How to tell if your coffee will taste good (before you order it)

Sporting the number of cafes that we do in Auckland, we’ve all had those experiences of ordering a cup of coffee that may look great (all hail the latte art craze), but ends up tasting pretty disappointing. Or sometimes been pretty surprised with small, unassuming espresso bars – who make delicious coffee every day!

But how exactly can we, on our own, spot a high quality cafe and know for sure, that our cuppa won’t disappoint?

Yep there’s definitely some sure-fire signs to watch for, that differentiates a “good” cafe from a “great” one. It’s all about observation and practice – but here’s some basic tips to watch for as an unassuming customer:

Listen for the grinder
A good barista will always grind coffee beans fresh per order. Even in very busy periods, the grinding noise should be almost constant.

If you’re waiting in line and don’t hear the grinder run for the coffees served before you – get prepped to be served some fairly stale coffee. Or if you constantly hear the grinder run for about 4-6 seconds at a time and a furious clicking of their dosing lever, hurrying to get every last morsel of ground coffee out for their next order – things are looking good.

If the barista takes your order themselves, heads over to the machine and just doses the ground coffee without running the grinder – just turn around and leave. Stale coffee is would be absolutely unacceptable to any well trained barista.

Another quick note is to watch that the lids on the grinder’s hopper (where the beans live) and doser (where the grinds live) are always on. We’ve often seen cafes with their hopper lid off for extended periods, exposing the coffee beans to sunlight and humidity, and sure thing the coffee quality was a huge disappointment.

Watch out for coffee education signage
A cafe that takes their coffee or roast seriously will tend to leave passive educational signs or leaflets available for an interested customer to read. It is not forced at you or dictated at the counter, rather just left to your discretion and level of interest.

Coffee education signs can be fairly simple like the countries that the coffee beans originates from, and the flavours of the brew, or even information about the farmers or coffee roaster.

Some cafes won’t have signage if it doesn’t suit their persona, but will still be fairly knowledgeable when asked basic questions about their coffee (like which brand of roast they use and where it originates from, or even the type of flavour notes the blend holds). If the staff, especially the barista, can’t answer these questions there is a higher chance of leaving disappointed with your brew.

Have a nosey at the steam wands
We will never stop telling the story of an infamous cafe we visited in Matakana and was so grossed out when we finally got a view of their coffee machine steam wand.

Most cafes will position their coffee machine in a way where you can see atleast part of their operation – usually the milk steamer side instead of the messy grinder. Take a sneak peek at the steam wand and make sure they’re clean and free of left-over dried milk.

A good barista will always wipe and purge their steam wand immediately after steaming milk and never allow a build up of thick, white, dry layers of milk. The reason is science based – milk cannot be boiled up to 100ºC, instead it starts to separate into fatty molecules and water at about 65ºC and some components start to boil at 70ºC (aka burnt milk). The sweetest part of your milk is the lactose, and with an extremely low conversion point lactose can start to taste sour.

Leaving molecules on the steamer can keep affecting the flavour of the subsequent jugs of milk that come in to contact with the old, burnt lactose particles on the wand.

Sneak-peek at the work area
Speaking of cleanliness, know that a good experienced barista will be used to keeping their work area fairly clean and tidy.

Now this doesn’t mean a pile of loose grinds in rush hour makes a bad barista – but things that affect hygiene like dirty rags being reused, a pile of dirty cups and trays near the work area sink, or old coffee stains everywhere.

The flavour shots are negligible
Finally, the issue of a dessert in a cup. Up to a few years ago flavour shots were everywhere, and so popular! (Thanks a lot Starbucks). But with the quality of coffee getting better and more competitive every year, this trend had dwindled away.

Generally, a cafe that takes the quality of their coffee super seriously, is less likely to want to drown the taste of their coffee in a huge range of flavours and syrups. Many of them now boasting no syrups at all! Cafes that don’t focus on this high quality cuppa – tend to have atleast 3 or 4 varieties of sweet additions to your drink. Watch out for this on their menus and be sure of the quality you’re expecting before you even place an order.

Use these little tips next time you head into a cafe and put them to the test.