8 cafe red flags that signal you're about to be served a nightmare
The saying, ‘first impressions matter,’ is so hackneyed it smells like when a barista burns the milk. However, those who appreciate quality coffee should apply it earnestly when checking out a cafe to determine how good the coffee they’re about to be served is going to be.
We asked a bunch of baristas to share advice that they would give to their non-barista friends when it comes to working out if a cafe you just walked into is going to make for a pleasant experience. What are the red flags to look out for? We’re talking about those nasty looking steam wands, dirty clothes on the counter – that kind of stuff.
Here’s 8 red flags that our team of barista consultants came up with:
1. The bean hopper should look clean, and not be too full
If the bean hopper (the plastic funnel feeding beans into the grinder) is not clean, your coffee will be mean. This is a mantra that you should live by when choosing your go-to cafes. The old oils and bacteria lead to rancid coffee no matter how skilled the barista making it is.
Another sign that a cafe is not so passionate about their coffee making is if you see the bean hopper full in the late afternoon, or evening. For a good fresh coffee, you want your bean hopper to be circulating a small amount of fresh beans throughout the day.
The longer coffee beans are exposed to light and oxygen, the less of their original flavour they’ll deliver into your coffee. A trained barista will definitely know this and will manage the beans running through their bean hopper accordingly.
2. Coffee cups should be placed the right way up on top of the coffee machine
There’s a heat rack on top of most barista machines that is there to keep the cups warm. You should always check if the cups on the rack are upside down (like on the picture below) or the right way up. They should definitely be upright on the machine.
While it may seem like we’re being picky here, this makes sense when you think about it. The only reason some baristas will tell you that they put the cups upside down is to avoid dust accumulating in the cups. However, if the cups are sitting on the heat rack long enough to accumulate dust then this is solid proof that they’re not selling many coffees and this is never a good sign.
3. If you see a dirty cloth on the counter smeared with grinds, find the closest exit
This one is kind of obvious – if there’s a dirty cloth in sight that is turning slowly brown and looks like it’s been doing backstroke in a pool of coffee grinds, you can be pretty sure cleanliness is not such a thing at the cafe you've just walked into.
Making quality coffee requires cleanliness – the machine should be clean, the portafilter, the grinder – all of it should look as clean as a hospital’s surgery theater. Ok, maybe we’re exaggerating, but you get the point.
Oh, and if a cloth is draped and drying over the coffee cups on the coffee machine’s heating rack, you should also back away very slowly towards the exit. Those coffee cups don’t need tucking in at night, and this is very unsanitary.
You should also try to work out if they’re using one cloth to keep everything clean, or if they've got separate clothes for keeping the different parts of the machine clean. A minimum of three clothes are needed (aka. one cloth for the steam wand, one for the portafilter, one for the machine).
4. The milk steam wand has a crusty white coat on it
Every serious barista out there is cleaning the steam wand after frothing every jug of milk. Otherwise, the steam wand gets clogged up with dried up milk in it, and, well, we don’t think you need us to tell you that this is wildly unsanitary.
Also, you should look to see if the barista is washing out the milk jug everytime they go to froth milk. Re-steaming milk is a big no-no and leads to burned milk ending up in your coffee.
And, if you see a tablespoon sitting in a milk frothing jug, then yell like a mad person – ‘They’ve got a table spoon in the milk jug!’ – several times to warn other guests and run the hell out of there with arms waving above your head (ok, maybe there’s no need to be so dramatic). If milk foam is being made correctly, then there is no need for a spoon, therefore a spoon likely means that the person making your coffee is not a trained barista.
5. If the frothing of milk sounds like a pig squealing, be afraid...be very afraid
The sound that is made when the barista froths a jug of milk says everything about whether they’re doing it right, or not.
It should certainly not sound like a squealing pig or a low rumble, yet rather more like a 'tsch, tsch, tsch' sound. If it’s making this lovely sound that is similar to static on an old TV, along with the ‘tsch, tsch, tsch,’ then air is being incorporated into the milk in a way that guarantees silky, smooth milk is being prepared.
6. Mistakes in the menu and careless service is a bad sign
A good way to work out if a cafe is going to serve you up a coffee you’ll enjoy is to pay attention to how much care is invested in other things in the place.
For example, if you spot mistakes in the menu (eg. the most common one – expresso), or the menu is a laminated piece of cardboard that is curling at the edges, you can safely conclude that this place is more about making money than serving up good food and drinks.
Also, if the overall atmosphere of the place is chaotic, and the staff seem stressed, then you can be pretty sure that the coffee you’ll be served up will reflect all the chaos around you.
7. Check if the portafilter is kept in the group head
Any barista will keep their portafilter snugly fixed tight in the group head in between coffees being made as it keeps it warm. A warm portafilter is important in the whole process of making quality coffee.
8. Ask them if they know what a Flat White is
Even if you’re not going to order a Flat White coffee, asking the person behind the machine if they know what it is, is a good way to suss out if they’re a trained barista that is well rehearsed in the craft of specialty coffee. We’re not suggesting you do it in a rude, condescending way, but just pretend you can’t make your mind up and are considering the Flat White option.
Perhaps keep this question as back-up and pull them out only when you’re very suspicious about the cafe, but can’t quite work out if it’s the real deal or not.
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