Recently, I spent a week doing cafe crawls in my fine city of Vancouver. Most of the people I went out with were seasoned coffee professionals, but on one particular cafe crawl, I was introducing people to quality, specialty coffee for their first time. I soon realised that the topic of conversation steered back to the same questions again: what makes this particular cafe stand out? How can I, on my own, decide if a cafe is doing good coffee or not before I even order a cup?
It got me thinking: yes, there are some sure fire signs that consumers can look for, very quickly and with just a glance, to tell if they're in a place that takes coffee seriously and more importantly, respects the coffee preparation, brewing, and serving process. And then there are other tips that take more keen observation: they require you to sit and scope things out. Hang out for a while. These more advanced tips do take time and a more practiced eye, but can distinguish the "good cafe" from the "great cafe", all through observation.
Beginner Tips on Spotting Good Cafes
First up are some tips that will help you spot good cafe practices within minutes of walking through the door. If the cafe doesn't provide check marks for any or all of the following things, chances are the quality in the cup won't be great.
Grinding Sounds are Nearly Constant
When you walk into a cafe, the grinder should be running everytime a drink is being built. Especially when it comes to espresso. Observe the barista as they get an espresso-based drink order. If they turn on the grinder, grind for around 3-6 seconds, then furiously dose out all the ground coffee getting every last grain, things are in good shape. If the barista is doing nothing, then gets an espresso order, and just doses from the grinder without grinding, turn around and walk out the door: this cafe uses stale ground coffee for espresso, a cardinal sin.
If the cafe does more drip and brew coffee, you should hear the same thing everytime they brew a pot or a single-sized brew. Listen for the grinder sounds - it is a sign of a cafe that understands the importance of fresh ground coffee to the quality in the cup.
Peek at the Steam Pitchers
Many cafes provide the opportunity for you to see the barista at work. Watch them as they build a milk drink - and especially watch the steam pitcher. If you see them just pour a bit of milk into a pitcher that has old steamed milk, this is very, very bad. The cafe should be using a clean, rinsed milk pitcher every single time they steam milk for an espresso beverage.
The reason is science and taste based. Milk isn't water. It doesn't boil at 100C; instead, it starts to separate into fats, water and other substances at around 60-65C, and some of the components (fats) start to boil on their own at around 70C or lower. It cannot be reversed. In addition, the thing that makes milk (and your cappuccino) sweet is lactose: but lactose has an extremely low conversion point where it changes into other chemicals (alcohol, C02, and other elements). Lactose is super sweet to us at around 35C; it starts to burn off and convert into other things by 40C.
Good baristas (and shop owners) understand these chemical processes and changes in milk and know they must always start with fresh, cold milk when building espresso drinks. Cafes only concerned with the bottom line and not with quality in the cup will resteam old milk. Avoid them.
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| Fresh Milk, Right Sized Pitcher |
Good cafes will only steam fresh milk to order, and use the proper sized pitchers depending on the drink size. This can be difficult for baristas, especially since steaming and frothing milk in a small 12oz pitcher is a lot harder than it is in a 24oz pitcher.
| It's all by feel |
Practiced baristas know to judge the temperatures and quality of steaming milk by feel and by sound. Stretch until it's the same temperature as your hand, then sink the wand deep, finish up the steaming.
| Clean Wand |
A proper technique in a cafe is making sure the steam wand is completely purged and cleaned after use. Watch for this.
A quality driven cafe wants to provide education about their coffee in a passive way -- if you want to read it, it's there. It's not thrown in your face or dictated to every customer.
Coffee education comes in many forms in a quality driven cafe. It could be as simple as the country, region, and farm information for each coffee they sell. It could be tasting notes for each coffee the brew and serve. It could be pamphlets and postcards at the counter for the current coffee offerings and how they came to be at that cafe. It could be more detailed information about the farm, the farmers, the roaster. What's important is that a) it's available, and b) it's passive -- you can read it if you want, but it's not forced upon you.
If there is no coffee education at all, even to the point where the staff doesn't know what's in their espresso blend or where their coffee comes from, this is a sure fire warning sign to walk away.
Brewing into Dirty Shot Glasses
If you can see the espresso machine's operating side, look to see if they brew into shot glasses and the scope them out. I don't even like the act of brewing into shot glasses (then transferring the espresso to the final serving cup) but I understand why some cafes do this (still, this is a tip for finding a great cafe over a good one - great cafes never use shot glasses to brew into). So -- brewing into shot glasses is okay, but not great -- you don't have to leave the cafe just yet.
Just take a close look at the shot glasses. These glasses should be sparkling clean every use. If they are crusted with old espresso crema and old espresso liquid, this is a sign that the cafe doesn't take the espresso process very seriously, and quality in the cup is not of utmost importance. If the shot glasses are dirty, chances are you won't get a great coffee experience.
Spy the Work Area
Good baristas and good cafes always keep their prep and drink making areas relatively clean. I'm not talking grinds free or sparkling counters, but I'm talking "clean". No old rags hanging off to the side. No coffee stains all over the counters everywhere. The drip tray on the espresso machine should be relatively clean. Excessive (not all, but excessive amounts) of grinds swept away.
