Who is to blame for bad coffee?

I’ve written a lot recently with an industry readership in mind.  This post I write with the consumer firmly in mind.  This isn’t about exonerating lazy cafe owners and baristas, or excusing the chains or making allowances for restaurant coffee.  Anyone who loves or even likes coffee will often complain about how bad a lot of it is, how hard it is to get a good cup.

You, the consumers, are to blame. 1

Now you certainly can’t take all the blame but consumers have an enormous power over the people making the coffee.  After all – you’re paying for it.  You are staggeringly tolerant of incredibly poor product.  You can do something very simple that would have a huge effect on the quality of coffee served:  when it is bad – take it back.

I’ve spoken to a rich mixture of cafe owners in my few years in the coffee industry, and if we look just at those who serve terrible coffee they all had one thing in common:  they didn’t know.

Worse still they thought that they did a great job, not because they tasted it and found it delicious but because (and to quote them) “not one of my customers has ever complained.”

This is probably true, most people don’t complain.  But what would happen if they did?  Initially not that much.  I’ve sent coffee back, they’ve remade it and it was just as awful.  I sent it back again.  If just one person does it then a business can shrug it off.  Now imagine if a dozen people a day complained.  The business would have their coffee supplier out very quickly – they’d re-examine what their raw materials, their machinery, their production skills.  The might change supplier, they might get some more training.  They’d be worried and they’d turn their energies and their focus onto serving drinks that made their customers genuinely happy.

I am not suggesting that you begin to bully your local cafe into doing exactly what you want, but sending back a terrible coffee is never a waste of time.  Businesses are listening very carefully right now and it may turn out to be in both of your interests.

My final point in all this is that you only earn the right to criticism when you take the time and effort to compliment good work and great drinks.  Let those businesses know – it really does make one’s day!

  1. I ought to make it clear at this point that obviously consumers are not really to blame, but to start a discussion about the power of the consumer and also – heaven forbid – have a little fun with this topic!  ↩︎

32 Comments

  1. As with many things in life, the problem of bad coffee is a complex one where the “blame” lies between all the factions: consumer, retailer, roaster, importer and producer. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s keep it simple: I “blame” the retailer.

    I consider my peers in the coffee business to be rather optimistic. Optimistic in that they’re willing to try coffee at just about any shop we come across. They’re champions, bravely drinking whatever swill is placed in front of them. I admire them, their courage and their audacity in the search of hope in coffee.

    As for me, coffee has become a cherished drink. One not to be squandered on poor quality. I don’t wake up in the morning “needing” coffee. I want my cups to be tasty and delicious. Sadly, I’m rarely surprised by the shops we visit.

    As a retailer, I often wonder “why?” Why is this coffee so bad? Sure, the reasoning is that the operator “doesn’t know,” but is that an excuse? You’re a coffee retailer for heaven’s sake! This is your game. You should be on top of your game.

    Using the scapegoat that your customer base hasn’t complained is a fallacy. If we consider that most people don’t know good coffee yet, then how can we expect them to complain about bad coffee? As far as they know, ALL coffee is “bad” and tastes like it needs a boatload of cream and sugar.

    Comparatively speaking, I’ve found that it doesn’t take a Herculean amount of effort more than the mediocre to do quality coffee. It takes standards and a a commitment to those standards. Once the standards have been determined, then it becomes very easy to follow the path. Without a doubt, our methods (that of The Spro) are considerably more difficult and more expensive than those of our local contemporaries. But our commitment is to quality and not just procuring the cheapest ingredients and labor costs.

    If we really must “blame” someone, then I think the “blame” rests on us: the retailers and roasters.

  2. Indeed. Consumers can be remarkably tolerant of bad products or bad service. Then again, I do read more and more blog posts from people complaining of poor service so maybe that’s one way ordinary consumers can shine a spotlight on companies’ shortcomings and push for improvement.

