November 7, 2016

How to Serve Consistent Good Coffee in a Café


The fancy tattoos, the laid-back environment, the creative latte art… it’s easy to see why people say coffee is an art, not a science. But all good art comes with its own set of rules. And when you’re serving coffee to hundreds of people every day, following those rules produces something crucial: being consistent.

When people like your coffee, they want to be able to drink it again. And they want it to taste the same as it did last time. Exactly the same.

Here are seven rules to producing consistently good coffee (nearly) every single time. (Because we all have a bad day sometime.)

Spanish Version: Cómo Consistentemente Podemos Servir un Buen Café

3 examples of consistent latte art

The latte art can vary, but the taste must stay the same. Credit: Harsh Light via Flickr

1. Respect Your Baskets

Portafilter baskets are the products of technical expertise, especially VST baskets and the up-and-coming IMS ones. Every aspect of their design exists for a reason. And so when the manufacturers provide guidelines, it’s important to follow them.

Baskets come in different sizes depending on the weight of the coffee used. Respect the engineer by using consistent and correct dry coffee weight. If a basket says VST 20, use 20g of coffee. Even if you have 21g of coffee waiting to be used. Even if you watched a YouTube video where they used 19g and said it was great. Even if the Apocalypse is coming and the Four Horsemen are demanding you use 20.5g.

Because if you want to use less or more coffee, my friend, then you need to change baskets.

Consistently clean espresso baskets

Respect the basket sizes you’re using. Credit: Baristapro Kenya

2. Scales Are Your Best Friend for Consistent Measures

I’ve heard some people say numbers and coffee shouldn’t mix – only the taste matters. But I disagree. Do we say scales are pointless when baking a cake? No. And the same goes for coffee.

Even the best grinder won’t deliver the same amount of coffee in every shot – especially if (or when) the burrs start overheating. We measure the dry coffee in the basket before pulling the shots. And we also measure the resulting liquid. Once you start using scales, you’ll be surprised by how much variation there is.

And using scales won’t even take you any longer.

Consistently weighed coffee on scales

Scales are key to consistency. Credit: J. Loayza

3. Consistent Recipes

Although the people roasting our coffees are excellent, there will often be slight variations from one bag of coffee to the next. And we don’t always have the chance to re-tune all six of our single origins every time we open a new bag in one busy day.

Imagine the coffee shop is full and you pulled the last shot with coffee sent to you seven days ago. It tasted amazing. But now you have to open a new bag that was roasted two days ago. You know it’s going to be a dangerous game. For sure, the perfectionist customer that always orders a flat white Guatemala will complain if the coffee tastes different to yesterday. And they won’t just complain to your face; they’ll also do so on Instagram, on Facebook, to all their friends…

For us, the solution is a recipe book. We keep a record of what works, on average, with every origin. It’s normally a variation of the 1:2 ratio (e.g. 20g dry coffee:40g espresso). And so if we work with an origin that typically has more acidity, we pull longer shots (20g in, 50g out). It’s not perfect but, in an emergency, it keeps us going. And later, when it’s more quiet, we can fine-tune our newly opened bags.

scene of coffee recipe development

Fine-tuning recipes are time-consuming. Keep a recipe book for emergencies. Credit: Peggy Chow

SEE ALSO: Coffee Excellence: The Daily Routines of a Specialty Barista

4. Be Careful With Blends

I know what you’re thinking – the one thing everybody loves about blends is that they’re consistent. And they are, but on a yearly basis. Unlike single origins, your blends can taste relatively similar all year round.

But on a daily basis? That’s another matter.

Remember, a blend is a mixture of single origins. And all these different single origins were grown in different places under different conditions. They may be different varietals. All of this means that these beans have different densities.

As of such, the weight and extraction of a blend will vary more than a single origin will.

We always have one grinder full of the house blend. It’s tasty and relatively neutral. But we also make constant use of scales. Every morning, before service, the blend is tuned and the parameters written on small stickers: dry coffee weight, espresso weight, time needed to get to that weight and date of the bag used. These are then checked in every single shot so we can be sure we’re serving consistent coffee.

extraction settings blend

We have to work harder for consistency with our house blend. Credit: J. Loayza

5. Know That Pour Overs Make Being Consistent Harder

Some things are just hard to do consistently. And pour overs are one of them. The taste is affected by how much water you pour, how long you pour it for, how you pour the water, and more. I have concerns about drip filters: as the hot water hits the grounds on top first, the grounds on bottom only get water that’s already cooling down. Scott Rao mentions that hand percolation methods tend towards sourness, since pouring in steps leads to low-temperature extractions.

With all these factors, it’s difficult to ensure consistency across a barista’s pour overs – let alone across multiple barista’s brews!

Scott Rao has taken pour overs off the menu. Yet for most of us, that isn’t an option. We like pour overs. Our baristas like them. And most importantly, our customers like them.

So how do we fight inconsistency? We are even stricter with our recipes and obsessive with our scales and stop watches. We can try to reduce the number of times water is poured (one less area for variation). Kettles with flow restrictors can be a useful tool.

But, most importantly, we have to celebrate pour overs not for their consistency but for their other positive factors: their cleanliness, their brightness, and the longer brew time that allows us to connect with the customers.

Pour over coffee being brewed

There’s a beauty to brewing pours. Credit: J. Loayza

6. Don’t Underestimate Water

The vast majority of your coffee is water. Find the best suited for your coffee shop. I recommend trying to brew with the same water that the roaster used to cup the samples. But if that’s not possible, get the best filtering system for your espresso machine.

When it comes to hand brewing, try several mineral waters until you find the right one. We buy five-litre bottles of a mineral water, which allows us to brew at least 8 Chemex coffees (with filter rinsing), for around 5 USD per bottle.

testing water for tds

You can’t get too obsessive about water. Credit: Coffee Madness

7. Teamwork Is Crucial

We revere the barista in specialty coffee. From World Barista Championships to the concept of the barista as a spokesperson for the entire supply chain, we see them as master of esoteric knowledge.

Yet you don’t want a single star barista. You want a team of professional baristas. Ones who work together to keep the bar clean, man the tills, serve customers, and brew awesome coffee. The entire staff, even the new guys, should know they are contributing – and know how.

Because when your team works together, they provide consistently good quality served in the same way every single time.

These rules might seem boring or uptight. But they are key to consistently good coffee. And to serve a good cup of coffee is almost as fulfilling as drinking one.

Perfect Daily Grind

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