5 reasons your coffee tastes bad

July 31st, 2006

It is my job to work with a lot of different people, and obviously part of what I do is to try and teach people to diagnose the faults from tasting their coffee. Though there are a myriad of different variables in espresso the reason I get a terrible coffee is usually down to one of these:

1. The machine is dirty

I would say a comfortable 95% of espresso machines in the UK are filthy. It is a rare and delightful thing to find a shop where they understand that portafilters need cleaning, baskets need a regular scrub, that backflushing can happen during the day and the blocks and dispersion screens should be taken down and scrubbed as often as possible. A machine cannot be too clean. The taste of dirt is quite particular, leaving that harsh, ashy bitterness in the mouth for some time after tasting the shot. It really is quite unpleasant and often the same establishment will keep everything else spotless, but for some reason neglect the machine.

2. Grind too coarse/Grinder Ignored

This one has a fairly simple explanation – all too often grinders are set by coffee suppliers and then the staff are told that it is set, and not to touch it. Within an hour or two of a busy day the grind is miles off, and no one does anything about it. Understanding a grinder is not a difficult thing! Too many coffee suppliers come back to the shop, find a gushing pour and claim that someone has been playing with the grinder. This is simply not the case. Half the time the grinder has had so little attention that the collar is stuck fast. The mentality of “don’t touch” is also the reason there are a huge amount of dull burrs out there.

3. The coffee is stale

The customer rarely gets the full information on the lifespan of whole bean or coffee ground for espresso. I suspect that this is because this information is inconvenient to the suppliers, and also to the contract roasters. Its cheaper and easier to buy and grind in bulk. Yesterdays grinds are a deeply unpleasant thing to taste, but one disadvantage coffee has is that it is brown already so no enzymatic browning can take place. You chop up an apple and leave it – it turns brown and you throw it away. The fact that ground coffee vaguely resembles instant (which lasts forever!) an looks no different as it stales, means that freshly grinding coffee never enters people’s heads.

4. The coffee is simply of a poor quality

Sadly the UK is driven by value in terms of quantity, not quality. People treat coffee as if it were all the same and therefore will switch suppliers for a small saving on the case price. They never ask themselves “why is this cheaper?”, “how are they saving the money?”. Coffee suppliers use this demand from customers for cheaper coffee as an excuse to supply poor product. Instead I would like to see them educating and justifying the price of their coffee. “It is more expensive, and this is why, this is what you get….”

I think we are a long way from this here – though there are a few roasters who are producing some genuinely exceptional coffee. What is reassuring to see is that those who choose the path of quality are finding it easier to grow in a market saturated with garbage.

5. People do not taste their own coffee

It seems obvious to me, and to most people reading this, but very few cafes and coffeeshops regularly taste their own coffee. There is no better quality control, and in the same building bartenders will be tasting cocktails and chefs tasting food but the espresso machine’s quality goes down to trust. As an owner you cannot rely on the feedback from your customers – when was the last time you actually took a coffee back and complained? People will hate your coffee, struggle through it and then never come back, or at least start drinking something else.

Tasting your coffee will give you the information to diagnose the above problems, it will mean you and your staff can be proud of what you do and what you serve and that you regularly enter the mindset of a customer visitng your establishment, which many people fail to do.

There are many more reasons for a bad cup, but I think if we could just get those 5 fixed the leap in quality would be dramatic.

[tags]Espresso, Coffee Shop, Cafe, Coffee[/tags]

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