Carefully-brewed homemade using a home espresso machine or premium drip coffee makers along with true barista-crafted coffee will beat out truck-stop coffee almost every time, especially if it’s been sitting out for hours.
And does it really make enough of a difference to justify coffee shop prices?
Can you improve on the often burnt and over sweetened coffee offered from the chains? This is up to you of course, but here are a few things to look for in assessing your local purveyor of caffeinated beverages.
Quality + Skill
It’s hard to overstate coffee’s complexity.
When stores skimp on quality by using inexpensive beans, stale grounds, or blended coffees from multiple origins, it removes the distinct top notes of different regions and roasts. Ask where your local shop gets their beans
Combining good quality coffee with skillful extraction can elevate your cup from blah to delicious.
But achieving the proper extraction requires practice, so whatever brew method you choose, give yourself some time to try out different brew times, water temperatures, and bean quantities.
You might also want to consider what carafe to use, in order to keep that beautifully brewed coffee of yours hot.
For true precision, you can even purchase a kitchen scale and weigh out your grounds and water so you use exactly the same proportions of grounds to water each time you brew.
The biggest flavor to avoid – and most peoples’ reason for adding cream and sugar – is bitterness.
Over-roasted beans or a long stint on the warmer after brewing can burn the sugars in the coffee, and over-extraction (steeping too long or using too few grounds) can pull out bitter flavors buried deep inside the bean.
If your local coffee suffers from bitterness, it’s not a good sign and you might want to try another shop.
There is a difference between bitter coffee and strong coffee, however, and if you’re used to dosing up with cream and sugar, it may take a while for your brain to be able to tell the difference.
If the coffee’s strength is the problem, try diluting it with a little water and see if it’s more to your tastes. If the bitter flavors are still at the forefront, then something went wrong on the shop’s end or it’s just not a good fit for your preferences.
Time to doctor it up!
Steamed and foamed milk beverages like lattes and cappuccinos should have creamy foam toppings with tiny, uniform bubbles.
Dry foam with big bubbles won’t have the same smooth, caramelly flavors as properly heated milk. If your drink has a pretty design on the top, the milk has probably been foamed properly.
If you prefer espresso, one way to judge the quality is by the crema, the layer of foam on top of a freshly-pulled shot.
It should be dark brown with tiny, almost invisible bubbles. The crema disappears in under a minute, so if your espresso doesn’t have this foam cap, it’s probably been sitting around awhile.
If the foam is very light in color, the coffee may be under-extracted, so you might try elsewhere for your caffeine fix.
Fortunately, well-crafted coffee is becoming easier to find all around the world. Armed with a little knowledge (and some helpful coffee lingo), you’ll know how to spot a gem in your local neighborhood. Happy hunting!
What do you look for in a new coffee shop? Let us know in the comments!
About Mike Quinn
Mike Quinn spent 20 years in the US Army and traveled extensively all over the world. As part of his military service, Mike sampled coffee and tea from all virtually every geographic region, from the beans from the plantation of an El Salvadorian Army Colonel to "Chi" in Iraq to Turkish Coffee in the Turkish Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. He spent nearly a decade in the Republic of Korea where he was exposed to all forms of traditional teas. Mike formerly owned and operated Cup And Brew, an online espresso and coffee equipment retail operation.