  3. I’m an endcustomer. I don’t drink coffee outsite home any more. My friends and I don’t complain about coffee any more. I feel that the shop owners don’t want to hear any critique about theirs products. After complaining about bad coffee (burned or very bitter) shop owners usually tell that the coffee has to be this way and that everybody else likes it very much.

  4. Who is to blame for bad coffee?

    You, James Hoffman, are to blame for bad coffee (1).

    Great coffee is easy, but nobody knows how to make it because James Hoffman keeps all those sekrits locked up in his little black book, all the while distracting us with scooping the top off of french presses and funny pouring rituals in Chemexs.

    Footnotes:
    1. I am wearing odd socks today (on my foots).

  5. as arlo guthrie almost sang…

    ou know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and
    they won’t take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony,
    they may think they’re both f*****s and they won’t take either of them.
    And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people {complaining} and walking out. They may think it’s an
    organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said
    fifty people a day walking in {complaining} and
    walking out. And friends they may thinks it’s a movement….
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=5_7C0QGkiVo

  6. I’m always left feeling vaguely ostracised when i complain. The initial attitude always seems to be who do you think you are, before slipping into customer service mode?

    More to the point I’ve rarely taken back a drink to have it replaced with something significantly better!

    I don’t think I’m alone here, but a couple of bad experiences, sometimes even one and I’m not going to go back to that particular business.

  7. Neil – yes – that guy!

    Alastair – agreed, the general response is not good when I’ve done this.

  8. It’s funny, how customers react. We constantly get told that we should get our coffee into this or that establishment, because their coffee is so bad. My response every time is to question whether they have actually complained to the proprietor about the bad coffee and no one ever has. So I agree with you James wholeheartedly. If the customer continues to tolerate bad coffee in restaurants and shops, whether in London or in Edmonton, there will be no incentive for owners of these establishments to invest either time or resources in sourcing and serving better coffee. Alas, I can’t even get the Chefs that I know to muster up the energy to come to one of our coffee tastings for free.

  9. plenty of blame to go around: there are ignorant consumers, ignorant retailers, and both who know better but do nothing.

    i didn’t drink coffee on a regular basis until about five years ago — i simply had no idea it could be amazing. now i home roast and pull my own shots. but many café owners and certainly most [american] consumers are certainly still living in the same dark ages i used to. certainly, some of these people could use some enlightenment.

    but my brother is a perfect example of someone who should know better. i turned him on to good coffee — and he agrees it’s wonderful — yet even on a six-figure income he still buys cheap beans for his blade grinder and nasty drip machine.

    point is, educating or even confronting shop owners / customers isn’t the end-all. not everybody has the epiphany moment that many of us have had regarding specialty coffee, because for many coffee is an deeply ingrained archetype — an inexpensive utility for daily caffeine. yet scarier, many feel they have already reached coffee nirvana, and it is at their local starbucks.

    so i encourage my fellow coffee geeks to be evangelical…just don’t be too disappointed when not everyone converts.

  10. It’s good to know there are still some idealists out there.
    The sad economic truth is that all those places churning out sub-standard product are surviving and some are presumably even thriving.
    As the last post would seem to indicate, the majority of consumers out there don’t give a fig for quality coffee.
    If you’re making a decent profit and 100 people a year complain, for most businesses this is insignificant if money rather than quality is your goal.
    It is therefore up to the real enthusiast businesses to show the public what can be done. Not to sit back and wait for the world to realize that Starbucks does not make the best coffee in the world. (at least the can handle complaints-unlike many a small business)

  11. Hey James,

    We were stuck on a ferry back from Calais the other day with a 6 hour drive ahead of us and desperately needing some caffeine. There was a Costa on the boat so I ordered us 2 double espressos, expecting it to be pretty awful but prepared to suck it up in the name of safe driving. Not only was the shot time 8 seconds, but she tried to serve me a single shot off a double handle. When I questioned her and said that I’d paid for a double she told me it was a double and said, I quote, “we ARE trained baristas you know!” She then tried to run another shot through the same handle of coffee. I asked her to stop and pull 2 new double shots at which she got really angry. Eventually I got my crap coffee, all £3.70 of it, and stalked off back to my car muttering obscenities. I’m not surprised people don’t complain when this is how they get treated! (And yes, it was the filthiest coffee I’ve ever had, thanks Costa).

