I’ve developed this odd habit. Whenever I go to a new coffee shop I’ll stand and watch the baristas work for a few minutes before ordering.
If they look good I’ll buy a coffee and if they look shit I won’t buy a coffee. I look at their technique, cleanliness and workflow. The reason for this is simple, I have had enough bad coffee. I don’t want to have any more.
I certainly do not want to pay for bad coffee.
I’m a curious person and like to visit as many coffee shops as possible. For the experience, to see what unique mix of qualities make them a success and also, if they’re really good, to take ideas and inspiration from them.
Unfortunately the first time you visit a ‘speciality’ coffee shop you don’t have much idea how good or bad it will be, unless they have a reputation. So it’s hard to judge whether the coffee is worth paying for until after you’ve got it. Unless, like me, you stand and watch people like a creep
My abhorrence at the thought of bad coffee means I drink in less and less places these days. I’m not unhappy about this. If baristas cannot take the small effort to weigh their coffee doses, distribute and tamp carefully, then check the shot extracted in the right time, then I don’t want their coffee. Not doing these things shows the baristas either don’t know how, or care to, make coffee well. Maybe they’ll make the odd tasty one but it will be random and unrepeatable.
I can appreciate why some people find the more craft and artisan approach romantic. The idea someone is so passionate and experienced that they can make incredible drinks with ease is appealing.
The romantic argument is often made in bartending. Free-pouring, rather than using volumetric weighing jiggers, is seen to require more skill and experience to do consistently. Some people have mastered it and make quite the show of working this way. The sad truth is that most people using this technique are just cutting corners to save time, whilst perhaps passing themselves off as skilled bartenders. This shows in the quality of the drink. These pretenders simply waste your money, and good spirits, by building unbalanced cocktails.
The coffee equivalent of this is finger swiping, or Stockfleth’s technique. There are a few who have mastered it and claim to be able to have perfect consistency, although I still have doubts. Amateurs use this technique too and fool themselves into thinking they are consistent. It doesn’t work. Just use a scale, it literally takes a second to check and another second to adjust.
I have no respect for those who take a craft approach to something as complex and with so many variables as coffee brewing. They’re deluding themselves and wasting my money. Some customers will enjoy the more romantic approach and process, most will just notice the quality of coffee.
Of course having said all this about a ‘craft’ approach most coffee shops, bars and restaurants too, have no approach. They just don’t care enough to put much effort into what they do. Luckily this shows clearly and we can all avoid them before wasting our money.
The red flags I look for are:
Poor Machine & Grinder – A crap espresso machine means no consistency, a rubbish grinder means the grind quality will be terrible. There’s no way round this bad equipment = bad coffee.
No Scales – Without scales there is no controlled recipe, meaning the baristas have little control over the resulting brew and you’ll be served a random quality drink.
Dirty bar & equipment – Poor cleanliness is a red flag in any hospitality business, don’t put up with it. Dirty equipment means the coffee will taste dirty too
Watch a bad shot pour – I’m always amazed the amount of shots I see pour in under 10 seconds that are then used. That’s not an espresso it’s just dirty water. Similarly size, you can’t eyeball weight too accurately but if its either a black tear drop or half a glass of transparent blonde water you know there is a big issue.
For Filter – Look for scales, a good grinder, a designated area and setup for brewing, and a temperature controlled water source. Without that I’d maybe give it a miss. A barista using the water spout on their espresso machine to make filter crushes my hopes of getting a decent brew.
Poor Knowledge – This is usually the last step. Asking “what have you got on today?” and being met with confusion or uncertainty shows lack of care. If the barista hasn’t bothered to remember where their coffee is from or how it will taste can you really expect them to brew it well?
I haven’t mentioned service. Firstly it’s impossible to judge the quality of service on a single visit. Even the best places in the world can have off days.
Secondly there’s little correlation between quality of service and quality of coffee. I’m just talking about the technical signs to determine coffee quality. i.e. The average greasy spoon cafe will have incredible service because that’s their main focus. you’ll be smiling and having a great time whilst drinking some instant coffee.
Now this may all seem obvious, perhaps a little ranty too. It annoys me though and I feel the need to share.
Most coffee shops proudly displaying their SCAE badge in their window still don’t seem to give a shit about making coffee well. This has been true in every city I’ve visited. Less than half of speciality coffee shops seem to put much effort and care into what they do. The rest are just pretending, jumping on the independent coffee bandwagon and adding competition to an already saturated market. In an industry with a lot of passionate professionals struggling to earn a decent living this isn’t cool.
This holds us all back and damages the industry’s reputation. Customers may see us all the same. This results in it taking extra effort to sell a guest an espresso or filter because they’ve had such bad stuff before. They may be intimidated coming into an independent coffee shop because they had such bad service in another one.
I don’t think we should support the crap coffee shops that call themselves ‘speciality’, at-least not by buying their coffee. Maybe give them some advice if they genuinely want it, although with so much free advice and information online I don’t see a valid excuse for not knowing what you’re doing if you actually care. That’s true for everything, not just coffee.
So with that and my ‘red flags’ in mind, I’ll continue being that creepy guy who stands watching people for a few minutes then leaves shaking his head.
Apologies for the long silence. I’ve been busy the last few months on new projects and my focus has been on the future. I do have a few longer posts in the works but they aren’t quite right yet. They will be soon.