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How to find good espresso in a coffeehouse/cafe

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"Msk" posed a good question in another thread and I believe it deserves some space of its own for discussion....

Ok what questions do I need to ask my local coffee house to see if they get it or not? I have a boutique coffee house in my town, I will try the espresso there.

What should I ask them to know if this is representitive of good espresso.

Do you roast your own beans?

What beyond that question?

Wow. This is wide open and there are so many. Plenty more are sure to be forthcoming but here's what I look for and want to know....


What To Look For:

1) Is the portafilter being left in the grouphead of the espresso machine when it's not in use? The thermal mass of the brass portafilter asembly is crucial in retaining heat so the brewing temp does not drop off as the water is forced through the grounds. If you walk into a cafe and see the portafilters sitting on the counter separately from the machine, waiting to be filled and used... fuggedaboudit - chances of getting really good espresso are nil.

2) Do they make a practice of grinding large amounts and leaving the doser filled with already ground coffee? Not good. Grounds sitting in the doser will literally, within an hour or so, start getting flat and losing the potential for creating good crema and superior shots. If they grind to fill the doser every ten to fifteen minutes or so during the morning rush, it's fine but if you walk in at a slow time during mid afternoon or evening and they don't grind the coffee right then for your shot - chances are you just won't get a good shot.

Some of the very best cafes use timer assemblies that grind the right amount of reach shot and the beans for every shot are ground when you order the drink - this is the best.

3) Does it appear that they're tamping and doing it well? Usually the mark of a place that cares enough to try for good results. In some places you may see a LaMarzocco Swift grinder - this is the one where the barista actually locks the portafilter onto the grinder and hits a button. In this case the barista does not tamp. The grinder automatically grinds the right amount and tamps. Some purists believe that hand tamping is the best but a Swift can actually do a better and more consistent job than all but the best baristas. A relatively inexperienced barista with a well maintained and tweaked espresso machine and a Swift can produce very good results indeed.

4) Is the steam wand nice and clean and does it get wiped down and purged after each pitcher of milk is steamed? If you see a milk crud encrusted steam wand it's safe to assume that, at the very least, they don't do a good job of steaming milk. More important - it speaks to the big picture. Lack of attention to a crucial process detail like this generally indicates that the owner/manager/staff either doesn't know or doesn't care enough about milk preparation to do it correctly and more likely than not.... that attitude extends to espresso preparation.

5) Is the barista continually adding milk to pitchers that have sat around for extended periods of time on the counter or re-steaming milk that has sat around for awhile? During a busy morning or evening rush it's a resonable practice to steam in the same pitcher for awhile and keep adding more cold milk but the use old milk/warm milk/re-steamed milk means the same thign as the previous comment - lack of attention to process control.

What To Ask:

1) Do you roast your own beans, how often is this done and how fresh are the beans you use? They should not be using beans more than ten days past roasting date.

2) If you don't roast them yourselves, where do they come from? In some areas you may find cafes using five pound bags of the popular Italian bar blends like LaVazza. Beans like this can make very good espresso but they have to be coming from a trusted source that monitors dates and has good turnover. Good microroaster beans will still be better in nearly all cases.

Other cafes will buy from reputable microroasters. I know of a place in Brooklyn that buys from Caffe Vivace in Seattle. One of Vancouver BC's better local cafes actually has their beans shipped in from Chicago IL in the US! (Intelligentsia Roasters)

3) How many ounces in your double shot? If they say 1.5 to 2 ounces and they really deliver this amount - chances are good that they're trying to do it right. Perhaps they won't be hitting it on every shot - nobody does - but it likely means they understand what's needed.


These are only a few but in my experience if any of the above don't meet the right criteria.... chances are slim that you'll get really good espresso.

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I told Msk, that I'd find out some answers for him from folks in the business. I answered this in another thread, but since phaelon56 is creating a thread for this subject, I'd like to post my findings here. So here goes.


Ok, seems like this is a hot topic today. I have 2 responses for you. These guys are very knowledgeble and I respect their opinions. Hope it helps.

