Coffee radar – how to tell if a cafe has good coffee without having to order it

Its fair to say I’m a bit of a coffee snob and I pride myself on my ability to just ‘tell’ if a cafe is going to have good coffee or not. If I don’t get a good vibe then I usually won’t risk it and I’ll just get a juice or a tea instead. Life is too short for crap coffee. Especially when you are breastfeeding and you have to limit your caffeine intake.

This is mostly tongue in cheek – coffee should be fun, I don’t take it too seriously. Especially as I’m writing this I’m sipping a cup of blend 43 at home.

So I was thinking, what are the things that I look for when I’m going to order a coffee? I’m calling them my KCIs (key coffee indicators)! They don’t have to tick all these boxes, these are just some of the things I’ve noticed!

Barista/coffee maker

They don’t have to have a moustache, skinny jeans and ride a fixie. Or be male. But they do have to care about making a good coffee! Where I live (Albury, NSW) there are a only a few places that do consistently do coffee really really well and they’re staffed by people passionate about coffee! Also often a place will have one or two really good baristas and if they’re not on the machine when you order you can end up not rating a place which otherwise has pretty good coffee!

Coffee machine

This applies more to the big cities but its a bit of a cheeky way in the city if you might be in for a decent coffee before you order – sneak a peek at the machine. Is it a La Marzocco? A synesso?  If the place has one of those you’re looking at people who’ve spent big bucks on their machine and you wouldn’t do that if you didn’t take your coffee seriously!

Its definitely not the be all and end all as of course I’ve had awesome coffees from other machines, and terrible coffees made out of the supposedly amazing machines – but its a good start!

Cleanliness

Is the place clean? Benches wiped down, coffee grounds cleaned up?

The takeaway cups 

Paper cups generally always trump coffee quality over the plastic coated variety, especially if they’re eco-friendly cups with minimalist branding (that last part is definitely tongue in cheek..). Or is this just personal preference?

No big coffee chains 

No Hudsons, No Gloria Jeans, No Starbucks, Coffee Club or Jamaica Blue. Just no.

Signage

Less is more here. If you’re buying coffee from a place which has neon writing on the windows advertising specials then be wary!

Drinks fridge

Like the signage point this one is a bit odd too. Don’t ask me why this is but places that sell other drinks like coke, flavoured milk etc in those big branded fridges..well I just don’t associate them with having good coffee!

Beans

Obviously important. A place which roasts its own beans or has its own brand is pretty much a guarantee of a good coffee a’la Melbourne’s proud mary, gridlock coffee, padre, axil, st ali etc. A place with many types of beans is also good – yes some single origin wankery applies here.

Cafe food

Interestingly a place that does great food will not always do great coffee. In Albury there are only a few places that do good coffee and food together. And only one that I can think of  (The Proprietor) that does both really well. But in the cities you can often find great food by finding great coffee first.

Cafe furniture

Plastic tables and chairs? No. Warehouse chic, milk crates/mismatched furniture? Yes.
This one is definitely a bit silly, but seriously look at the furniture in some of the great coffee places in Melbourne. 3 Bags Full has stools with road signs on the top! Also anywhere featuring timber and/or a vertical garden is usually a good sign too.

So what do you think? Have I missed something? Or am I just missing out on good coffee by being picky? Let me have it!

– Jen

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5 Responses to Coffee radar – how to tell if a cafe has good coffee without having to order it

  1. I’d also add “Cup size” – if you have to order a coffee in Small, Medium, or Large, it will be pretty much crap… ie. Made to a SIZE (quantity), not a quality…

    Also – the ‘food’ that is on offer – if it’s pre-made sandwiches, pies & sasuage rolls – then unlikely to be a good coffee. Fancy-ish baguettes and muffins will indicate a mature palette – and thus better coffee potential…

    Lastly – having a loyalty card for a ‘stamp’. Usually indicates repeat business – as opposed to “bought there once, never again”…

    • jentopia says:

      That’s very true Joseph! And Tony I was going to mention the noise heating the milk makes..should sound like a kiss! Wookie, totally agree on the quantity thing and the food! Not on the loyalty card though! Most places I know don’t have loyalty cards – they know they have good coffee and that people will keep coming back anyway! However I know guys I used to work with who refused to go to places without a loyalty card – the very same ones who boycott one of our local places because their large coffees aren’t large enough (see your first point!). 🙂

      • Fair point about the loyalty cards – I get that…

        Another thought came to mind this morning – as I was analysing & thinking about the place I was waiting at – was MUSIC. If there is piano, or jazz, or some cool, interesting alternative music – then the coffee will be good.

        If it’s just the RADIO – to some derivative FM station, playing pop music & doof-doof – you’ll end up with a crap coffee…

  2. awmalloy says:

    Two giveaways – number one is listen. If you hear the milk go up in pitch and begin to boil and bubble RUN. The other is watch. IF you see anyone moving the milk jug up and down like, damn, why is the only analogy I can think of too rude to write, shall we say with excess vigour, then RUN.

  3. How about the amount of bikes out the front and/or patrons clopping around in cleats, strutting out with their finest lycra???

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