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The Difference Between Good and Great Coffee Shops


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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.

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(snip) and, climbing higher, some hallmarks of very good/great shops: - 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

I wish this was the case everywhere, but I have had coffee at a few places with on-site roasting, and those few times, I left their shop wondering whether the proprietor set it up so it saves that person money, or to look good, but have a lousy product.*

I was really sad about one roaster I had read great things about but then it must have been in the olden days, since the "freshly" or "recently roasted" beans had a lot of residual oils on it that ended up tainting the coffee taste.

It makes me think of all the bakeries that claim they sell croissants...

*Never try typing at 4am if you haven't slept yet; grammar is shot, and two, ymmv, always.

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I look to what kind quality of milk that they use, and I look to the menu for any really sugar-bomb type caffeine delivery device atrocities. I also look towards their attitude towards water, the best ones tend to have a serve-yourself spigot with delicious filtered water. After all water is 90ish% of good coffee. Chinatown even serves their espresso shots with a shot of carbonated distilled water. Others put out an impossibly small community pitcher of water, pretty lame.

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I wish this was the case everywhere, but I have had coffee at a few places with on-site roasting, and those few times, I left their shop wondering whether the proprietor set it up so it saves that person money, or to look good, but have a lousy product.*

I was really sad about one roaster I had read great things about but then it must have been in the olden days, since the "freshly" or "recently roasted" beans had a lot of residual oils on it that ended up tainting the coffee taste.

It makes me think of all the bakeries that claim they sell croissants...

*Never try typing at 4am if you haven't slept yet; grammar is shot, and two, ymmv, always.

Absolutely, GoodEats! I agree 100%. That's what I was trying to convey with the "...even if not fully exploited" qualifier in the original post. I've edited the OP now to also include an italicized qualifier at the top since, even though these categories are just my own views, they're not absolute for me either.

I did forget to thank darkstar, since he wrote a lovely dissection and opinion on his research findings. Nicely done.

I think this line should be auto-added to every post in every topic. :)

Don: Thanks. I did mean this as op-ed just to share how I think about coffee shop greatness. On a related point, I think we have a few dueling general coffee shop threads that might be combined to create your "Great Coffee Shops" thread. And that would be along with the growing number of shop-specific threads where most of the city's best are already represented independently too.

GoodEats: Thanks again! And totally with you on the 4am point also. I feel your pain there to be sure. ;)

Mtureck: +1. I wouldn't stop at dr.com on that one. All politics and media too :)

I look to what kind quality of milk that they use, and I look to the menu for any really sugar-bomb type caffeine delivery device atrocities. I also look towards their attitude towards water, the best ones tend to have a serve-yourself spigot with delicious filtered water. After all water is 90ish% of good coffee. Chinatown even serves their espresso shots with a shot of carbonated distilled water. Others put out an impossibly small community pitcher of water, pretty lame.

This is another great point that figures into my thinking also. The milk quality and water quality points (different from the water provision and filtering points) can be tougher to assess and, on unfiltered water quality, it's solely a function of whatever municipality in which a shop is located. This was a big factor in a shop I discovered in Florida last week. Posts on that coming soon under Intrepid Traveler.

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