Typica

There's a lot happening visually in this week's episode so I'd encourage you to watch this one multiple times and bring it up full screen to get as much detail as you can out of this one.

The first thing that you'll see are four examples of a single espresso prepared with four common problems: too much coffee, not enough coffee, too fine a grind, and too coarse a grind. That's followed up with an example of uneven tamping and an example that combines coarse grind, not enough coffee, and poor tamping technique for a violently bad shot. There are, of course, other things you can do wrong while attempting to make espresso, but you're not going to get an exhaustive catalog of failure in a one minute video.

What's the point of all of this? While with other methods of coffee preparation it's possible to taste a bit of the brew before serving it to make sure that it's delicious, a barista really shouldn't taste every shot of espresso they pull before serving that to a customer. Instead, they should make sure they're producing the expected product at the start of the shift and then keep an eye on shots pulled throughout the day to ensure that the coffee is being prepared consistently. If they've made a mistake or if something has changed, it's important to be able to recognize an out of spec shot, not serve that, and know what needs to be changed so as to not keep the customer waiting too long.

In the story I'm telling in the video, that didn't happen. This took place in a coffee shop that was put in to a new location for a local chain of book stores. It was a well designed space with good equipment and I was being served by the manager for that location.

The first time I go into a new coffee shop, my order is a small coffee and a single espresso if that's on the menu. That's getting harder to order as more places have moved to only making doubles, which is unfortunate since by the time I'm half way through a double I've often had enough even if the coffee is very good. The key point here is that neither of these drinks involves milk. I've seen too much scary milk handling so I'll try the coffee and keep an eye on how things are being done behind the bar before risking a cappuccino. I probably would have skipped that at this location as the steaming wands weren't clean. With the cup of coffee I can judge holding times, brewing proficiency, and coffee quality. The espresso gives me a sense of what they're doing with espresso service and operational skill.

The espresso that I was served on this visit was really impressive. It was a four ounce drink extracted over 10 seconds. That's about four times the volume recommended for a single espresso prepared in about half the time that should take. In other words, the flow rate was about eight times what it should have been. It's hard to think of something more obviously wrong than that. And yet this was served. And not by some minimum wage kid with inadequate training who doesn't care about the job. It was served by a manager who had been very excited about getting the coffee side of the shop up and running and had clearly gotten some training from someone at the company that roasted the coffee.

I don't know what the owner of the chain ordered when he visited that shop, but it was bad enough that he immediately shut down the café, deciding that this had really been a terrible mistake. It shouldn't have come to that. There were challenges for this business and it might have failed eventually anyway, but there was a lot that they got right and the ultimate fate of that location might have been very different had the café not been shut down so quickly.

While a café getting shut down within a couple weeks of opening is an extreme example, this attitude toward running a coffee shop is depressingly common. Over and over, I see people get this romantic notion of running a coffee shop, sink a lot of time and money into opening a space, but think, "it's just coffee," and not bother with seeking out or taking seriously any kind of training while at the same time not taking a hard look at what kind of sales they need to sustain for the business to be viable. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the result is a company that has no path to profitability serving a product that could be better if only the person running the place recognized that maybe running a coffee business is harder than they thought and maybe there are resources available that they could use to learn how to improve their product, their service, and their profitability.

These resources do exist. There are books. There are trade journals. There are articles and videos online. There are trade associations and guilds with professional development programs. There are independent consultants who make a living helping coffee companies to improve on what they're doing. There are industry events where you can talk to and learn from experts. Your suppliers? They would much rather you serve their coffee in such a way that it's delicious and will likely be willing to work with you on that. Maybe pay more attention this time around. You could even do things like pay attention to and measure what you're doing, evaluate the results, and observe how those results change when you try altering a variable. After all, it is just coffee and you should be able to figure this out if you put in the care and the work required.

If, instead, you refuse to recognize a quality problem and serve your mistakes, chances are good that you'll fail.