If you spot dirty rags on counters just sitting there, this isn't a good sign. On top of creating potentially unsanitary conditions in the drink (and food) prep areas, it just isn't professional. If you spot a pile of dirty cups and mugs near the prep area, this also is a bad sign. Walk out the door.
Listen for the Clack Sounds
There's two types of clacking sounds you should listen for in a cafe - one is good, one is not.
The good clacking sound was already referenced above: the clackity clack of an espresso doser being operated by a barista. Furiously. Because speed is important for espresso. Note however not all shops have manual doser espresso grinders: some auto dose into the portafilter. If they do have these types of grinders, you're reasonably assured you're getting fresh ground for every shot.
The truly bad clacking sound is the sound of a tamper being knocked against the side of the portafilter housing. This was done for decades to "settle" the coffee grinds inside the portafilter's filter, but the specialty coffee industry has known for over a decade now this is a very bad practice. Why? Because the act of hammering a tamper against the side of a portafilter disrupts the bed of coffee inside the of it's filter. Disrupting that bed of coffee means that water finds easy paths through the coffee, resulting in poor espresso shots.
If you hear the barista rap or clack their tamper against a portafilter to settle grinds, you probably won't be getting a good shot of espresso.
Spot the Roast Style
When you walk into a cafe, look at the roast in the espresso grinder's hopper. If you see excessively dark, oily coffee in the hopper, this is not a good sign of a modern day, quality cafe that takes espresso seriously.
It was long thought by average consumers that espresso roast is super dark, super oily, super bitter. Thankfully, something that specialty coffee enthusiasts have known for decades is becoming more commonly known: this dark roast myth for espresso is not only untrue, but representative of poor quality espresso. Also, for decades, consumers thought espresso was a style of roast or bean. It is not - almost any coffee can taste good as espresso.
I won't say either that the coffee in an espresso grinder hopper should be super light either - that would be just as bad advice as super dark. The coffee should be fresh, should be roasted to the best representation of what that coffee can deliver, and modern quality driven roasters realise that roasting to the point of surface oil showing up on beans means you've taken the roast too far, and are actively damaging the coffee by introducing too much carbon and burnt oil tastes.
So look at the hopper - look to see a nice, uniform colour, a deep dark rich brown, and no surface oil present. It's a sign of good coffee.
The Syrups are Kept to a Minimum
Look, cafes are in the business of making a profit, and not everyone cares about the quality of coffee in the cup like you and I do. Some just want a sweet drink that sorta reminds them of coffee, but without any sign of bitterness. Did I say some? I mean many.
Even top shelf quality cafes need some syrups for their milk-based espresso drinks. Vanilla for sure. Chocolate ditto. Maybe one or two more.
But if a cafe is proudly displaying 10, 20 bottles of their Davinci or Torani syrups -- and especially if those syrups all look well used -- this is not a quality driven cafe. It's a cafe that serves sweet coffee like beverages.
Other Quick Spot Tips For Identifying a Quality Cafe
There's a lot of other things you can look for when walking into a cafe and determining -- visually and auditorily -- if your chances of a good coffee are good or not:
- Crusty old milk on the steam wands. These should be cleaned after every single use.
- They use a super automatic. Super autos are for big corporate chains (and restaurants, sigh), not quality cafes.
- Many tables are full of empty cups, and not bussed. If they can't bus empty tables, the staff probably has other shortcomings too.
- Made up cutesy names for their drinks on the menu. Serious coffee shops use serious names for coffee. And the offer menu should be short.
- You cannot see the grinder used for non espresso coffee. Usually a very bad sign - they pregrind all their non-espresso coffee.
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| Clean Work Area |
Quality shops stress the importance of a clean work area at all times - well most times - when they get slammed, a little grit is fine. But in between pulling shots, quality driven baristas make sure their prep and brew areas are clean.
| Proper sized cups |
A great sign of a quality driven cafe are these little 5oz cappuccino cups (150ml). If they have them, things are good. If they have really nice ones, things may even be better!
| Watching the Shot |
Quality driven baristas study every shot of espresso they pour - sometimes like a hawk.
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| Clean Clean Clean |
Quality driven baristas take pride in their work area and also know that cleaning as you go means less of a huge cleaning job later.
| Proper Grinding and Dosing |
For espresso, but also for any other brewing, grinding to order and using all those fresh grounds is crucial to better quality in the cup.
| Super Clean Tag Team |
Not only a clean work station, but a duo working in tandem - one preps the espresso, grinding, dosing tamping and loading in the portafilter - the other will be steaming the milk.
Advanced Tips for Spotting Good and Even Great Cafes
These next tips are a lot more advanced and harder to spot at times. In some cases, you'll have to be at the cafe for some time to see them happen. In other cases, the differences are so subtle they're very hard to spot unless you have a practiced eye.
