How I Rate an Espresso Bar

2010 June 17
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Since I have a bit of time on my hands (while working on computer modeling of the roasting vessel), I wanted to take the opportunity to write about some general coffee topics.

Espresso bars are a part of my daily ritual. Starting the morning with a cappuccino and later moving on to a macchiatto or espresso, properly crafted, brightens my day. It is not just the product that stimulates, but the experience, as well. Espresso bars have a long tradition originating in Italy. Virtually all of the basic equipment, techniques, and beverages were developed there. Even today, the majority of espresso bar equipment is of Italian design and manufacture. Espresso bars are an integral part of Italian life.

Since the 1980’s, “espresso” bars have become commonplace in the US. Starbucks now dominates the US market. However, there is a flourishing group of independent espresso bars which are capturing market share. This has added a richness to the coffee scene. I make it a point to visit espresso bars in our area and whenever we travel. I’m also a partner in an espresso bar (the E61 Bar) at Liberty Market (Gilbert, AZ). Due to convenience and preference, the majority of the espresso drinks I consume are made at Liberty Market or by me at the espresso bar in my home (we have a full commercial espresso bar in our front room to serve guests).

With the resurgence of “espresso” bars one finds a huge range from exquisite to tragic. Exquisite experiences are rare and tragic are far too common.  Are there some signs alerting the customer as to what sort of experience they should expect? I use a few key observations to help me decide whether I should just turn around and walk out before ordering. By the way, you may note my use of “espresso” bar. I use it for two reasons: (1) in the US we use much more milk than in a true Italian espresso bar and (2) most US operations are also coffee bars serving brewed coffee, again not a part of the Italian tradition. Some will say that I am too rigid by using great Italian espresso bars as a measuring stick, but I would also use great Japanese sushi bars as a measuring stick for sushi, not new American sushi houses that focus on rolls.

The Golden Equation

My assessment of an espresso bar is done in precisely the same way I evaluate any other food or beverage operation. I use a yardstick which I refer to as the Golden Equation. All of the places I love fit the equation. It doesn’t mean that they are successful or will last — just that it is the kind of place that I would seek out.

Passion + Craft + Quality Ingredients = An Outstanding Product

Let’s break down the espresso bar experience into the three components and what to look for as indicators.

Passion

Coffee is a product that stirs the passions. It is a stimulant. It comes from far away places. It involves elaborate preparation to make the final product. If you go to an espresso bar and the “barista” is bored and lifeless — it is time to leave. Passionless people make passionless products. Bored people make boring products. If the “barista” is mainly interested in chatting mindlessly with his or her fellow “barista” — it is time to leave. Mindless people make mindless drinks and careless mistakes. On the other hand, if the barista is engaging perhaps even over-proud, this is a good sign.

Craft

The proper making of an espresso drink is at once simple and infinitely complex. The great barista makes it all look so simple and quick. They have spent years honing their craft — all of the tiny details required to consistently deliver an exquisite experience. The traditional drinks and techniques have been developed over decades to produce perfection. One can observe several signs that the craft is honored at an espresso bar. Is the bar clean or covered with grinds, grossness, and filth? Craftsmen do not keep a dirty workspace. Is the equipment in perfect shape and polished? Craftsman are proud of the tools of their trade. Are there real ceramic cups on top of the espresso machine? Craftsman always prefer to use traditional ceramic drinkware because they know the experience is so much better. If the default drinkware is paper — time to leave. Are there espresso grinders grinding and hand tamping going on? If the espresso machine is doing all of this, it has replaced the craftsman — time to leave. Can the “barista” push a button and not have to watch the espresso shots building? If so, this is button-pushing, not craft. A true barista must watch the shots because the machine is not automatic and he or she “reads” each shot by observing the flow, color changes, and development of crema. When the barista steams milk, is it a noisy affair similar to a jet taking off? If so, there is a problem with technique. Develop an ear for what great steaming sounds like.

Quality Ingredients

Espresso drinks are made with very few ingredients. Espresso, itself is made with one — coffee. The coffee that is used must be of high quality and properly roasted for espresso. It must also be fresh. If the espresso bar has grinders filled to the top with coffee and the doser is full of ground coffee, this promotes staling of the coffee. The barista should be able to tell you who roasted the coffee and what sort of coffee it is. Furthermore, the bar should have a system of rotation to ensure that the coffee turns over frequently. Other perishable ingredients, such as milk should be fresh and ordered frequently. Syrups, if used should taste pure and true on their own, not fake and sickeningly sweet. If the barista re-steams a pitcher of milk — it is time to leave. Milk cannot be re-steamed and have correct flavor.

A List of Extra Points

If an espresso bar meets the basic criteria, they can also earn some extra points.