Answer No. 1) "Check and see if all the Baristas are members of the Barista Guild!! (Wait a month or two and then check that one)

Basically I would agree that excellent and well prepared (that means all the elements come together with a well trained, passionate craftsperson Barista at the helm) espresso is never bitter. It does NOT make your mouth pucker and make you go EEEWWWWW!!

One of our Baristas made a 6oz cappuccino double today and I gave it free to a regular while they were drinking their 20oz double mocha with vanilla sweet tooth drink. I told her just to try it. She did and said WOW! this is very good. What is it? I told her a straight cappucino and she could not believe it. She said but it is so sweet and tasty and not bitter. Then she proceeded to tell me that she did not like the taste of coffee only the sweetness.

And then she drank the rest of the cappuccino and did not finish her mocha.

So no espresso shold NEVER be all bitter and puckery. That is most likely an overextracted (too course a grind with too much water flowing over it too quickly) shot.

It is probably NOT the roast profile although that is a huge effect. Usually it is the Barista not knowing what to do right and making a bad shot. puling excellent shots is NOT easy and automatic. it takes hard work, dedication and craftsmanship."

Answer No 2) "he's trying to decide "do i dislike espresso or is this espresso just crap." I guess you could try some of the following:

1 - watch to see if the espresso is ground per shot or pre-ground (the latter is a bad sign),

2 - watch to see if the portafilter is thoroughly cleaned,

3 - time the shot (anything less than 22 seconds is a bad sign as is anything over 30 -- though there are exceptions),

4 - look for portafilters being left in the machine (if the portafilters are out of the group, it's a very bad sign),

5 - evaluate the shot (it should be thick and syrupy, with a classic "red-brown" crema that completely covers the surface and which should support sugar briefly),

6 - watch the barista tamp the espresso. if they're using the "tamper" that is attached to the grinder - bad. if they're using a little plastic tamper - bad. if they're not tamping - bad.

7 - look at the machine. is it clean? does it seem well-maintained?

8 - ask the barista about the beans. who is their roaster? what style of blend and roast is it? what kind of beans are in it? when was it roasted?

9 - order a double espresso ristretto. see what they say. if they say "what's that?" it's a bad sign.

10 - ask the barista how large a double is in ounces. more than 3 ounces is bad.

11 - ask the barista how hard they tamp. any clear answer in pounds is a good sign.

12 - ask the barista how often they clean the portafilters. daily is the minimum.

When it comes right down to it, i personally think that good espresso should never taste "bitter" per se. there are, and should be, bitter flavour elements but they should never be out of balance against the sweet, the earthy, the nutty, the chocolate and the other flavour notes.

but coffee is all personal taste and i have friends with great palates who simply do not like espresso."

OK, those are the answers I got. Hope that helps!


You gonna eat that?

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Prior to getting back to read this topic I decided to start investing in my palate in regards to espresso. I was in a restaurant and watching them grind and tamp and saw a beautiful reddish hue to their espresso. I figured I'd give it a go.

No milk, just a little equal. It was good, very good. I'm starting to believe I like espresso, but that I never had a good one. I usually drink my coffee with alot of milk and equal so for me this was as close to straight black as I have ever had.

I know this wasn't the best either so I am encouraged to try more.


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Great to hear - the reddish brown crema is usually a good clue that there's a likelihood of it being a decent shot. Don't be shy about adding the swetener (real or artificial). There seem to be some purists who scoff at the notion that one should ever sweeten good espresso but lots of great espresso is served daily in Italy and sugar is routinely added by many people. great tip if you're mkaing your own shots at home is to add the sugar to the top of the grounds in the portafilter and tamp it in. The brew water dissolves it and the result is totally dissolved sugar - no residue in the bottom of the cup.

Everyone's tastes vary - I like a fair amount of sugar in my espresso, a very small amount in a latte or cappuccino and absolutely can't tolerate any sugar at all in my drip coffee - go figure....

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