COFFEE lover, part-time barista and Meld reporter Marcella Purnama shares her tips on how to tell a cafe that will make good coffee from a cafe that won’t.
Melbourne is home to many wondrous cafes, but let’s face it – it has plenty of not-so-good ones too, and even some horrible ones.
You can judge a good cafe by the coffee they serve, and that depends on the brand of coffee bean, the type of coffee machine and the type of milk they use.
These are what people in the biz call ‘controls’, but there are plenty of other variables that come into play, like the barista’s skills and the service.
As a traveller, a coffee lover and a barista, I’ve had some good coffee experiences and some bad ones. So I’ve come up with a list of ten things you should look out for that will (hopefully) allow you to embrace the good and avoid the bad.
From my experience, you should run from a cafe if…
1. The portafilter handle is not fixed into the grouphead
I know that sounds pretty complicated, but it’s not. When you first enter a coffee shop, pretend to look around and fix your eyes on the coffee machine. Does the barista put the spoon-like handle that holds the coffee grounds on the counter or on top of the machine rather than fixing it straight into the its place in the machine (the grouphead)?
If so, run. Your coffee experience is about to be ruined because the handle is not hot enough to make your espresso.
2. The frothing wand is stained with milk
While some of you might drink your espresso black, almost 90 per cent of the coffees I make will have milk in them. Baristas use a frothing wand to aerate the milk and make it smooth and silky. After using, the frothing wand must be wiped to prevent clogging, so if the frothing wand is stained with milk, there’s a good chance the barista has not cleaned it. Your milk will be nowhere near perfect, let alone hygenic.
3. They are using plastic tampers, instead of stainless steel ones
To make a decent espresso, a barista should tamp (press down on the coffee grounds) with a pressure equal to 15kgs. The tamper is the puck-shaped utensil used to press the coffee grounds into the portafilter. There is no way to achieve the right pressure with a plastic tamper, which is why you should head to the next cafe…pronto.
4. The barista puts their milk jug on the “designated” spot to froth it rather than holding it there by hand
I’ve been to a couple of cafes that used this method, and I’ll never go back to them again. The first time I saw a barista fill the jug with milk, put it on the designated spot and start turning the pressure handles, I was surprised. Unfortunately I had ordered my coffee already. Big mistake – it ended up being a rubbish coffee.
5. The barista pours their milk straight into the coffee cup without working on it first
I know there are plenty of people queuing up for coffee, but I don’t think a professional barista should skip steps and go straight to pouring the frothed milk into the cup just to save time. After frothing the milk, the milk needs to be swirled to ensure the perfect mixture of air and milk. If they don’t do that at your cafe, your milk won’t be silky or smooth.
6. The cafe staff aren’t friendly or are not educated enough to answer your questions
Here is a true story about a cafe that uses 5 Senses coffee beans and a Synesso coffee machine (both of which are good), but makes horrible coffee. Once, as I entered this highly rated cafe, I was greeted by unfriendly staff and a grumpy barista. That made me suspicious, but I discarded my gut feeling and proceeded with ordering my coffee anyway. The coffee was too hot, burnt and with bubbles on top of what should have been silky smooth milk. As I sipped my horrible coffee, I saw at least five people walking out of the cafe in response to bad service. This place is now top of my never-go-to-again list.
7. It’s 30 minutes before closing time
I’m not sure if it’s because they’re exhausted or because they want to go home straight away, but the staff and baristas at some of Melbourne’s most popular cafes can turn pretty nasty just before closing time. As a result, it’s not wise to order your coffee just before a cafe closes. The barista has probably started to clean the machine already and will be thinking of home, so his or her mind will not be on the job at hand.
8. It’s 30 minutes after opening time
Based on experience, the coffee machine has an optimum heat level at which it is able to produce your cup of coffee just right, so it needs time to warm up. I know you need your caffeine fix, but patience is often the key to an awesome coffee.
9. It’s rush hour
If it is a good cafe, the chance they’ll make a bad coffee when they’re super busy is lower. But even the best baristas slip up once in a while, and it can ruin your opinion of the place forever. That’s what happened to me at one of Melbourne’s best known coffee spots. They burnt my coffee when they were busy, and now, when people try to convince me how good the coffee is, I just can’t believe them.
10. Your gut feeling tells you to get out of there
Sometimes, the best judge is your own gut feeling. So if your gut is telling you the coffee will be no good and the cafe is dodgy, follow it… and run!