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On a Coffee Mission by Aaron De Lazzer
Mediocre Coffee, It's Your Fault
Author: Aaron De Lazzer
Posted: July 13, 2003
Article rating: 7.9
feedback: (26) comments | read | write
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Welcome back.

Last article I highlighted the difficulty of getting people in the business of coffee interested in espresso training or even just improving what they do with espresso. The issue is multifaceted and has many causes, yet (in my humble opinion), has one great big, easy solution.

First, before I can get to our take-home message, I'd like to shed some light on the drip coffee situation in today's coffee house and cafe. It is not an area that Barista trainers get to speak to often here on the West Coast, but it is a vitally important piece of the entire quality equation.

During the time I worked as a service tech at JJ Bean, the taste of the coffee coming out of the brewers was part of my domain, along with all the espresso stuff. Consider the following more online training for you, so that you can follow up the next bad cup of coffee you have with some real teeth to what you say, some mustard on your sword (ed.note - what the heck does that mean? ;p)

Drip coffee, although an involved process, is far and away more forgiving than espresso. The most common flaw in today's cafes is... well there's many (stale coffee, dirty machines…), but the most common flaw is that too little coffee is used to brew a proper sized pot.

When was the last time you ordered drip coffee that was too strong, the flavours just too vivid? I'm going to guess that "Never" is probably the answer you're looking for.

Just the other day one of our "easier to work with" cafe owners lectured me on the importance of using enough coffee and how, ever since they started using larger (i.e. correct) portions they've received positive feedback exclusively. It was almost like he forgot who had told him that the previous portions were way to low. And sometimes I wonder why this tightness in the back of my neck won't go away...

The previous Roaster he had been using suggested the need for only small portions of coffee. These mini portions still equaled a great tasting cup because they use a special "high yield" coffee. That is, you can use less of their coffee than other brands. Have you seen this on some packages?

Un-frickin-believable! One of the most common and long lasting scams in the business of coffee!

This kind of talk and marketing drivel helps sell overpriced coffee costing $2+ more a pound than anything else out there. Paying more for your coffee but using less almost makes it look like you're saving money…until you taste the coffee. What's the upside? The cafe owner gets all the free banners and table tents they  want, but c'mon the coffee is shite. Up here in Canada we call that kind of stuff lies and the people who spout it are called charlatans, but we're funny that way - in other circles, they're called marketers. One thing they're not called is "coffee men" (or women).

I'm talkin' 'bout a Revolution

Many of you have giving up trying to find decent coffee at a local establishment. I know it from reading the forums here at CoffeeGeek.

That's a problem.

With a little bit of money and some know how you now make exquisite coffee in your own home that rivals anything you can find on the street. My job security is ebbing away moment by moment. Suddenly we've taken the most discerning, particular percentage of the coffee consuming public out of the loop. The top of the top are no longer a factor.

Now pay attention here. The reason you can't get great coffee out in the wild is because nobody ever says anything! I know it for a fact from my retailing experience!

Maybe you felt "I'm a CoffeeGeek, but not an expert" or "I don't expect a great cup from a place out here in the woods of po'dunk Oregon." Wrong. You are an "expert." Heck, you're a CoffeeGeek and should expect a great cup everywhere!

You like coffee. I know because you drink it and talk about it. You've probably drank quite a bit of coffee over the years and have run the gamit from vile to sensational. You might not totally understand why one place tastes awesome and another sucks but those are details. All you ever wanted was a solid, drinkable shot of espresso. Nothing more - nothing less.

Sure there will be times when you've arrived at one of the big name West Coast Espresso boutiques (you know the names - they are mentioned on this website often enough as the pinnacles of espresso) and place your order with expectations for a shot that'll twist your nipples or at the very least change you life.

That's a different thing. I'm talking about day in day out, anywhere, anytime solid, satisfying coffee.

The hard truth out there is this: what most cafe owners, managers and Baristi know about coffee plus $3 spare change will get you a latte.

No really. A latte.

As I wrote about previously and in this article, if you were to dig a bit deeper into the many, most (but not all) the people supplying coffee, equipment etc., you would be amazed by the number of people that are disappointingly dispassionate about the entire scene, simply clinging to a few bits of coffee knowledge. Basically doing their job and nothing more.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm sensitive to the dilemma of the passionate espresso machine rep or coffee roaster getting their clients to care and execute with all the vim and vigour you would love to see in the ideal CoffeeGeek world; but far too few of these people even try.