  12. I had an experience like that with Costa. I asked for a large emericano with 2 extra shots. The PBTC pulled 2 shots into the Porta-Filter, no tamping and half filled the 16Oz cup with it! I had just driven 200 miles with another 100 to go. I didn’t want bad coffee. The PBTC then stopped the group, topped it with hot water than but it back undernieth the group again and poured yet more coffee from the group!!!!! I asked them to make it again and indeed for the extra double and they just argued with me so I got a re-fund and complained to the manager.

    Good ole Costa!

    Lee

    P.S. – I find with Costa that If I ask for an espresso they tend to over extract it by letting their semi-autos runn for too long. If you ask for a double ristretto…Voila! Espresso! Give it a go!!!!

  13. I agree with you The Onocoffee. You can newer know who to blame for bad coffee. I get always in situation that asked for one type of coffee and the taste is so different then real one. That irritate me.

  14. It depends on each party, but of course cunsumers want the best service from you. So, if there is bad coffee, it’s commond if consumers blame the seller.

  15. Hey Lou!

    Costa are a great example of a company whose training seems to result in a staff who believe that knowing the process is the same as understanding the process. (It is fairly common too, but as we are hating on Costa…..)

    If everyone who had an experience like this pretty much boycotted the chain responsible then I think we would see change pretty quickly.

  16. I have quite often felt bad taking Coffee’s back to clearly untrained part time staff as if I’m, sort of know it all when my knowledge in Coffee is small compared to guys like yourself.
    Generally now I always have a Hot chocolate just in case!

  17. in a normal end, if you taste a bad coffee, there is no choice for you but to change the brand of coffee or go to the other coffee shop, bad coffee = bad business, but one have its own taste, so not giving much punctuation on the equation.

  18. i agree with you , but consumer should “ask” for good service so the seller will do his best to make him satisfied

  19. There are a lot of great views in this post, trying to find the best route to the ultimate goal of better quality coffee/espresso and not being afraid of the Barista (either because of poor service or because of what you might taste). I think the consumer cannot be to blame when they have never experienced good coffee. That is where a conversion experience (so to speak) needs to occur. It starts with meeting a person who drinks coffee and taking the time to walk them through the idiosyncrasies of the coffee process bringing them to an exceptional taste experience. Each person is going to be in a different place and not all of them are going to care. It is all centered around giving a consumer a great taste experience that is the ultimate “argument”.

    that leads to the roaster/retailer. this is much more complicated because it involves the barista, the retail manager/owner and the wholesale roaster. lets start with the barista. Imagine you are a barista at a “cool” place where you think you are producing an amazing product, but in reality it is not so good (this probably isn’t a stretch for most of us since we all probably started there). When a customer comes to you and informs you that it sucks that is quite a blow to ones ego. I feel that unless there is some kind of relationship established that informing a barista that the espresso is bad may not work. The approach that i like to take is to ask the Barista their name and find out their level of interest in learning about coffee. If they have an interest i then share with them some of my experience as a barista and roaster then ask them if they would be interested in way to learn more about their craft. If they say yes, great i can either invite them to come to our warehouse/retail location for a pubic cupping or share with them some preparation tips on the spot. This usually works well and i usually get a free espresso that is usually better. In a lot of cases the barista doesn’t care and that is a lost cause. As for the manager a similar approach works well and you also get an opportunity to give them some insight into differing roaster/wholesalers, which might lead to a new account. If you do not represent a roaster/wholesaler then you may be limited to offering preparation tips and hoping that your next visit will be better (even if you never return you will have improved the experience of the all the future customers). Finally, the roaster/ retailer very well might lose some customers which may lead them to create or improve their training program. What I have found works best to improve roaster/wholesale training in the St. Louis area is the Barista Competition. The competition lays out for the spectators (the customer) which roaster has a greater understanding of the complete process and what goes into making great espresso and providing good service. This motivates barista to learn more roasters to step up and consumers to gain an experience of great coffee. I don’t think Barista Competition is the answer, i think the answer is in establishing relationships where you can provide an exceptional coffee experience.

