We’ve been making coffee for a long time and even without a cafe to work in everyday coffee still plays a significant role in almost every day. I’m certainly not alone in that.
When we ran our cafe we were recognised for the quality of our coffee. We were included in a global directory “Where to Drink Coffee” published by Phaidon Books, and compiled by some of the worlds best coffee makers and roasters and reviewers. You can subscribe to our Coffee Subscription service to make our coffee your way at home. We make coffee at home most of the time now, but as things continue to open up and get around to COVID-normal we’re looking forward to finding new favourite cafes as we’re getting out and about.
Choosing where to have a coffee can be tricky. It can also be disappointing when you get it wrong.
I like quality coffee and I like to know that the coffee was made well and tastes good. After a decade of standing behind the counter and selling coffee I’m clear in my opinions about what goes into making a really good cup.
My opinions are subjective – of course, and what I like in a good cuppa may not be the same things you like.
So how do I make my choice?
I won’t look for a coffee brand – just because a cafe uses good beans or a popular brand of beans doesn’t mean the person on the machine knows what they’re doing. Contrary to popular belief just calling yourself a barista, or completing a course doesn’t necessarily mean you know what you’re doing.
In fact, we were always dubious when hiring our team when someone suggested they had ‘barista experience’. Some of them didn’t even like the taste of coffee.
Things I will look for –
Is there a queue at a cafe? Are they busy with take aways or is it all sit-in customers?
Take aways indicate to me that customers will take the time to grab a coffee on the way to somewhere else rather than just doing without or having a coffee at home in the morning before they leave the house.
Sit-in customers – what are they drinking and who is at the table?
If there are lots of groups or there are milkshakes and iced coffees, pots of tea and other non-coffee drinks I’ll give the place a miss. Groups suggest the cafe is more for socialising and the coffee is secondary, the non-coffee drinks indicate that the coffee probably isn’t great – especially if you need to cover it up with whipped cream or sprinkles or ice.
I look for places where solo table sitters are drinking small coffees or espresso. Those customers are there for the coffee and for the chance to read the news or sit for a while.
Use your ears.
Can you hear the coffee grinder going? Grinding beans fresh for each customer is best practice. If you can’t hear the grinder, the cafe has pre-ground a bunch of beans and is taking too long to use them. Fresh ground is best.
A sound you shouldn’t hear is anyone steaming milk. Texturing milk should almost be silent. If you can hear screeching or frothing or anything else – order a cup of tea instead or pass on by.
I use a baseline to compare cafes.
At home and in a cafe I’m an extra shot flat white drinker, I think you can judge a coffee pretty well with that particular drink. The coffee should be strong enough to taste, and smooth – neither acidic nor bitter, and there should be a good ratio of milk where the coffee flavour shines through and is complemented by the sweetness of the textured milk. The milk should be creamy in texture, not frothy with large bubbles, and definitely not thin and watery. Good flat white milk is tricky and it’s a good way to judge how the cafe is performing. Latte art – the pretty patterns on the surface of a coffee – is just that, pretty and it doesn’t really make a coffee better. It does show that the milk is well textured and the person pouring the milk cares about the way the coffee looks in the cup.
Sugar can help if you’re not sure, but wait.
Taste the coffee before you add any sweetener – even if you’re usually a sugar-adder. A well made coffee shouldn’t really need any added sweetening. If you’re not sure you like what you’re tasting add a little sugar. The sweetness can accentuate the flavour.
Get what you want.
How folks take their coffee is intensely personal – and as varied as there are people. Your cafe should make it the way you like it.
Some ‘baristas’ might refuse to make an extra hot coffee for example. If you like a scalding cup you should ask for it that way – you’re drinking it.
The person behind the machine’s opinion about how you SHOULD do something isn’t something they should make you feel bad about.
That being said, a good coffee-slinger should be able to give you advice, or make a suggestion about your coffee and should be knowledgable explaining why they would recommend something.
Be prepared to pay for it and be realistic.
Quality well-roasted coffee beans are more expensive than less-great beans, and experienced and skilled people are more expensive to employ, so be prepared to pay for your coffee. If you’re rocking up to a cafe and you can see a group of other folks waiting for their coffees, be patient. The coffee is obviously popular and the machines only work so quickly.
Be generous with your praise.
If you like what you’re drinking let the team in the cafe know, and let then know why. Be specific. Follow the cafe on their social media accounts, and share the details with your friends, recommend the cafe and visit as often as you can.
Hospitality is a tricky business and authentic reviews and word of mouth recommendations really do help.
If you don’t like the coffee, move on and keep looking for something that suits you better. Just because you didn’t have a great coffee it doesn’t mean you should leave a bad review or go out of your way to bad-mouth anyone. What doesn’t work for you might just be someone else’s best coffee ever. Chalk it up to experience and carry on, especially if you’re not prepared to let someone at the cafe know face-to-face that there was a problem with your experience.