1. Considers the needs of pure espresso drinkers – most places go for a dark roast that is unbalanced for pure espresso (great for lattes) and do not have proper drinkware.

2. Roasts their own coffee – passionate craftsmen want to go as deep in the process as they can to control quality and freshness.

3. Eager to educate – passionate craftsmen want to increase the enjoyment of others by sharing knowledge and through product tasting.

4. Properly sized and constructed drinkware – quality Italian-made heavy ceramic drinkware is the gold standard for a reason: heat retention, beauty, and an optimal experience.

5. Some restrictions held dear (but consistent)- passionate baristas may not offer syrups, low fat or skim milk, artificial sweeteners and the like, if they believe them bad for the craft.

6. They are fast – a properly made drink tastes best when made at the proper pace. Slow baristas do not make better drinks — the drinks deteriorate over time, not improve.

7. Latte art – if the latte art does not adversely affect drink quality, it is an added touch of craftsmanship.

8. Bar seating and stand-up bars – adds to the experience and is very traditional.

A List of Demerits

There are many smaller details that detract from a proper espresso bar experience. I’ve listed a few of the more common signs that a place is not on the top of its game.

1. There is a giant menu board – when was the last time your went to a good bar or restaurant that had a prominent menu  board?

2. The menu board has slide in-letters or vinyl letters – additional demerits for corporate fast food feel, which is the opposite of passion for the craft.

3. Oversized drinks – traditional drinks are not huge, they are small and balanced.

4. Use terms like “Tall”, “Grande”, “Venti” and the like – craftsmen abhor the idea of confusing and supersizing the customer with milk and sugar.

5. Promotion of strange jargon (e.g. skinny, two pump, sugar free vanilla…) – craftsmen promote traditional terms of quality such as ristretto, lungo, etc.

6. Not grinding to order – this may work in a high volume bar in Italy, but in the US it is important to grind espresso to order for freshness.

7. Using the plastic tamper on the doser – it is impossible to use this effectively … most good places remove them entirely.

8. Espresso with straw colored crema that dissipates rapidly leaving a hole – barista is not paying attention to grind and shot timing.

9. Drinks in the wrong sized drinkware – cappuccino cups are about 5oz. They should be filled to the top. A double espresso does not belong in a cappuccino cup.

10. Milk foam with coarse texture and visible bubbles – the barista did not steam the milk properly and let it pass, not a good sign of the craft.

11. Chipped or cracked drinkware – dishonors the craft by showing carelessness and lack of interest in the customer’s experience.

12. No demi-tasse spoons – shows complete lack of understanding for lovers of espresso, macchiatto, and cappuccino.

13. Use of a blender – LOUD! Did I say LOUD? Disruptive of the espresso bar experience and more appropriate at a soda fountain.

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16 Responses
  1. June 17, 2010

    The biggest factor I think is the skill of the barista. I can count on one hand the truly outstanding espressos that I’ve had. It is truly a memorable experience.

    Biggest demerits in my mind is when you ask for a short black (that’s what we call a single espresso shot in Australia) and they ask you if you want it in small, medium or large.

    • June 19, 2010

      Thanks, Daniel! I agree that craft is probably the most important, because a true craftsman ought to be passionate and will not settle for poor quality ingredients. I have, however, seen good baristas trapped in bad operations where the rest of the people are pretty passionless and the coffee not great. They should move on, but sometimes it is not that easy to.

      It is the same in the US. The traditional espresso drinker is such a tiny minority at espresso bars that he or she really gets shafted. Few places have correct espresso cups. Fewer still demi-tasse spoons. Very few make a ristretto. It is so sad. Espresso is such a concentrated beverage with a very short window of peak flavor/aroma that it is bad 90% of the time in the US and virtually impossible to truly enjoy at a restaurant.

  2. Marc permalink
    June 18, 2010

    Hi,

    I have been following your project over RSS, but this time I acually went to you site to leave a comment… Or actually two.

    1) In my opinion, syrups do not belong in an espresso bar. Period. I know they are virtually everywhere in the US, so by banning them in your “must not have” list you will not be able to access any bar, I’m afraid and you have to move to Italy. Hey, there are worse places for espresso lovers 😉

    2) About re-frothing milk: why is that in your “don’t do” list? AFAIK, as long as the milk is not too hot (like starbucks hot boiling milk, even a kid’s warm milk is not warm but too bloody hot), the proteins won’t break down, so theoretically you can cool down the milk and refroth it without any change in frothing behavior and quality. Or do you have data that shows otherwise?

    Anyway, I’d also like to thank you for your entertaining and educational blog

    best,

    Marc

    • June 19, 2010

      Thanks for your comments, Marc. I am a bit more flexible on syrups. I consider them within the realm of acceptable adjuncts, if properly made and used. Adjuncts are used widely in Italy too: cream, milk, sugar, chocolate, liquers (caffe corretto), and in some cases syrups. Chocolate syrup is really just chocolate flavored simple syrup. What I don’t like are crappy syrups (which I shall not name). We make our own at Liberty Market using just water, cane sugar, and organic flavors. They are clean and true.

