For a few years now, we had an idea for a post that sat in our unpublished queue: how can you tell a good espresso shop from a bad one? (At least before sampling it.) Given the thousands of good, bad, and mediocre espresso shots we’ve reviewed over the years, we have definitely noticed some patterns worth sharing.

It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve recognized the value of shorthand rules. Back in the 1980s, I once (famously, in my circles) observed that the ghetto status of your neighborhood can be surmised by the fast food chicken chain nearby. (In short, Church’s Chicken = “wear Kevlar”.) Earlier this month, there were a couple of coffee-related posts from coffee professionals that inspired us to dust off this idea:

But while coffee professionals know their establishments and their industry favorites best, few have subjected themselves to the horrors of many a bad espresso bar from a consumer perspective. Not that we at CoffeeRatings.com have a taste-bud death wish. But we’ve developed a sort of sixth sense about what to expect just by walking into a coffeehouse and having a look around. This post is an attempt to articulate both the positive and negative cues we get when entering a new establishment.

Some suggested rules are more obvious — like the wine enthusiast’s equivalent of “avoid wine that comes in a box.” Other rules are more subtle or outright unusual. For example, as a news story today had it, if the aroma from the coffee machine forces your plane to make an emergency landing, you might consider tea.

Encouraging signs of decent coffee ahead

In no particular order…

  • They roast their own. Score extra points if they date-stamp their roasted beans for retail sale.
  • They bother with latte art. Latte art is more gimmick than a sign of quality per se (sorry, Aussies). But it’s almost unheard of to find a place that bothers with latte art and yet makes a lousy cappuccino.
  • A La Marzocco machine. Oh, sure, there are plenty of other great espresso machines out there. And there are places that can make great espresso from the most modest equipment choices. But shelling out the bucks for a La Marzocco is typically reserved for those who believe it will actually make a difference for them.
  • They offer more than one kind of bean for espresso. This is a rare find. But when they do, they expect you to notice that the espresso there isn’t just some generic, nameless commodity shot out of a soda gun. Many other establishments think more like Homer Simpson’s tour of the Duff Beer factory, where a single spigot fills Duff, Duff Light, and Duff Dry.
  • They serve a glass of water on the side. Despite the American obsession with the Big Gulp®, espresso should not quench your thirst. Better espresso can often be found at places that don’t expect it to.
  • They take time to make it. You could have a really new, or really slow, barista. Or they could be a little bit of a perfectionist about what they’re doing. We never encourage our baristi to rush the job.
  • Cleanliness is next to decent espresso. If the staff keeps their work areas clean, there are better chances that they clean their equipment of rancid coffee oil build-up — and that they keep their equipment properly tuned and maintained.

Ritual Roaster's Ryan Brown in the early days of their local roasting Latte art on two Ritual Roasters macchiati

The La Marzocco at Healdsburg's Flying Goat Coffee says, Blue Bottle Cafe recognizes that if you're thirsty, that's what water is for

Palo Alto's Caffé del Doge offers multiple bean choices for your espresso How many cafés view the idea of coffee varieties

Signs of when to run — don’t walk — away

Now for the cues when you know things are about to get ugly. Call it coffee’s homage to Waiter Rant’s “Signs An Establishment Isn’t Going to Deliver the Service You Expect”.

  • The roar and/or whine of poorly steamed milk. This is one of those cases where their handling of milk can translate to their handling of coffee. And milk that is steamed in the pitcher to the scalding sounds of a 747 takeoff or the squeal of a dentist’s drill is a major red flag.
  • A superautomatic espresso machine. Superautomatic machines almost never produce an espresso better than “palatable”. Hello, Starbucks.
  • The barista is wearing a company-issue hat or cap. One sure-fire way to non-verbally tell a customer, “How may I massacre your order?” is to require them to dress like fast food employees.
  • They use a two-group La Spaziale 3000 espresso machine. Ouch. Do we really have that much against La Spaziale? They honestly make some good equipment, and a few cafés are quite capable with them. But in the Bay Area, the two-group La Spaziale 3000 is the machine of choice (namely: they’re inexpensive) among cafés looking to skimp and save a few bucks.
  • America’s Best Coffee. Or Peerless coffee, should they admit it. The most common combination of the cheap-and-careless café is the two-group La Spaziale 3000 with America’s Best Coffee beans. A close second is Peerless coffee — which we’ve also found to be the coffee most likely for employees to say it’s Illy in an attempt to make up something that sounds better. Of course, almost as bad (it varies) is the café where the employees have no idea whose beans they serve. But the pattern here seems to be this: the more self-aggrandizing the coffee brand name, the worse the coffee.
  • Portafilter handles are left cooling on the drip tray. This is often the kiss of death: a café that knows nothing about the importance of stable temperature control, and they could care less.
  • Served with a lemon rind on the side. You’d be surprised how many restaurants still do this. Why? We don’t know, because it’s like a neon sign that says, “Prepare to spew.”
  • Paper cups are the only option. There are times where even we want a coffee “to go”. But those conditions are so sub-par. For a café to serve their espresso only in paper cups, you may as well be greeted by a fiberglass clown head with a speakerphone in his throat at the drive-thru entrance. If someone’s idea of quality and class is the stemware at a four-year-old’s birthday party, we emphasize the “go” part of “to go”.
  • Flavored coffees on the menu. Or the word “gourmet”. In some parts of the country, and rare corners of the Bay Area, the 1980s are still alive and well and some people are still selling chocolate macadamia nut flavored coffee. If a café sells coffee that sounds more like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, you’d be better off looking for ice cream. Same goes if they use the word “gourmet” in their branding — a word that has since become affiliated only with the mass-produced packaged foods that line the aisles of Wal-Mart, marked for quick sale to their morbidly obese loyal customers.

We really need to stop here before we are overcome with snarkiness poisoning.

Born under a bad sign: a La Spaziale 3000 at Golden Gate Perk Here's an idea: a superautomated Verismo *and* uniform hats

Nice and short, but the container is a bit lacking: from Royal Express It's 1987 night at Il Fornaio with a...lemon rind?