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Along with the core restaurant focus that most on dr.com have, there are obviously many related side interests. Cooking, ingredients, food politics, etc. And, going really deep on specific types of foods or beverages. I know I've learned so much about so much on this site in the past year or so. Over the past year or two, coffee has been a bit of a growing sideline interest for me. Though I've learned a ton by talking to many people, reading and tasting, my interest and enthusiasm still dwarf my knowledge. And that's a good thing. Today I had a wonderful talk with the owner/roaster of one of our better/best coffee purveyors in the area. That post is here. The owner/roaster taught me a few new things while reinforcing a few others and I thought maybe it'd be a good time for me to pause, give back and share here a bit of what I've learned over 18-24 months of coffee shop visits. So, here's the seminal question I'll just partly address with this post: What's the difference between good & great coffee shops*? I've posted on many of our coffee shop threads with enthusiastic commentary for new roasters/retail entrants like MadCap, more established and wonderful retailers like Sidamo, Peregrine, Chinatown Coffee, Caffe Amouri, Quartermaine, Filter, Dolcezza and even out-of-town spots like Heart and Barista in Portland, OR, Culture in NYC or Noble in Ashland, OR. Here's the rough 'scale' I informally use when visiting a shop. I've never before written it down. Important Qualifier: The below are of course just my own opinions but also important to say that I only use these guidelines generally. The determination of good versus great is both multi-faceted and very personal. In some cases, the categories won't be mutually exclusive. And, there will always be good exceptions to any of the guidelines. This is just one way to think about assessing coffee shops. a shop is likely to be good/very good if it has: - clearly labeled, single-origin beans sourced from quality providers like Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, Ceremony, MadCap, Ritual, Stumptown and the like - a Marzocco or similar quality espresso machine on site - some might argue Starbuck's clover system and "reserve" coffees make this bucket. Though I probably wouldn't agree, I do appreciate what Starbucks is trying to do with that line. at the next level, a shop might be solidly very good if it has: - the attributes above - beans not only clearly labeled as to originating country/region but also the farm - clear commitment to brewed coffees with equipment like a pourover rack, hario v.60, vacuum system or even just french presses. (espresso drinks are great when made by talented baristas but, when great beans are onsite, brewed black is the only way to fully appreciate them) and, climbing higher, some hallmarks of very good/great shops: - everything above - dated beans (this is a big differentiator between the good/very good and great; bean freshness.) It's a pretty huge deal since just because a shop is using known wonderful roaster X's beans, if they keep them onsite for a few weeks or more, not so great. Try a truly fresh roasted cup from whatever roaster alongside another cup of the same bean that's a month or more old and the difference is pretty obvious. - onsite roasting machine. relatively few shops have this. Qualia and Caffe Amouri are two here that do. The presence of a roaster tells us that the proprietor has a pretty high level of commitment to great coffee whether or not fully exploited. finally, at the top of the peak, a profile of the greatest shops: - all the above - onsite roasting with great technique. I'm no expert here but I have learned enough to know that, like so much with food and wine, there's a tremendous amount to know with coffee. With roasting, does the purveyor roast frequently or infrequently? Are they using sophisticated equipment and software to carefully control the many variables including bean moisture content, intake air temp, drum temp, exhaust temp, time, etc? Large batch or small batch roasting where smaller is generally better since easier to more precisely control? At the end of the day, none of the above matters of course as much as individual taste. If you love canned, pre-ground Folgers from Safeway, then more power to you and noone should judge or dismiss. But, as with anything else, there's so much to learn about coffee if interested. And with knowledge comes improved ability to recognize and appreciate real excellence. Since I've learned just a little bit, I thought maybe cool to share here for whatever it's worth to whomever few may care. * This post focuses more on product and the roasting techniques that convert bean to great coffee. There's also a whole series of posts one could do about baristas and espresso drink technique and coffee shop venues/ambiance. For other posts.