We’ve been talking about what it takes to find and recognize those shining beacons of coffee culture in an otherwise barren landscape. For while we are assured the rights of life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness by means of a superior coffee experience is not guaranteed. [As to life and liberty… there may be some shades of gray there, too, but that’s another story.]

We’ll assume you’ve covered the basics [see Part I]. Your best next step is to observe… It’s much better to first watch someone else’s drink prepared than your own. In our Utopian coffee house, this is what will happen next. Note: the order of these steps may vary slightly; some may occur simultaneously:

  • You’re cheerfully greeted by the barista, who may suggest today’s special offerings, and who will confidently address any questions you may have about their coffees [Do you roast your own? When was it roasted?]
  • You choose a cappuccino. Your barista will ask if you’d like it for here, or to go. [Always choose here, if you can.]
  • The barista will pour cold milk [was that whole? 2%?] into a cold, clean, empty pitcher. After purging the sparkling clean steam wand, the barista will heat, texture and stretch the milk, creating a mass of tiny bubbles with a mirror-like sheen on the surface… judging by hand and smell [or thermometer] when the temperature is right. Steaming finished, the barista will clean, and again purge the steam wand.
  • The barista will start the grinder, remove the portafilter from the espresso machine’s group-head, flush the group and clean and dry the filter basket.
  • The barista will dose, level and tamp the coffee into the portafilter basket, brush away any stray coffee, lock the portafilter into the group and immediately pull the shot into a clean, preheated 6- to 7-ounce cup [or shot pitcher].
  • The extraction time will be 25 to 30 seconds, and should yield a 1 ounce [single] or 2 ounce [double] shot. [Single or double, the time of the extraction will be the same.] The espresso will pour like honey, and will have a dense layer of reddish-brown crema on the surface.
  • The barista will pour the textured milk into the cup with the espresso… and, if you’re lucky, treat you to an artfully poured rosette. Lovely!

Is there a tip jar? Use it! You’ve just had a well-prepared drink.

On the other hand.
Here are some warning signs that maybe you want to try another coffee house. Most of these are errors made in blind ignorance of how to properly prepare good coffee… some are sheer laziness.

  • You ask for an espresso and the barista reaches for a 8 oz. paper cup [or larger!]
  • Coffee is dosed from a full hopper that was ground who knows when.
  • The steaming pitcher is filled with milk, then left to steam [and scream!] unattended.
  • Worse, the milk in the steaming pitcher is topped-off, or simply reheated.
  • Coffee is dosed, tamped, locked in the portafilter and left to wait for a few minutes while the barista does other things.
  • The shot is extracted in 8 seconds flat.
  • The barista pulls another shot off an already spent coffee puck. [Really!]

You have a right to excellent coffee. You have a right to order your coffee the way you want it. If it doesn’t meet your expectations, by all means let the staff know about it… they can only fix what they’re aware of.

Of course, as the customer you have some responsibilities, too. That leads us to…

The care and feeding of a professional barista.
It takes education, dedication and some serious skill-building effort to be a really good barista. To be a great barista requires exceptional sensory skills, lots of experience, gobs of personality and really thick skin. Here’s a few tips that your barista will thank you for knowing:

  • Don’t get in the line until you have a pretty good idea what you want. It’s just rude to hem and haw and dither while the queue behind you grows.
  • Hang up the cell phone for a few minutes will ya? Or if you simply must take that call, step out of the line.
  • Unless it’s on the menu, don’t order a ristretto or a lungo… both require the barista to adjust the grinder for your drink, which is not cool in a busy espresso bar. [Sure, the barista could “cheat” a pull to make it… but that’s not what a pro wants to do.]
  • If the shop is busy, it’s probably not a good time to riddle the barista with a hundred questions about beans, blends and roast styles…
  • Don’t ask your barista to “reheat” your drink for you.
  • Let your barista know when you’ve had an especially good drink. Sometimes that means more than dropping something in the tip jar. Especially if the barista’s boss in in hearing range.

I’m certain I’ve only scratched the surface of coffee house sins, and customer foibles. Let me know what I’ve missed…

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