      As for re-frothing, it tends to be used at bars where food cost is more important than perfection. In my own tastings, I (whether real or imagined) taste a difference and also the ability to get perfect froth is compromised. I do not know the chemistry, only the outcome. Please feel free to comment at any time!

  3. Jon Moskalik permalink
    June 18, 2010

    After talking with you tonight at Liberty I was excited to get home and read this post you were mentioning about how you rate an espresso bar. And boy was it a doozy! I got a good laugh and gave you a few amens from the back pew. I especially agree with you on the paper cups. I went to a new place last Saturday, I won’t mention names here.. but they served my espresso in a 16 0z paper cup! Apparently the ten or so proper porcelain cups on top of the machine were strictly for decorations. Now as a gentleman when served I just went to my table and swallowed hard (and I do mean HARD). It’s often those days I end up back at Liberty for some coffee redemption. And for that matter pizza redemption.. and bread pudding redemption.. and lets not even talk bbq. That would be too much. I just praise the Lord I don’t live any closer or I would be a over caffeinated whale.

    • June 19, 2010

      Thanks, Jon! I abhor paper cups for espresso drinks. We offer them at Liberty Market only upon request. Espresso is an experience as much as a product. The way a cup feels in your hand, the aroma concentrated in a proper cup, and the feel on the lips are all critical to maximum enjoyment. I have never had any interest in being in the caffeine delivery business! I suggest that we all take the time to tell espresso bar owners that we want our drink in a “for here” cup and kindly rebuke them if they don’t have any.

  4. Jay Jose permalink
    June 19, 2010

    Oi! The focus on craft bodes well for your roaster.

    • June 19, 2010

      Thanks, Jay. I know that you are a man who appreciates the craft associated with coffee!

  5. June 22, 2010

    I like big menu boards as long as they are tastefully designed. It’s helpful to have something easy to read and prominently placed to let me know what my options are. Neverthless, there’s a right and a wrong way to design a menu board. Menu boards done with chalk or a nice script contribute to the proper look and feel for an espresso bar. I think the two Lolas and Giant Coffee have gotten that part right.

    I like your last point about the blender creating a soda fountain feel, but even worse is an actual soda fountain in an espresso bar — not in a separate area as in many restaurants, but right by the coffee apparatus. I can think of one Phoenix place that is often thought of as an espresso bar but detracts from the entire look and feel with a soda fountain and stacks of big disposable cups.

    • June 22, 2010

      Thanks, David! I do like the menu boards at Lola’s and Giant because they are very personal expressions of the offering. They are also not designed to dominate the place and be an up-selling tool (and up-sizing tool).

      My preference is for no menu board in that it assumes that the guest is familiar with traditional drinks and needs no reminders or that a tasteful paper menu and a helpful barista will guide people to the desired drink. This is similar to a good cocktail bar or brew pub. It emphasizes the whole experience over just buying a product quickly to be taken away.

  6. olllllo permalink
    June 22, 2010

    This is wonderfully informing on how craft beer should be produced and served, Joe. In fact there is a takeaway for anyone that is in the service business.

    • June 22, 2010

      There are definitely parallels for any sort of craft product. You are in the forefront of brewing, but it also applies to craft cocktails, etc. The experience of enjoying a properly served craft beer in a proper environment is infinitely better than Bud in a plastic cup! Please feel free to comment on anything!

  7. July 4, 2010

    Boy do I dislike when espresso is served in 16 oz paper cups. ‘see it happen way too often, sadly.

    As far as the demi-spoons go, I think it does really show a high level of understanding and passion for serving great espresso and I appreciate having one included along with a nice porcelain cup every time I visit Liberty. My question, though, is I wonder how many of these spoons you lose through souvenir-taking? Maybe the location and demographics of Liberty Market keep losses at an acceptably low rate, but I would think at a lot of other coffee bar locations around town the losses would just be too great to justify including them.

    • July 5, 2010

      Thanks, Victor. Truly espresso in a paper cup of any size is a sad experience compared to what could have been. As for demi-tasse spoons: there is no excuse for not serving them with espresso at all times. We do not lose them to theft and they are very inexpensive to start with (less than 50¢ each). When we had The Coffee Planatation on Mill Ave., we went through tons of flatware, plates and glasses as students pilfered them for stocking their rooms. We never had any serious problem with demi-tasse spoons as they are not generally useful for anything but espresso.

  8. Chuchee Mguchee permalink
    August 6, 2012

    Thanks for sharing your love for espresso. Very much appreciated.

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