Know If You Are Getting A Good Coffee Before You Place An Order
Loving coffee is as much a blessing as it is a curse. You can walk into a nice looking café and pay premium for a coffee, which comes out of an impressive machine, only to take a sip and feel your face scrunch up in disgust. By now your friends have noticed, and they will start with their usual, ‘the coffee is fine. What are you complaining about? You snob.’ You pity and envy them at the same time. Ignorance is, after all, bliss.
I am here for you. You are not a snob, and it isn’t your fault. The trendy new café you brought your friends to has artificial grass on the seats, and the light bulbs hang in glass jars. It is all very new age, and this looks like the kind of place where you come to get a good coffee.
Rule #1 The Coffee Shop Décor Means Nothing.
Coffee is made by a person, with a machine, behind a counter. Assuming they started off with quality beans, the taste of your coffee is really down to the person making it. Let’s make that rule number two
Rule #2 Watch The Barista
I am going to let you in on some tricks of the trade. Follow my advice, and you will know if you are going to get a good coffee before you even place an order.
Step 1. Check the Hopper
The hopper holds the coffee beans in their unground form, and it is the first place coffee beans go when they leave the bag.
Coffee beans have all kinds of oils/terpenes. We need these oils. They are responsible for that gorgeous espresso taste we all know and love.
Check to make sure the hopper is clean. If there is any brown residue on the plastic, what you are seeing is a built up layer of oils. These oils quickly go rancid, and this makes coffee taste HORRIBLE!!
In a dirty hopper, all of those beautiful fresh beans are pressed through rancid oils.
Step 2. The Tamp
When a barista tamps the coffee, they press it down into the group head. (The basket looking thing) This is done to evenly compact the grind. When done correctly it ensures an even extraction, and your coffee won’t taste burnt or bitter.
The group head is filled with ground coffee, tamped, and then it is locked into the machine. Water is forced through the coffee grind. All of the flavour, taste, and caffeine are extracted from the beans by this pressurised water.
Think of extracting the espresso as cooking the coffee. It is a crude analogy, but it has its purpose.
When you put a chicken in the oven, you will first read the packet and find out how long it has to be in there. We all know that if you leave it in too long it burns, and if you take it out to soon it is raw. Extracting espresso works the same way, but you don’t set the oven with knobs and dials.
How long the coffee takes to extract is affected by the density of the grind in the group head. The density in the group head is affected by the tamp.
Most commercial coffee machines will pump water at 9 bars of atmospheric pressure through the grind. This water is very hot, so if it passes too slowly through the coffee grind it will burn. Similarly, if it passes too quickly, it won’t extract properly. Just like our chicken.
I hope you follow, but I will try make it even clearer. Imagine you have two buckets. One is filled with sand, and the other is filled with rocks.
Now imagine we poured water through our bucket of rocks. What will happen?
There is space between the rocks, and as you would expect, the water passes quickly through the bucket.
What about the bucket of sand? Sand is very course. The water will take longer to flow through the bucket.
The bucket filled with sand will have a longer espresso extraction time then the bucket filled with rocks.
Remembering all of this you need to watch how the barista tamps the coffee. The water pressure will always be the same, so the barista’s technique should always be the same. If you notice variations in how they are tamping, run a mile you are about to pay for a bad coffee.
Step 3. The Shot Time
Coffee is as much a science as it is an art. Don’t believe me? Look at this formula.
Extraction yield % = Brewed Coffee[g] x TDS[%] /Coffee Grounds[g] E.g. (espresso) 36g brewed coffee x 10% TDS / 18g ground coffee = Extraction yield of 20%.
I can cover exactly what that all means in later posts, if you want to go full coffee nerd. But for now, the point I am trying to make is coffee has a recipe.
Remember when I said, before you put a chicken in the oven, you read the temperature on the back of the box and set the oven. Coffee is no different.
It is not hard to calculate exactly how much time a shot should take to extract.
From when the barista pushes that button to when the shot stops pouring is called the extraction time, and it is arguably the single biggest contributor to the taste of the coffee.
The majority of commercial coffee machines has inbuilt volumetrics. This means they measure the volume of water which passes through them, and they pump out the same amount of water every time. Do you see how all of the variables are fixed? The pressure, the amount of water. The only real variable that the barista controls is the grind and the tamp.
Using the above formula, the ideal shot time is around 30 seconds. It varies a little bit depending on beans, preference, climate, altitude, the list goes on. But as rule of thumb, a good barista will time a shot to around thirty seconds.
Spying on your barista, might sound a little over the top to you, but coffee is expensive. If you are about to sink money into a cup, get out your phone and time the shots being poured. Press go the second the barista presses the button. It will take around 5 seconds for the shot to start pouring, and another 25 for it to go ‘click’ and finish.
5 seconds either side of 30 seconds is a good margin of error. Another thing to note is that some machines pour smaller shots for smaller coffees. Do not time a shot going into a small coffee. The machine will put out less water, and this in turn quickens the shot time.
Step 4. Talk to the barista
Ask them if they time their shots, and when they last adjusted the grind. There is a proportionate relationship between knowledge and the quality of the coffee in your cup. I do not subscribe to the idea that a barista can get by on talent alone. No one has the talent to magically set the grind. They have to know what they are doing, and why they are doing it.
Some Final Words
This knowledge and scientific method is what third wave coffee is all about. We are leaving the dark ages, and your stand against bad coffee is ushering in the renaissance. No one wants to pay for a bad coffee, and for too long we have settled on whatever was put in our cups. With your eyes and your phone, you can deduce if you are going to get good coffee in under a minute. Try it out for yourself.
You don’t need an expensive expresso machine to get serious about coffee at home. Click here to learn more about the most important step towards a good coffee.
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