This sad reality, I believe, is encouraged by people not saying something when they have a bad cup of coffee. Seems obvious, right? And it's not just when you have a bad cup... you should always say something when you have just an average/OK cup of coffee. Rather than emitting a sigh of relief, and thinking that it wasn't as bad as you expected, stand up and say something.  If consumers wouldn’t tolerate the often-insipid drip coffee and other coffee based beverages in a cafe it would create a strong driving force for cafe owners to start doing things right. Their business would depend on it!

Let's Set the Scene

Go to a cafe. Try the coffee or espresso. If it's lacking in anyway, find someone that matters: the manager, the owner, whoever's in charge of the coffee. Chances are the PBTC (person behind the counter) may not really care, so go to the boss right away.

Now you might be thinking that one complaint might not register or make much of a fuss. You'd be wrong. You have to remember these people are in a utopian little world.

To my continued amazement they sell flat, flavourless espresso with some hot milk to hundreds of people who insist on coming back day after day and give them multiple dollars upon hard earned multiple dollars. Of course the cafe owners think they are the bees knees when it comes to coffee. "Look at how busy we are!". "Look at all our regular customers!". "We are making money!" "Everyone loves our coffee!"

Ya wanna be the needle to scratch the record?

Tell'em their coffee, shot of espresso, whatever you had wasn't very good. Be matter of fact, but kind, not cruel. You don't want your money back (I mean you do but that's not the point) and you don't want them to do it all over again the wrong way a second time as if that would be a solution.

Just let them know, firmly but gently, that your coffee experience wasn't what you had hoped for, expected or know it can be.


This is where it get's exciting

I promise you that the threshold for the "emergency call" by the cafe owner / operator to their roaster / coffee supplier (or the "known" local expert) after receiving that kind of feedback is astonishingly low: perhaps one or two complaints by customers, and a phone call is made. It varies, but honestly one complaint is usually enough.

Of course when I get the phone call it usually goes like this: "Aaron, we've been getting tons of complaints about the coffee.  Can you come and have a look at things?"


Suddenly on the trainer / consultant / roaster side, we have a venue to talk about the things that will improve what they are doing. Back at the station the quality control guy (me) slides down a specially designed pole and into the Coffee Emergency™ van. Tires light up, smoke trails from the burning rubber, and we're outta the garage like a bat out of hell. We've got a situation here, rampart!

The beautiful thing that you have done is a "prompt"; you've provided an opportunity for discussion including everything from technique/training, machine hygiene and maintenance to portion sizes. We are doing some good here!

It could be something as simple as the espresso grinder needs to be dialed in and oops, it's still not great because it also needs new burrs. Taste some coffee made with the grinder I brought, which I know is dialed in. Voila Monsieur Cafe Owner.

Or, "hey, can you guys come for training? The coffee is fine but there's a bunch of things that I would like to show you that would greatly improve what you're doing". Heaven.

If we're talking about drip coffee it might be as simple as "can I brew you a pot with a 'proper' portion of coffee rather than the Depression Era quantities you're currently using?"

"Wow, what a difference, eh?" (ed.note: Canadian colloquialisms allowed from Canuckians only)

I could ramble off a long list of things and keep you reading here all day. The point is that by giving someone genuine, honest and, well heck, let's even go for impassioned feedback about the coffee you can change things one cafe at a time, so that one day a great coffee experience is no longer the exception but the rule. If we work together on this we can help change the world (nothing less) and then guys like Mark Prince will have less to whine about the coffee scene in Vancouver and beyond. We're a team you and I.

Cool eh? (ed.note: that's the last one allowed, Aaron!)

For the Coffeegeek website, this is Aaron De Lazzer, "the Coffee Missionary" saying goodnight, stay caffeinated and thank-you for tuning in. Until next time keep your beans fresh, your tamp level and your pitchers cold. If you want to reach me, I can be found through coffee_missionary@yahoo.ca.

Next time we'll talk about why I hate home espresso machines and my favourite barista on the Drive. It's gonna be gooder, hope you'll join me.

Article rating: 7.9
Author: Aaron De Lazzer
Posted: July 13, 2003
feedback: (26) comments | read | write
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