Not everyone has a choice of where they get their coffee. My local train station for example has a stretch of shops opposite but only one serves coffee (so I make mine at home before I leave for work). But if you have the luxury of choice, use it wisely. This article is designed to give you some things to think about before you part with your $1500 per year on coffees (believe it or not, that’s approximately what each of us spend per year on coffees!)

In this article we will be looking at each of the following things which you can do when you next walk into your local café to get your morning coffee:

 1. Ask yourself: Did you get a personal greeting?

2. Time the Espresso

3. Listen to the milk

4. Assess the Presentation

5. Ask yourself: How did it Taste?

Ask yourself: Did you get a personal greeting?

If you’re a regular in a café you’d want to hope that after a few weeks at least someone has made an effort to find out your name and use it. And if not using your name, at least engage in some sort of friendly banter. But then on the other hand there’s nothing worse than an over-zealous robot who poses the same old “So how’s your day been?” Ask me how my Chris Isaak concert in the vineyards went on the weekend or how my veggie patch is standing up to all the heat or how my beginner guitar lessons are going, but please don’t ask me how I am (because frankly, I know you don’t care how my day’s been….I’m sure you don’t really want to know that I woke up with a sore throat, have a builder who’s giving me grief on my renovation and a sick child who kept me up all night!)

No, a talented barista will get to know you over the months and pick up each day a lot of little things about you, store them in their memory and bring them out skillfully when the time is right. As we say to people that attend our live barista classes, as a barista you will end up (or should end up knowing) more about your customers on a day-to-day basis than your own brothers or sisters, mothers or fathers.

So if you’re not getting a personal greeting or an apt, pithy one-liner tomorrow morning as you approach the espresso machine, give your café a black mark now.

Time the Espresso

Good cafes will adhere to the golden rule: 30 ml-in-30 seconds. In other words, your 30 ml (1 fl oz) shot should take about 30 seconds from the time the barista hits the button on the espresso machine, to the time the espresso stops flowing. Actually anywhere between about 25-30 seconds is ideal. If you have ordered a small cappuccino, flat white, caffe latte or even espresso, the shot of coffee coming into your cup should take about 30 seconds to flow. If you have ordered a large or grande cappuccino, flat white, caffe latte, long black or doppio espresso, then the barista will be collecting both shots into your cup but the same rule applies – it should take 25-30 seconds for the espresso to flow into your cup. With this sort of flow, the water from the espresso machine will have spent just long enough in contact with the grinds to allow the full flavour of the espresso to have been released. A flow of less than 25 seconds will yield a weak, under-extracted espresso (little crema, low flavour) whereas a flow of more than 30 seconds will yield a strong, bitter and over-extracted espresso (patchy crema, bubbles, burnt aroma and taste).

All you need to do is place your order then amble over to the espresso machine and stand by with your watch or the timer on your mobile phone to perform this simple, but telling, task. (No doubt the barista will think you’re just checking the time or texting on your phone!) Once you get good at it, you won’t need to watch the espresso flowing. If you’re close enough to it, you can sometimes hear the barista hit the volumetric button to start the flow and you can hear the button switching off to signal the end of the flow. Remember that if the flow is outside of that beautiful 25-30 second range, you are not getting the best espresso that the barista is capable of delivering. If you want sub-optimal espresso, keep coming back to this café, but if you demand excellence in every cup, shoot through and find a better café that takes pride in their espresso.

There are other ways of determining the quality of an espresso but these are a little harder for you, the customer, to assess unless you are watching the flow close-up or examining the crema. When a great espresso flows, it will look like a straight strand of spaghetti with a beautiful rich brown colour. The espresso shouldn’t flood out too quickly but nor should it struggle and literally drip into your cup.

Alternatively you can examine the crema on the finished shot. A beautiful espresso will have a rich, consistent layer of honeycomb-coloured crema. A bad espresso will either have very little crema (so that you can see the black espresso below, the result of a fast-flowing espresso) or crema that is dark brown in places and light brown in others and perhaps even bubbly (the result of an espresso that came out too slowly).

Here’s a story that will hopefully illustrate the point. About a year ago, I went into a shopping mall in Australia and walked up to a place called Jamaica Blue. I went there because Jamaica Blue had been heavily advertising that you could get your coffee made from the world-renowned Wallenford Estate situated in the famous Blue Mountain region in Jamaica. As coffee aficionados would know, this is to coffee what Krug and Bollinger are to Champagne: rare and expensive with the most smooth, well-rounded flavour one could imagine. Jamaica Blue charged $8 or something like that for my coffee but I was there for the experience, not to watch my pennies. Out of interest, I stuck near the espresso machine, watched the barista expel my coffee into his group handle, tamp the coffee and insert it into the espresso machines. I kid you not…within 8 seconds my espresso was ready. The barista served it up immediately with a big smile and wondered why there was not one from me to match. The espresso had the faintest layer of crema on top and the black espresso clearly visible. Clearly, this was going to be a dud espresso with little taste and aroma. For $8 I was literally robbed! The barista wasn’t at all happy when I politely suggested to him to adjust his grind and use freshly ground coffee instead of dosing out old stuff that could have been ground a couple of hours beforehand. Needless to say, I asked for a refund and haven’t been back!

Listen to the milk

Another telltale sign that things are going well with your coffee is if there is a beautiful intermittent hissing or sizzling sound as the barista starts to texture you milk, which disappears to silence as he or she concludes the process.

An in-your-face, really loud sound of continuous bubbling with steam rising from the top of the milk jug will indicate – even if this excessive sound is for only a few seconds – that the milk is not being textured correctly. The result will be roadhouse froth – dry froth with massive bubbles – not creamy, silky, shiny milk that we have come to expect from a great espresso bar. Roadhouse froth will be sure to result if the barista is madly pulling the jug up and down with one hand as if they are milking a cow. Milk texturing done correctly involves an occasional slight movement down with the jug with two hands placed firmly on the jug during the process. After a while, the barista will not move the jug down any more and the conclusion of the process is fairly silent (as there is no further aeration of the milk).

In our live classes we like getting our students to listen to the difference between milk being frothed correctly and milk being frothed incorrectly, as for a gun barista, frothing milk should be as much about listening as it is watching.

Assess the Presentation

Is your coffee in some way presented nicely? There’s nothing worse than a coffee that looks horrible on top….it indicates zero effort by the barista. To me, it’s as good as saying “here’s your damn coffee now take it quickly so I can move on and mop my floor or text my friend on my mobile phone…..”

A barista who cares about this job will invest another 1-2 seconds per coffee and make the presentation of the coffee unique. A random swirl with their milk thermometer is all it takes. We’re not expecting triple rosettas people, just a little something to say you care. Baristas need to show some love once in a while and give their customers some chasing hearts or even one heart in the middle of the cup.

Taking the theme a little further, a dirty saucer and spoon often indicate a lack of love and passion by the barista.

A barista’s speed comes only with time and experience but passion should start from day one.

Ask yourself: How did it Taste?

The ultimate test for whether your café is up to scratch is of course the taste of the coffee.

Of course we should not forget that coffee is a sensual experience. Just like with chocolate, we should be able to determine quality by touch, sound, smell and sight. But we would all have to agree that taste is the ultimate decider. Let’s face it, if your coffee looks a million dollars yet tastes like service station vending machine coffee, it’s time to drop in on another café tomorrow.

So shop around coffee drinkers. There’s competition a plenty in the big cities but become more aware as you order and demand the whole package, not just a place to sit and drink a hot drink for 20 minutes.

© Barista Brothers 2009

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