The Barista Frequently Samples Espresso
In a quality driven cafe, baristas are the front line for quality in the cup, and the only true way to tell if the espresso is pouring well is to taste it. Most quality driven cafes will give full permission to their staff to taste a shot at any time they feel is necessary. Price-point concerned cafes will not.
It's akin to the chef tasting a spoonful of the risotto, or the sauce, before plating their food. At a quality shop, a barista should be tasting the espresso frequently: at least once every few hours, and the more frequent, the better. I've been in some cafes where the barista on duty is taking a tiny sip of a shot pull every 30 minutes or so. (of course, these aren't shots for customer drinks!).
Watch the barisa. If they are sampling their own brews every once in a while, you're probably in good hands.
Tiny Adjustments to the Grinder Throughout the Day
This one requires observation and time - but if you see, over the course of a sunny afternoon that the barista on duty is doing minute adjustments to the grind fineness on their espresso grinder, you're in seriously good hands. They understand that temperature changes, moisture in the air, and direct or indirect sun can really affect how a shot pulls on an espresso machine, and adjusting the grinder accordingly shows very advanced knowledge and respect for the espresso brewing process.
The Barista Re-Pulls an Occasional Shot
Quality driven, well trained baristas know to observe every shot they pull and look for potential defects in the visual shot pulling process. Espresso is as much an art as it is a science, and part of the art is the power of observation. Watch the baristas at work. Even the world's best baristas will have to occasionally re-pull a shot: the grinder could have been off, the dose just slightly incorrect, there might have been a defective bean amongst the 50 to 75 used for that particular shot.
Quality driven baristas aren't afraid to re-pull the occasional shot. Baristas who don't care never do.
Espresso is Served Correctly
You have to either order one to see it, or watch someone else order one. Espresso (a straight shot) should never be served in a take out cup (unless the customer absolutely insists on it). Further, it should be served with a spoon and with a small glass of water. Why? The spoon to work the crema (it's common thing for real espresso aficionados to stir in the crema); the cup of water to rinse your palate before, and clear your palate after (you enjoyed the aftertaste for a while). The water glass is a relatively new thing in Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest, but it's become a tried and true sign of a quality driven cafe, and more importantly, it helps you to better appreciate and taste that shot of espresso.
I'd add that all espresso shots should be served in porcelain cups only, but there's a current trend in Vancouver to do espresso in small shot glasses. I don't like this trend. I wish it would stop. Espresso requires porcelain.
If your espresso is served with packets of sugar, this is probably not a great sign, but you'll have to use other factors you observe to determine if the cafe is good or not, and the espresso is good or not (before tasting the espresso). Some shops do serve fantastic espresso that doesn't require sugar, but they add a sugar packet or cube to the plate anyway to assuage people who think all espresso is just pure bitters.
Cappuccinos in Proper Cups, With Proper Foam
The cappuccino is a drink of thirds: one third espresso, one third foam, and one third steamed milk. If you get a different ratio, you're not drinking a cappuccino, you're drinking a latte, which has much more liberal ratios.
Further, there's really only one size for the cappuccino - the 150ml cup size (5oz). That allows for a short double of espresso, 60ml of steamed milk, and another 60ml (by volume) of foam - about 2cm. A double cappuccino should be a 300ml cup. If you do not spot 150ml cups on top of the espresso machine, this is a sign that cafes don't really take their traditional milk drinks seriously. I always walk out of these cafes. For you, it's more of a judgement call on the fly.
I'll add (once again) there's a current trend in some top Vancouver cafes to serve cappuccinos in 6-8oz (180-240ml) glassware without handles. This is a very bad trend. On top of not being the proper vessel for the task, who wants to hold an extremely hot coffee beverage (70C if it's a siphon brew, 50-55C if it's a cappuccino) in a thin-walled glass cup?
The Entire Coffee Prep Service is Visible to the Customer
Sometimes this takes time to completely observe: when you first walk into a cafe, you might be able to spot the espresso brewing process easily, but seeing how they prep brewed coffee might be more hidden away.
Quality driven cafes are all about transparency: transparency in the coffee's origins; transparency in the cupping notes and why they feel good serving that coffee; transparency in the roast date of the coffee; and transparency in all other elements of the "seed to cup" story of coffee.
Their ethos of transparency is readily visible in how transparent they are about the final prep and brewing of their coffee in their shop. If you can see everything going on -- from how the coffee is ground, to how it is brewed, to how it is stirred -- you're probably in good hands.
This is a comprehensive list on how to spot a good coffee shop, but by no means exhaustive. To go back to the basics - you want to hear grinder sounds, you want to hear doser sounds. You don't want to hear tamper banging sounds. You want to see the brewing process. You don't want to see dirty rags, dirty shot glasses. You want to see clean steam wands and clean steam pitchers. You don't want to see half full steam pitchers re-used. Just these things are good enough indicators that you are in a good (or a bad) cafe.
If you have any additional tips and tricks for identifying a great coffee shop, please feel free to comment in our forums! We'd love to hear from you!