With the amount of coffee shops that we have in Auckland, all of us have had the unfortunate experience of ordering a cup of coffee that may have a beautiful appearance (hooray for the latte art fad), but turns out to have a taste that is less than satisfying. Or, on occasion, I’ve been somewhat taken aback by the quality of the coffee served up by unpretentious espresso cafes of a modest size that serve it every day.
But how precisely can we, on our own, identify a high-quality café and be certain that our cup of coffee won’t be a letdown?
The difference between a “good” cafe and a “great” café may be narrowed down to a few key indicators, which are worth keeping an eye out for. It’s all about paying attention and getting plenty of experience, but in the meanwhile, here are some fundamental things to keep an eye out for as an unassuming customer:
Listen for the grinder
A skilled bartender would always grind coffee beans to order, ensuring that they are always fresh. Even during the busiest times of the day, the grinding noise ought should be almost consistent.
If you’re standing in line and you don’t hear the coffee grinder being used for the cups of coffee that came before you, you should prepare ready to be given some coffee that’s rather old. Or, if you consistently hear the grinder running for around 4-6 seconds at a time and a frenetic clicking of their dosage lever, indicating that they are rushing to get every last morsel of ground coffee out for their next order, then things are looking excellent.
If the barista takes your order themself, then walks over to the machine, and instead of operating the grinder, they just dosage the ground coffee, you should just turn around and leave. Any barista who has received enough training would know that stale coffee cannot be served to customers.
Another important thing to remember is to check to make sure that the covers on the hopper (where the beans are stored) and the doser (where the grinds are stored) of the grinder are always on. We often came across coffee shops that left the cover off of their hopper for lengthy periods of time, making the coffee beans vulnerable to the effects of sunshine and moisture. As a result, the overall quality of the coffee was a significant letdown.
Watch out for coffee education signage
If a coffee shop or roastery is serious about their product, they will often post instructional signage or hand out brochures for customers who are interested in learning more about coffee or roasting. You are not coerced or instructed to do so at the counter; rather, it is up to your choice and the degree to which you are interested.
Coffee education signage may be as straightforward and uncomplicated as listing the nations where the coffee beans were grown, the flavours of the drink, or even information about the farmers or roasters who produced the coffee.
Some coffee shops won’t have signs since it doesn’t fit their character, but they’ll still have a good understanding of their beverages if you ask them simple questions about their beverages (like which brand of roast they use and where it originates from, or even the type of flavour notes the blend holds). If the staff, particularly the barista, is unable to answer these questions, there is a greater likelihood that you will leave the establishment feeling dissatisfied with your beverage of choice.
Have a nosey at the steam wands
When we finally got a look at the steam wand that was attached to their coffee machine, we were so repulsed by it that we will never stop repeating the tale of a notorious coffee shop that we went to in Matakana.
In most cafés, the coffee machine will be arranged in such a manner that you can view at least a portion of its functioning. This will typically be the side of the machine that steams the milk rather than the nasty grinder. Take a quick look at the steam wand and make sure that it is clean and clear of any dried milk that may have been left behind.
A skilled barista will always clean and purge their steam wand as soon as they have finished steaming milk, and they will never allow a buildup of thick, dry, white layers of milk on the wand. The explanation can be found in scientific research: milk cannot be boiled at temperatures higher than 100 degrees Celsius; rather, it begins to break down into fatty molecules and water at a temperature of approximately 65 degrees Celsius, and certain components begin to boil at a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius (aka burnt milk). The lactose in your milk is the component that tastes the sweetest, but if the conversion point is set too low, lactose might take on a sour flavour instead.
Leaving molecules on the steamer may continue to alter the flavour of the successive jugs of milk that come into touch with the old, burned lactose particles that are on the wand. This can continue as long as the molecules are left on the steamer.
Sneak-peek at the work area
When it comes to tidiness, you should be aware that a skilled and experienced barista will be used to keeping their workspace somewhat neat and organised.
Now, this does not imply that a mound of loose grinds in the middle of rush hour is indicative of a lousy barista; rather, it refers to factors that influence cleanliness, such as the reuse of filthy rags, a collection of dirty cups and trays by the sink in the work area, or old coffee stains everywhere.
The flavour shots are negligible
And now, the question of a sweet treat served in a cup. A few years ago, flavour shots could be found just about everywhere and were quite popular. (A huge thank you to Starbucks.) This tradition, however, has begun to fade away as a result of the steadily improving and more cutthroat nature of the coffee industry.
In general, a coffee shop that places a high priority on the quality of their product is less likely to seek to mask the flavour of their coffee with an overwhelming number of different flavours, syrups, and other additives. Many of them now brag that they don’t use any kind of syrup at all! Coffee shops that don’t put a lot of emphasis on the quality of their brew often provide three or four different kinds of sugary toppings for your beverage. Be on the lookout for this on their menus, and ensure that you have a clear idea of the level of quality you anticipate receiving before you even make your order.
Coffee 101 – All You Need To Know