How to Spot a Good Coffee

27 FEB 2020

Imagine that you are exploring a new city on the other side of the world. You are craving a cup of coffee, and walk into a local coffee shop for the first time. Since you don’t speak the language there, you can only make out the coffee menu, and cannot converse with the barista at the cafe. You may not help but wonder, how good is their coffee? Is there any way you can tell whether a coffee shop does a good brew, without having to pay for a coffee first?

To lend a hand to those of you who are coffee slash travelholics, here are a few tips from Sam, our Head Roaster, on how to spot a good coffee from the details in a coffee shop.

The coffee beans

There is fresh coffee in the hoppers

Coffee is an agricultural product, meaning there is a shelf life to it and it doesn’t last forever. Fresh, roasted beans are usually good to brew for 2-3 weeks after its roast date, and become oxidised and stale over time. In order for a coffee shop to brew good coffee, it needs fresh coffee beans, meaning you should be welcomed by a strong, pleasant coffee aroma as you step into the shop.

Coffee beans are stored properly

When the baristas refill the coffee grinder hoppers with coffee beans, observe how the shop stores its beans. To minimize oxidation and keep beans fresh and flavourful for as long as possible, coffee beans should be stored in a resealable, opaque coffee packaging with a valve, or an airtight container.

The coffee equipment and usage

The cafe is equipped with a grinder that can grind coffee for different brewing methods

As aforementioned in our Home Brew Guides, the correct grind size plays an important role in helping a barista achieve a good brew. For instance, brewing an espresso requires a fine grind, while a medium-fine grind usually works best for pour-over brewing methods. Having separate grinders for the different brews that are served in-store, or having one that is capable of grinding different grind sizes (for instance, the EK43 from German coffee grinder manufacturer Mahlkonig) shows that the baristas have full understanding of the effect grind size has on the end product.

Coffee is freshly ground right before each and every cup of coffee is brewed

Find the barista who is working in front of the espresso machine, and observe how she/he uses the grinder. Coffee goes stale and starts to taste flat within minutes of being ground – to make a good espresso, the barista needs to grind, dose, settle and tamp the shot seconds before locking the portafilter into the group head, instead of scooping pre-ground coffee from a bag.

The coffee equipment and bar countertop is kept clean

Apart from tamping the perfect espresso shot and pouring intricate latte arts, maintaining the cleanliness of a coffee bar is also a fundamental skill for making a clean, delicious cup of coffee. After all, you wouldn’t want to go anywhere near a cup of latte that is made with a dirty frothing wand or in a milk jug that hasn’t been rinsed the whole morning. Hang out near the espresso machine and check if the barista runs the portafilter under hot water before dialling a shot, wipes the frothing wand with a clean towel, and rinses the milk jug after every pour.

The brew

The taste of your coffee should be anything but flat

The most complex fine wines have around 200 molecular compounds that contribute to their taste. Fine coffee, on the other hand, can produce more than 800 flavour and aroma compounds. So your coffee can taste sweet, clean, fruity or nutty, with different levels of acidity… the list goes on and on. Don’t settle for a coffee that doesn’t excite your palate.

Don’t over-obsess with the intricacy of your latte art – mixing matters too

If you ordered a milk-based coffee, take a closer look at your latte art. Look for a good contrast between your milky white latte art, and its clean, caramel brown canvas – well-executed mixing is the sign of a good cup of white coffee.

At the end of the day, if you like the coffee you’re drinking, it’s good coffee

For those of you who already know your way around coffee and have already started exploring the wide world of single origin coffee, you may be interested to know that the way your cup of coffee tastes is heavily influenced by when and where the coffee is grown, its varietal, its processing and how it’s brewed. Good coffee is complex, so you should be able to taste a different multitude of aromas and flavours from the tasting wheel below. If you notice any tasting notes from the roasted, chemical, papery/musty and green families, your pour-over coffee is not up-to-par.

SCA Coffee Taster's Flavour Wheel

But as Sam mentioned in our ultimate guide to coffee tasting, coffee is a deeply personal experience. Everyone has her/his own preference, and there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to what ‘good coffee’ means. If you are enjoying the cup of coffee, it’s good coffee!