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Five Things That'll Make Your Coffee Experience Even Better
I’ve had a lot of coffee over the last few years. I’ve also made a lot of coffee. I traveled around different parts of the country to drink coffee – Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, California. I sampled the goods wherever I went, observing baristas and their techniques, talking to them when I could. I observed customers. I made notes about décor and atmosphere (because in a way, these things can also influence how much you enjoy your coffee). I even put together a coffee travel kit so I could make my own wherever I went.
So yes, in short – I’ve had a lot of coffee. Some of it was good, some not so good, and some of it was actually pretty bad. But none of it was in vain. I learned a lot. I picked up on some common traits that people who know their coffee share, and I learned what some of the warning signs of a Bad Coffee Experience are. And while I’m definitely not an expert (yet!), I can share a few nuggets with you that might help you on your own coffee adventures. Learn from my mistakes – and my triumphs.
Lesson One: Do your homework – three questions for your Barista
If you’re just getting started with your coffee adventures, or if you’re doing some traveling and looking for new shops to try, it pays to do a little homework. Because while it’s true that the idea of “good coffee” can be subjective, it’s also true that there are often signs you can look for to tell if you’re going to get a “good” coffee or espresso drink at a particular shop. For example – just because a shop gets an overall score of 4.8 on Yelp doesn’t mean the coffee is good! I’ve seen reviewers give 5 stars to a shop because “the wi-fi is great” or “I loved their lavender vegan donuts.” Well that’s great, but it doesn’t help me if the coffee tastes like rainwater I collected in my running shoe.
Also, if the shop refers to their beverage as “expresso” anywhere on their web site or in their store signage, I would definitely pass them up. If you see this in the shop, leave immediately. Trust me on that one.
If you feel like getting really involved, there are three basic questions you can ask the barista once you’re at the shop and scoping out the situation.
1. How many ounces is your [insert drink name here]?
If they don’t know, you can’t get an idea of how “milky” your latte or cappuccino will be. Proportions vary WILDLY from shop to shop. Ideally, and traditionally, cappuccinos should be six to eight ounces and lattes could be anywhere from six to twelve. Keep in mind, bigger is not always better. Just saying. Also if the barista doesn’t know how big their own drinks are, I’m not sure they can be trusted to remember how to actually pour a shot, either.
2. What type of beans are you using?
If they don’t know which roaster their beans are from, or how light or dark the roast is, this can be a very bad sign indeed. If they can tell you what they’re pouring without looking at the bag, this is a very good sign. If the beans are from Costco, run away.
3. Do you offer a money back guarantee?
I don’t really think you can ask this, but if the answers to questions one and two are scary, I would maybe consider it.
THIS IS A TRUE STORY:
I was visiting my family in Southern California recently, and we went to the local bookstore (because I am also a book nerd). We figured we might as well try the coffee while we were there. You know, for “research.” First I checked what kind of espresso machine they were using – a big giant Rancillio. I had heard of them before but never had a shot pulled from one, so I was intrigued.
The smallest cappuccino was 12 ounces – this was a bad sign. How can you taste any coffee in that?
Then I asked what kind of beans they were using, and the barista, a very friendly young girl, said it was “an espresso blend, from Costco I think.” THIS WAS A HUGE RED FLAG AND I SHOULD HAVE JUST GIVEN UP RIGHT THEN AND THERE. But no, I wanted to believe…
The barista went on to assure me their coffee was good, and you know, nothing like Starbucks. I wasn’t sure this made me feel any better. THEN she went on to tell me that unlike Starbucks, who just presses a button to make their espresso, her shop actually “grinds the beans and mashes them in by hand.” Meaning, I believe, that they grind and then “tamp” the grounds into the portafilter before pulling the shot. And I won’t even tell you how the actual drink ended up. It’s too traumatic for me to recall.
(for a brief example of grinding and tamping, try the video below)
Grinding and "Tamping"
Lesson Two: Invest in good equipment
An artist needs the right tools – there’s no way around this fact. To make good coffee, you need not only high-quality, fresh beans, but also a a good grinder, and a proper kettle, You can go crazy with other accessories too, (see Lesson Four), but you can always simply stick to the basics too. Have you ever heard of the term GIGO? It applies to coffee too. good dripper.
Lesson Three: Take your time
If you’re going to make your own espresso or drip coffee, there are two parts to the process – the act of making it, and the act of drinking it. Don’t rush either one. I’ve found that the act of mindfully making coffee, can be just as enjoyable as drinking it. At the very least, it adds to the experience of drinking it. Mindful preparation and consumption (of all food and drink, really) is kind of a Zen Thing. Try it. It’ll change your relationship to your coffee.
Lesson Four: Choose your level of geek
Coffee is like wine. Or cheese. Or whisky. Or beer…
It’s a hobby / food / drink that has infinite varieties and a virtually unlimited amount of available accessories, tools, internet forums, books, t-shirts, events… you can see where I’m going. Where there are enthusiasts, there is a proverbial Rabbit Hole, and you can be in charge of deciding how far down that Rabbit Hole you want to travel. Some people just dabble, others of us get lost…
Lesson Five: To each her own
You’ve probably heard the term “coffee snob.” I resent this. Because there should be no such thing.
They say the best cup of coffee, is the one you like. If you like organic Nicaragual beans made with a Hario V60 dripper with a 14:1 water to coffee ratio, then good for you! But if you like McDonald’s coffee, then good for you, too! Now, I might prefer the former to the latter, but that is my personal preference.
It’s true that this article is probably directed more towards those who might lean towards appreciating coffee as art, but still. It’s just like world peace – it’s something we can keep in mind, and strive towards. One big happy coffee family… One Coffee Love.
Hopefully you’ll find a few kernels of wisdom here that will help you increase your knowledge – and enjoyment of coffee. Because in the end, isn’t the ENJOYMENT part the most important thing? Life is too short for bad coffee, after all.