Assess a Coffee Shop in One to Fifteen Seconds

I’m a coffee snob. Bad coffee tastes like garbage and I don’t like the idea of chaining cups together to dodge the caffeine hangover. So I’m perfectly happy with nothing unless I can get an outstanding cup of joe.

In fact, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, I’d probably order a bottle of water in 99% of the coffee shops on earth. And up until recently that included 100% of the coffee shops in the financial district of NYC where I work.

I’m pleased to report, though, that the coffee revolution is breaking over this city before my eyes and I thought I’d celebrate with a little guide to figuring out if you’ve found yourself in a spot with incredible coffee.

Step 1: look through the door/window. This step will cut out about 98% of the coffee shops you’re likely to run across. You’re looking for hardware, specifically these two items:

coffee2The red circle is showing you a bean grinder (sorry about the quality of the image – this is from my ipod camera at Bluestone which just opened near my office). Specifically, it’s a burr grinder. All high end coffee shops have them and they signal two very important things:

  1. The beans are ground fresh. This means they understand the basics of coffee.
  2. They are a bit obsessed about quality. You see, they aren’t using a blade grinder, which adds a little bit of heat to the beans as it grinds them. Personally I don’t think that this moves the needle too much in terms of flavor but it means that they care enough to spend the extra $300 or whatever it costs for a burr grinder.

Obsession with quality is a very, very important signal because in your 1-15 seconds you can’t observe one of the critical elements to awesome coffee: the quality and freshness of the beans. You need signals correlated with bean quality. And the burr grinder is one.

The green arrow points to the other important piece of kit: an incredibly large and expensive espresso machine. Now, I don’t care about whether you like espresso drinks or not (I happen to drink them almost exclusively). This machine signals two more things:

  1. They spent $10,000 on a coffee machine. More quality obsession.
  2. These things are hard to use properly. This means you might have a real barista on your hands. BUT you don’t know that yet.

So you need to evaluate the barista. If he/she sucks the it means the owner spent a ton of money but does not care about employing and training people passionate about coffee. In other words, you get an overpriced Dunkin’ Donuts.

But you can’t really get a good view from outside so to evaluate the barista this you’ll probably actually have to walk into the coffee shop. But you only have 5-10 seconds left, so what are you looking for? The tamp.

That little thing in the imaged woman’s left hand in is the basket. That’s what you grind the beans into. The tool in her right hand is the tamp, which is also the verb describing what she is doing. Note two things about this woman’s tamp:

  1. The basket is propped against the table.
  2. Look at the position of her arm: she is putting her shoulder into it!

The key to a great tamp is the pressure. About 30lbs, I’ve heard, will do it. Most poorly trained baristas half-ass the tamp. Sadly enough, a half-assed tamp can wreck even the best espesso pulled from the best machine.

Now there are many many other steps that go into great coffee than what I’ve listed here. And none of these steps I’ve mentioned above, strictly speaking, are necessary for excellent drip coffee. But the point is that you can suss out every one of the above-mentioned signals in a matter of seconds in any coffee shop you choose.

And if your shops passes these tests, you can be pretty sure anything you get from them is going to be fan-freaking-tastic.

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