A specialty coffee shop receives a bad review. “The espresso wasn’t as good as last time,” the review says. “The shop has gone downhill.”
The specialty coffee shop down the street also receives a bad review. “Delicious coffee, if you can wait 15 minutes for your cappuccino,” the customer complains.
Making consistently good coffee fast: it often feels like an impossible goal. Too often, coffee shops sacrifice consistency for the sake of efficiency, or efficiency for the sake of quality. Yet no third wave coffee shop can afford to fail on any of these points.
Fortunately, if you get consistency right, it should lead to both better quality and better efficiency.
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Grinding coffee into the portafilter. Credit: Victoria Arduino
Espresso Consistency Is Critical
Andre Eiermann is the Marketing Director at UCC Coffee Switzerland. He is also an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST) and Swiss Barista Champion.
“First of all,” he tells me, “consistency is important [for] giving every client always the same cup. They all pay the same price for it, so it shouldn’t be that someone is paying, let’s say, US $5 for an espresso, and it tastes delicious, and the next one pays US $5 and the coffee doesn’t taste good at all…
“And secondly, when it comes to specialty coffee, I think consistency in the preparation is important [so you can] always have a great-tasting beverage.”
In other words, without consistency, quality is impossible.
And according to Lauro Fioretti, Product Manager at Simonelli Group, the standards for consistency are far higher in the specialty coffee industry.
“If you go into a commercial coffee shop, generally, you just find one coffee, one blend. And you go there, the standard customer is just asking, ‘Can I get an espresso, please?’ They are not interested in asking you about the origin, about flavor, or about this kind of stuff…
“In a third wave coffee chain, we are educating people, we are trying to explain to people that the coffee has a worth like wine, like any kind of food, any kind of beverage.”
In other words, consistency is also related to the clients’ expectations. It’s easier to maintain an apparently consistent quality when consumers are purchasing “just an espresso.”
However, when we start talking about specialty coffee shops and the differences between a Nariño, Colombia and a Sidamo, Ethiopia espresso, every little variation becomes more noticeable. Little mistakes stand out in a way that they wouldn’t in a second-wave coffee shop, and the clients care because they’re not ordering just an espresso – they’re ordering a high-quality beverage with a distinctive taste.
A barista prepares espresso shots using a Victoria Arduino Black Eagle, which has automatic temperature control. Credit: Victoria Arduino
Why Do We Fail on Espresso Consistency?
“There are many, many variables that are all affecting the extraction process,” Fioretti says. “So, you have the brew ratio… then you have the pressure of extraction, the temperature of the extraction, then you have all the process of dosing, tamping, distributing the coffee.”
In other words, espresso is complex. And with so many variables, keeping them all consistent is tricky.
Yet there are also other points to consider. “If… in the afternoon, you don’t have any customers, it’s very easy to extract shot after shot the same way,” Eiermann tells me. “Once you are during the peak hours when you really have a long queue, people are queuing up, they want to have their beverage, they want to have it soon, it’s just take-go-pay-and-run-away, then it’s getting difficult to do.”
What’s more, cross-selling and up-selling, such as serving coffee with cake, and general customer service can also take a toll. “When you serve a coffee, you have to explain, or you talk to the customer, and at the same time you have to work,” Eiermann says. “That’s where it gets a little messy.”
In other words, espresso consistency should be easy. But add the café setting to the mix, and that’s when the problems start.
The trick, for café owners, is providing baristas with the training and tools to help them prepare for this.
Extracting espresso through a naked portafilter. Credit: Victoria Arduino
How Can Coffee Shops Improve Espresso Consistency?
For Fioretti and Eiermann, espresso inconsistency comes down to two factors: the barista and the equipment. And the solution? It’s three-fold.
Without good training, nothing else matters. You can invest in state-of-the-art equipment, work with excellent roasters, and have the best processes in the world, but if your baristas don’t know what they’re supposed to do, the coffee will still be inconsistent (not to mention bad).
