Bad Barista Barometer
The crimes against the cappuccino are legion. But before we even go there, one must start with the crimes against espresso. Because espresso is the building block of the drink, and if a café cannot get that right, there is no way they’ll make a good cappuccino.
This is why I’ll put a café to the test first with a simple order of espresso. It helps me to evaluate if the person behind the counter has the passion, knowledge, and skill to use the tools at their disposal in the service of extracting the best from their beans.
But there are some espresso purveyors who fail to even qualify for the test.
A barista stands in front of thousands of dollars of machinery. What separates professional machines from the home models is their ability to pursue perfection: pressure and temperature adjustments that can be made in minute increments to adjust for variations in the beans and environmental conditions. Espresso is a fickle master.
However, all of it is for naught if the barista fails to do one critical thing. And you can tell if they are doing it correctly with your eyes closed.
Let’s work backwards. You hear the gurgling swooshing sounds of milk being textured and steam wands being cleaned. You hear the whir of the pump as the espresso machine forces water through the grounds, and then the clunk of the hopper as the used puck is removed. You hear the click-click-clack of the doser filling the hopper with finely ground beans.
Wait. Did you hear any beans being ground? If not it’s time to either change your plans and order a brewed coffee or turn around and walk out the door.
At a café that is serious about making great espresso, grinding should be happening all the time. And in short bursts. It literally takes seconds to grind enough coffee to fill a hopper for a shot of espresso.
One cannot cut corners with espresso. There is only one way, and that’s the hard way.
But I cannot tell you how many places I’ve been to where all the espresso is pre-ground. Just yesterday I was in Schenectady. And there are three places all within spitting distance from each other, and all of which should have solid espresso. You know what, I’m going to call them out by name.
Ambition Café is a wonderful funky little coffee house and restaurant that includes an espresso bar. I watched as someone spooned espresso grounds from some glass jar into a hopper. I have no idea when they were ground. But those grounds were in that jar for a heck of lot longer than 15 seconds.
Right across Jay Street is a new place called The Happy Cappuccino. And in theory I heard it’s a place that is dedicated to super high quality coffee. By not grinding their beans to order, they have decidedly proven otherwise.
Similarly, Villa Italia, which is a gussied up Italian bakery that is beloved by many, has a fancy espresso machine and grinder. It’s an Italian bakery. Espresso is an Italian art. It’s not rocket science, but it does require care. So I was excited while I was there to hear the grinder grinding. But it just kept on grinding, and grinding and grinding. They weren’t busy, they were just filling up the grinder’s receptacle with grounds to use at a later time.
That was particularly heartbreaking.
It blows me away that so many places get this wrong. I mean, grinding the beans to order is the easiest freaking part. Getting the precise grind right for the beans and the humidity, perfecting a consistent pressure for tamping grinds into the hopper, ensuring the temperature of the water and the machine’s internal parts, and fine tuning the force of the water through the grounds is tricky. It’s more than tricky.
This is why I have such great respect for the people who can do it well. But pre-grinding your beans is a statement to the world that you are not even going to try.