If you’re going to compare one coffee shop to another, you need to try the same drink at each.
Here’s what I recommend:
- An espresso
- A pour-over (or any other specialty brewing method that they have)
- Their signature drink
Here’s why these three things are important:
A good espresso says volumes about a coffee shop.
There are plenty of shops that pull espresso that tastes like watered down coffee with no body and very little flavor. There are even more shops that pull espresso that’s super sour or salty. These shots can cause your body to react, anywhere from your salivary glands going into overdrive, to your jaw locking, to your eye twitching, to your body shivering, even to a full-blown combination of all of those things. But a good shot of espresso…
These shots are rare. They’re neither sour, nor bitter, nor salty, nor sweet, but a perfect balance of all these things. They have a body like whole milk, velvety and smooth. And when you taste it, you pause, and you think, “hm. Wow. I need to try that again.” Because you’ve had so many bad shots that you’ve put your taste buds in a constant state of offense, and when you actually taste a good one, you really doubt yourself. And then you take a second sip and you think, “Holy crap. Yes. This is amazing.”
So a good shot of espresso says a lot about the coffee shop, and it says immeasurable amounts about the barista. Honestly, to have a barista who cares enough to dial in their machine is a rarity, but to have a barista who truly understands how espresso works – it seems like that’s almost unheard of. So start with an espresso, it’ll give you a good preview for what else you’re about to experience.
Next, order the pour-over.
If they don’t have a pour over (or any other specialty brewing method like an aeropress, espropress, etc), get a small brewed coffee. Right now, the coffee industry is on the tail end of third wave coffee. This means that our roasters are closer than ever with the coffee farmers in each country and making sure that their truly getting fair prices, we’re serving less coffee blends and more single origin coffees, and our baristas are taking responsibility for the quality of the cup of coffee that you’re drinking.
Roasters are roasting coffee to be a lot lighter to bring out the natural tasting notes brought on by the environment the coffee was grown in, rather than roasting it so dark that all you taste is ash. The farmers are processing the coffee in a variety of ways, being so detailed that they’re measuring the percentage of fruit left on the coffee bean while it’s being dried out and how much sun it’s getting. The baristas are taking control over all the variables in your coffee – water temperature, grind size, how long the water stays in contact with the coffee, measuring everything in weight. We’re at the point that a cup of coffee no longer equates to a cup’a joe. This isn’t mass-produced freeze-dried over-roasted preground coffee anymore. It’s the real deal.
Now, their signature drinks give them a chance to show you their true personality.
Coffee shops that get your drink done in a minute flat, load your drink with watery milk, bitter espresso, and cover it all up with a caramel sauce give “real” coffee shops a bad name. But they create an industry standard where customers expect to find caramel, white mocha, and pumpkin spice behind the bar. So these signature drinks are their way of compromising. It allows them to work like a fine dining chef, experimenting with different infusions, fire and smoke, and various herbs to find what best compliments their coffee. Like how great does this sound from Second Best in Kansas City: (also, check out the link for the incredible photos by @nickwelch).
“This Autumn Menu is on point!! ‘The Smoking Jacket’ is quite the sensory experience- smoked peach butter, cherry wood smoke, and our natural Sidama Ethiopian espresso.”
After you try all of these drinks, then take a look at all the other things that make a coffee shop great: ambiance, friendliness of the baristas, location, etc.
This is just a guide to help you develop a system for judging a coffee shop. If you’re anything like I was when I first started drinking coffee, this guide will help. I wanted to try all of the coffee shops to see which was the best, but I didn’t know what to get! So I ended up trying different drinks at every shop we went to. At the end, I didn’t feel like I really had a good idea of what they had to offer.
Now that I use this system, I feel like I have a really in-depth grasp of why I like the coffee shops that I do, and I feel like my suggestions to people are valid.
If you decide to try this system, let me know what you think in the comments!