Baristas need to be trained on the technical aspects of extraction and espresso-making. However, that’s not the only thing that they need to learn.
Eiermann says, “What they should do is work a lot on their workflow. And when they do things, they should start doing them always the same way.”
Good workflow will allow baristas to do their job more efficiently, giving them more time to focus on making the beverage. What’s more, it will embed positive habits. Baristas will reach the stage where certain actions, such as cleaning the portafilter after every shot, become automatic habits.
In turn, doing everything the same way every time will also improve consistency. Let’s say a barista likes to tap the portafilter to evenly distribute the ground coffee before tamping. Eiermann tells me, “This tapping, to my experience, does impact on the distribution and on the espresso extraction, so just make sure you always do it the same way… that will really help to get your basic barista skills more consistent.”
The Fix Coffee Shop, Madrid, Spain. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
Fioretti also believes it’s important that baristas reach a skill level where certain things are automatic. While inexperienced baristas may be able to manage during the quiet periods, they will struggle to act quickly and efficiently while under pressure. They will either make mistakes or lose time double-checking things, trying to remember protocols, and asking for assistance.
“I see sometimes baristas that are trying to follow parameters like, for example, brewing chart, TDS, and making a lot of scientific measurements, [using] scales, and things like these. They’re losing a lot of time, really, and a lot of great cups of coffee,” he says.
“To me, they should focus more on taste, and then on the parameters, that definitely can be good guidelines. But in the end, everything is taste. I think once the barista has experience, they should be able to use their personal tools: their mouth and their nose and their skills.”
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A barista steams milk at The Fix, Madrid. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
3. Equipment Choice
Baristas should be able to rely on their equipment, knowing that it will facilitate their work and support them in producing consistently good coffee. As Fioretti says, “It’s very important that your equipment is able to reproduce exactly your extraction profile every single time, in a very easy way.”
He also suggests café owners check a few things before investing in new equipment, whether it’s an espresso machine or a tamper:
- Is it ergonomic? If it’s comfortable to use, baristas are more likely to consistently use it in the same way.
- Is it easy to use?
- Does it perform consistently over the course of an entire shift?
- Is it easy to clean? Poor cleanliness will reduce quality, consistency, and safety; difficulty cleaning equipment will reduce efficiency.
- Is it reliable in the medium-long term?
Even small differences in equipment properties have a large impact on workflow. For example, the steamers on Simonelli machines are activated by a pull/push lever rather than a rolling button, which is more ergonomic and easier to control.
A barista steams milk for an espresso-based beverage. Credit: Nuova Simonelli
When Should You Compromise?
Yet even while tools, training, and experience enable your coffee shop to consistently make high-quality coffee, there is a risk here. Consistency, sometimes, can go too far. Occasionally, you need to be more flexible.
As Fioretti tells me, “There should be a compromise [between your vision and] the needs of the customer, what are the customers looking for. Try to accommodate the needs of the customer, if you want your customer to come back to your coffee shop.”
For example, your customer may want good coffee, but they also want it fast. And while your baristas are trying to make coffee as consistent as possible, they are going beyond what the customer expects – or can taste.
“Sometimes, I see people that are struggling with the brew ratio to reach 0.1 grams of accuracy, but, honestly, it doesn’t make any difference in the cup… we have, sometimes, to be reasonable.”
A fully equipped coffee bar. Credit: Nuova Simonelli
Consistent, delicious, quickly served espresso: it’s something every coffee shop needs to aim for.
And the golden trio of efficiency, quality, and consistency can sometimes feel impossibly out of reach, it’s easier than it seems. After all, if you can achieve consistency, efficiency and quality then become a lot easier.
Pick your equipment and processes with care. Invest in your baristas by giving them training, and nurture them until they have the experience they need. And know, too, when consistency is helping you and when you’re taking it too far.
Because consistency is not the ultimate goal – satisfied customers are. And consistency is simply a valuable tool with which to achieve this.
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