also shows the barista belittling the customer in a few other ways. But let’s get back to the bubbles. This is actually, a very important tell-tale sign. A very significant, direct, “it’s-going-to-effect-your-drink” kind of tell-tale sign. steamed milk big bubbles When a barista steams the milk, listen to the sound. If you hear bubbling sounds – or sounds like “plop, plop, plop” or the “howlings of the banshee”, it means the barista is untrained and you are about to drink a latte or cappuccino that has a top full of air bubbles (which will collapse into thin air leaving you with a hot, headless totally unsatisfactory milky drink soon after you’ve hiked over your 4 or 5 bucks). The foamed head on your drink – whether latte, mocha, cappuccino or even macchiatto – is very much part and parcel of the drink itself. It is not a show piece. Screw you McDonald’s.   Well trained barista’s learn to “stretch” the milk during the steaming process, changing its chemical and physical composition. If they are steaming correctly you’ll hear a “hissing” sound. Kind of hard to explain, but you’ll know it when you hear it (as opposed to the screeching banshee sound). well foamed milk Now, here’s the problem. If you did hear the banshee screaming, you’re pretty much screwed. No asking the barista to do it again. It’s just bad luck, I’m afraid. You picked the short straw. You lost. Suck it up (literally), pay the money and move on. Just don’t go back. That is your only recourse. Going back to that teeth-gnashing McDonald’s advert again. I hate it – yes, hate it – for 3 reasons. Firstly, as I explained above, the steaming of the milk is very much part and parcel of your experience drinking a latte or cappuccino or mocha… Secondly, this is the arrogant, “everything-will- taste-the-same-unless-you-load-it-up-with sugar-concentrated-flavours” corporate thugs who have crippled small coffee shop owners around the world. And they are taking the well-known tactic of attacking their oppositions strengths. Now, I do admit that not every small locally owned coffee shop has brilliant coffee. But, on the whole, they know a lot more about coffee, have far more passion for their coffee and usually pay far more for their coffee. If you don’t hate the corporations like Charbucks by now, please click on this link and watch Oxfam’s documentary Black Gold. It shows what devastation these corporations have on small-scale family coffee farmers in Africa as they leverage their enormous buying power on hapless, hungry, shirts-falling-off-their-backs Ethiopian coffee farmers. Thirdly, they have a point. For the seventeen years I have been in the specialty coffee industry both on the roasting and retailing side of the business, I have seen and heard “coffee officiado’s” espousing forth on certain characteristics of a coffee merely in an effort to promote their self-importance by blowing hot air up their own arses. “The late afternoon aroma from an overly ripe stone fruit” was one description of a coffee I remember vividly. How can you be so arrogant, so pompous and frankly ridiculous….overly ripe fruit can vary from just past it to rotting and about to fall off to laying on the ground with worms and things all over it. Each have their own aroma. And each stone fruits has its own aroma. Anyway, the point is, there seems to be an endless supply of these self-opinionated characters in our industry. And frankly, the industry seems to nurture and fawn them instead of telling them to go fuck themselves.

Tell tale #6: Latte Art

When you walk into a coffee shop and their customers are supping on a cup which has some lovely (or had some lovely) latte art work atop the drink, you can pretty much relax. You have made a good bet. Not quite a home run (a phrase for my American friends) or sailing for a 6 (for my cricketing UK, Australasia and African friends). However you call it, you’re in a good place.
Latte Art is something to behold. Those who can are truly gifted
Still go through Tell tale signs #1-5, but the difference is, you’re in a coffee shop that has taken the time to teach their barista’s latte art. This is not an insignificant skill. For many (like myself) latte art is something we work on hour after hour. Many of the latte shows showcase incredible latte art done by the contestants. They make it look so easy. It isn’t.  I can assure you. Bottom line is if the coffee shop has taken the time out to teach or support or even just employ this skill, you know they are serious about the product they are selling. Just don’t let your guard down completely. Latte Art doesn’t automatically equate with understanding or appreciating coffee roasting quality. Often it does, but not always.

Tell tale #7: Check the sign above the door going in

I am not sure I shouldn’t have started with this one. Makes more chronological sense. Anyhow, check the sign on the door. If it says Starbucks, or Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, or any other of the large corporate megaliths drowning and dragging down our coffee industry, please turn around. Walk out. You are in the wrong place for coffee served with a passion by a small business, for making true friends, for being a positive influence to our industry, for the survival and character of an industry about to be swallowed up by mono-flavoured (except for those cancer-forming sugar filled flavour concentrates they put in their drinks to destroy their burnt roast flavours) corporate entities bent on paying out Wall Street shareholders at the expense of the little guys and specialists who make up the heart and soul of our industry. By supporting these corporate megaliths, you are supporting their tyranny, destruction and exploitation of small-scale, family owned and operated coffee growers, retailers and roasters.


Please do not become a part of this serious problem in our industry. I know from personal experience what it feels like when a customer comes into your little coffee shop and supports you – as opposed to the Starbucks across the street, and down the road, and across from the bus stop, and next to where you work (or in the building where you work) and in literally dozens of locations throughout your town or city. This is personal. It means so much. Please support the little guys with big hearts in our industry.