  20. Well, Let me tell you the simplest secret why coffee taste so bad!!!! It is not coffee at all. It has neither taste nor aroma of a real coffee. I have tasted every brand of coffee, including Starbucks, even tried so-called Organic coffee. You know what ?They all taste horrible. Either you buy from Aldi or from World Market, they are all the same. They are either tasteless bitter-tasteless, or simply taste like smoked cigarette tobacco. It has absolutely nothing to do with the water or the way your expresso machine works or the way you roast it. Coffee is coffee, and if it a real one, no matter how you cook it, it must smell and taste like coffee should.What it is , I think is some kind of a hybrid (mix of grass and artificial coffee beans). As of why you might ask me does coffee beans looks like beans and smell like coffee before you brew them? My best bet is that manufacturers simply spray those beans with a coffee aroma and beans are curved into beans, ( sort of like a tablet capsule).
    Should you even wonder about why coffee taste so horrible?
    It is fraud!Just like majority of tasteless -artificial, plastic American food is. Do the vegetables and fruits smell and taste like they should? Of course, not! They are completely tasteless and don’t even have any aroma. Why? because they were inorganically grown, irradiated, and genetically altered. Thus, everything taste like a grass. Nutritional value? Zero!
    As saying goes, ” One apple a day , keeps a Doctor away!”. Really? May I correct this, ” One apple a day from American supermarkets, brings a Dentist on your way!”. Even apples are tasteless, they are so tough that unless you have some strong teeth, biting into apple guarantee you a broken set of teeth.
    When I visited Italy and Austria, I was a coffee addict. Their coffee as well as food is organic , well-cooked. They have a simple vending machine , just like we have in offices with about 7 different types of coffee. They all taste different and are absolutely delicious. One small cup of coffee and you are completely waken up! During the Era of the Soviet Union. Ukraine also had a great coffee. One could have gone to any cafe and get a real coffee.
    So, as for the USA !!!! When food is artificial, nothing taste right ! Nutritious value is zero. You want a good food, than you might want to visit European deli, be prepared to have a wallet with hundreds of dollars. Everything is very expensive there.

  21. See I just dont know anymore. I used to love the stale, over roasted beans. A treat of some pre-ground blue mountain made my month. A well made french press from some Tesco finest beans (pre-ground) tasted delicious. I used to prefer Nero over Starbucks and Costa but didnt care too much either way.

    These days. I make a b-line for Prufrock, SensoryLondon and Tapped and Packed and tend to use Hasbean and Squaremile beans in my Syphon, Woodneck and Gaggia – which I felt shamed mentioning. I mean Gaggia? This is hardly top end…

    My loving lady though. She used to love a coffee with me. We’d go to Coffee Republic sit and chat over a Latte for the lady, Cappuccino for the gentleman. Since I have “upped my game” however, things have changed.

    I’ve taken her to al the best London coffee shops and attempted to dazzle her with some of the best beans in the world. To the same response. “your coffee is discusting, it all tastes like purfume”. very frustrating!

    Then I came to the awful conclusion. Some people like “bad” coffee. For some the roast to far IS the coffee. I sometimes feel a little arrogant telling her how bad the coffee she loves is. That usually washes away though when she tells me that she asked the local barista “can you put a little less coffee in that thing? (portafilter)…..

  22. Hi James, I really liked your point: “I’ve sent coffee back, they’ve remade it and it was just as awful.  I
    sent it back again.  If just one person does it then a business can
    shrug it off.  Now imagine if a dozen people a day complained.” I have taken your  advice, and done this and it really pays off – free coffee !

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