14 March 2015

5 common reasons why an espresso can taste bad

I once saw a T-shirt in a window display that had the words "LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR BAD COFFEE" printed on it.  It was a message I could relate to; I am, after all, a barista and coffee shop owner myself.  It's my job to ensure that my shop serves not only great coffee, but also the best coffee in town.

Take, for instance, our espressos; it's imperative that my staff make it right every time because, where coffee is concerned, there's really nothing worse than a shoddy espresso.  Espresso forms the basis of almost every gourmet coffee recipe.  It is the soul of a good cup of coffee.  Get that bit wrong and the "good" in "goodwill" is only as good as a good demise.

But what could possibly go wrong in preparing an espresso?  Plenty, actually.  Making an espresso isn't just about dispensing and tamping 8 grams of ground coffee and then extracting the coffee on the espresso machine; the variables are numerous and really too lengthy for me to mention here.  I am, however, going to share with you (in brief) the FIVE most common reasons why an espresso can sometimes taste awful.

1.  Poor quality coffee beans.  The Chinese say it best: Cheap things are not good; good things are not cheap.  The same goes for coffee.  Coffee beans come in different grades and, hence, correspondingly tiered prices.  Customers (rightly) like to compare prices, but how many have actually asked themselves why this coffee shop is pricier (or cheaper) than the other?  My business principle is simple; always use high quality beans, sell the coffee at a reasonably proportionate price and take the time to explain the premium to customers.  Trust me; they actually appreciate it.  Times may be tough but, whenever you can, always choose quality over quantity.  It pays to.

2.  The grind is too coarse/too fine.  Sometimes I wonder how frequently coffee shop owners actually revisit the settings of their coffee grinder.  I'm guessing not very, because grinders often come preset by the supplier and operators are told not to make any adjustments.  Trouble is, the fineness of the grind can - and will - change with usage and the passing of time.  Operators must hence check and, if necessary, adjust the calibration regularly to ensure that the grind is neither too fine nor too coarse.  A grind that's too fine can cause your espresso to taste burnt.  Overly-coarse grinds usually produce sour, watery espressos.

Tamping; the act of compacting
ground coffee
3.  Barista's skills lacking.  Coffee-making is an art, not a science.  Making a great espresso takes a lot of practice and even more passion.  A good way of telling a great espresso from one that's merely passable is to look down at the beverage; if you see black, you weren't served a great espresso.  Great espressos have a brown, foamy layer on top called crema which is basically made up of essential oils from the coffee bean.  Done properly, it should taste neither too bitter nor too sour (both of which indicate poor temperature control and tamping); or as I like to say, it should taste as good as coffee smells.

A very filthy portafilter (the part that
holds the grind and through which hot
water flows into a cup).  What if this
was used to make YOUR cup?
4.  The espresso machine is overdue a clean-over.  This is probably the #1 reason why an espresso can sometimes taste like sewer water.  Many operators neglect the cleanliness of their espresso machine; they forget that their machine needs to be regularly back-flushed, the grind baskets and dispersion screens require an occasional scrub, or that the portafilters have to be disassembled and cleaned at least once a week.  In less technical terms, imagine that espresso in front of you having just flowed through a dirty machine which harbours months - or even years - of hardened, caked, burnt (and re-burnt) coffee grinds.  Now imagine the taste.  Get the picture?

5.  The owner doesn't care.  I really needn't elaborate too much on this as the title says it all.  Suffice to say coffee shop owners must play an active role by being on-site regularly to "check on things" - no two ways about it.  To have a better understanding of what I mean, I invite you to read two blog posts which I'd written a few months back entitled "Coffee shop owner; coolest job in the world?" and "5 common reasons why many coffee shops fail".

Like I said earlier, there are many other reasons for a bad cup of espresso.  But if (for a start) the five which I've mentioned here are addressed and promptly fixed, the improvement in quality will be dramatic and obvious.  REMEMBER; as a customer, you have the right to ask for a replacement if you're ever served a bad cup.  Having said that, it really wouldn't make a difference, would it, if the coffee shop's espresso machine needed a good scrub-down in the first place?

Thanks for reading.

(Photos courtesy of Google)

Have you ever had a bad espresso (or bad coffee) experience?  If so, do tell us about it in the "Post a Comment" field below.  We'd love to hear from you.  Thank you.


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  12. This is a very interesting blog. I had some bad coffee recently two times at the same place.
    The first time I'd gotten a cup of regular coffee and it was not too good and not hot enough. The owner said he had run out of coffee as he had so many people walk in at once. He was having trouble making coffee as he had run out of filtered water, I think. After I drank the cup which was disappointing, I wanted to hang out longer so I paid for a refill. That cup was very cold. I told him. He put the steaming wand in a long time and I think the steam watered it down and it tasted horrible, nothing like coffee. I could not finish it and did not get a refund. This week I bought coffee not expresso and told him the coffee was not hot so he put the wand in for a while and warmed it up. All other coffee I buy comes out of the big container and I never had anyone heat up cool coffee when I first buy it with a wand. I really felt it was a bit uncomfortable and shaddy.


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