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Bad Barista Barometer

November 7, 2011

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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill Swallow permalink
    November 7, 2011 10:44 am


  2. November 7, 2011 10:50 am

    I am almost loathe to admit this, but I may or may not have been a “Barista” at Starbucks back in the early 2000s. Back then they still had real deal espresso machines. You had to tamp the grounds yourself and it had to be just so. You got a feel for the grounds but it was kind of like baking bread, i.e. slight changes in the universe affected how much you had to tamp from day to day. If I remember correctly they had an automatic grinder thingy that sensed when the grinds were low and then pooped out some more. I remember dumping out a lot of bad shots of espresso.

  3. November 7, 2011 10:52 am

    Everything you’re saying here is difficult to argue with from a quality perspective, and even any practical arguments seem feeble up against all of this. You’re 100% correct that (all other factors being equal) a freshly ground and dosed espresso will yield the most nuanced and freshest finished product. The one argument I’ll offer (and it’s no excuse or justification, but puts it into perspective a little bit): even in Italy, specifically Rome, where espresso is found every 100 steps, I’ve noticed that they resort to pre-ground beans; I think for the people there, it has become a way of life, and they do not dissect it down to this level.

  4. James permalink
    November 7, 2011 11:26 am

    Both Jerry and Mr. Dave brought up very interesting points that have a lot more to do with each other than they might think. The espresso industry is still 90% based in Italy despite the US’s recent coffee enthusiasm. That means Italian engineers develop equipment and methods that suit their needs. Most Italian coffee bars are cranking out drinks constantly and burning through coffee at an alarming rate so when that Italian grinder automatically grinds more, the coffee might only be around for a minute before it is used. Regarding preground, the Italians have also gotten very good at preserving the freshness of ground coffee and if you open a fresh can of Illy or Lavazza you can make some dynamite shots. The problem is that here, a busy US cafe makes as many smoothies as cappuccinos and that well engineered grinder is not doing what it was intended at all. Also, when you open a can of preground and use it on Monday, it is already stale when you go to use it Tuesday. Both problems are not really inherent to the product but stem from a lack of volume.

    My question is, while these guys might be doing it wrong, who in the area besides Cafe Vero is really doing it right? Makes me think that a tour de espresso might shed some light on other great places and open some people’s eyes to good coffee. No?

  5. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    November 7, 2011 11:34 am

    You’re in Albany, Daniel.

  6. phairhead permalink
    November 7, 2011 11:41 am

    Villa Italia sucks monkey balls anyway……that is all

  7. Matt Robbins permalink
    November 16, 2011 7:20 pm

    HI I am the owner of The Happy Cappuccino at 183 Jay Street. I apologize if you had a bad experience at our coffee house. It is our practice to grind to order. There are times when we get a rush and we will turn the grinder on to make more to get past the rush and that will cause us to have some extra in the hopper but it is our normal operating procedure to grind to order. Again I apologize for the bad experience. Take care.

    Matt Robbins
    The Happy Cappuccino

  8. Joel permalink
    June 29, 2013 10:26 pm

    I own a coffee shop and always grind fresh. Using a doser style grinder does make it challenging when less busy. That’s why I am a fan of doserless on-demand grinders. You have to grind fresh and you have no waste.

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