In reading up on blogs and forums the other day, I realize that as there are great leaps being made locally, there is still a lot of confusion about coffee. How people value coffee and particularly espresso is a bit funny. While a straight shot comes to personal preference, milk drinks in the Boston metro are out of control. Perceptions of value get skewed to focus on aspects that may or may not add any tangible value.
Proper cappuccino being talked about as 'light' weight and lattes rated by 'strength' leave me feeling it's time to voice some concern about quality perceptions. It seems to me the ingredients and labeling should be as important as anything in the process so let me put out a short list of things I look for when I go into a cafe.
1. Local: This one is silly obvious but think about it. I know that a big part of our rabid aficionado community has been built on hip national 'but still independent' roasters. The natural evolution though is that the better cafes and serious fanatics will take the next step and open small roasteries in different regional/local settings. Coffee that is roasted locally will not in fact be very good by that measure alone but I believe that shipping roasted coffee across time zones is not a sustainable business/environmental model long term. Competent local and small regional roasters will move in to fill the void. Too many local cafes right now are getting into dangerous territory marketing 'zero waste' and 'buy local' for everything but their coffee. Why not the roasted coffee? The carbon footprint of buying hundreds of pounds a week from a roaster in another time zone is wasteful and silly if there are comparable or reasonable alternatives locally.
2. Roast dates: Not best buy dates, not sell by dates, clear and direct 'roasted on' dates. Fresh roast is the basic bare minimum tenet of quality in coffee. You can easily add fresh brewed as the second item there but let's focus more on roast dates as fresh brewed is something even convenience stores talk about. Fresh roast is inherent to quality. To pretend otherwise as a roaster myself would be a compromise made to justify accounts in less than ideal situations, a compromise I feel uncomfortable with making. Bags of coffee without any roast date information treat coffee as a commodity not unlike the grocery grade coffee you find in supermarkets. If the roaster treats their product in this manner, we should view it that way also.
3. Good milk: This is tough because good local grass fed milk is not always available and is often quite expensive. The question though is in rating a good cappuccino, the quality of the milk and not simply just texture or portion is key. My local favorites are Oak Hurst and High Lawn right now but the high cost puts these largely out of reach for the volume shops that have Starbucks sizes. For the quality oriented shops, one balance is to limit sizes to smaller drinks to account for the pricey milk so it should be perceived that drink sizes can be relative to quality.
4. A traditional cappuccino: I look for a traditional cappuccino when I go into any new shop. A good 5 oz cappuccino with definition on top. I care less about proportions and more about quality texturing. I have to say these 'airy' or foamy cappuccino are simply not as pleasurable as a richly textured and micro-foamed cappuccino. The dry foam lacks sweetness and we'd be better off with a dollop of whipped cream as opposed to wasting a lot of milk to get a large portion of stiff dry foam. When I walk into a shop and see stiff dry foam served as a standard, I avoid the milk and espresso drinks entirely because I know it will need some sugar to taste decent. The key behind quality of foam, not quantity, is that a cappuccino is a small drink. Good milk is often also high in fat content as well as higher in price so there are other reasons to limit the sizes beyond purist arguments. It's quite unpleasant sounding to think about drinking a pint glass full of steamed high fat grass fed cow's milk. A small rich and sweet cappuccino where the coffee balances out complexly and isn't drowned out in the milk sounds so much better. Large drinks require very strong and often bitter espresso to cut through a large volume of milk so it is not unreasonable to assume that the espresso and milk quality are not as good when the cup sizes are excessively large.
5. Transparency: This bundles some of the earlier ideas together like putting the roast date on the bag and goes a few steps farther. Walking into a cafe and trying to determine what coffee is being served is the clearest concept of defining quality. If the barista doesn't know what's in the bag or being brewed, that's a clear vote against good expectations. Granted, it could be the one individual but if there is no information available, you have to wonder. In this day and age of coffee, there is no excuse for roasters to continue hiding blends or describing coffees by country and region solely without denoting specific farms/coops/etc. The specific examples are the famous blends that 'must be gold' but nobody tells you what's actually in it. Would giving that recipe up then devalue the blend and make clear that it's components may be less than stellar inputs? In roasting, there are no real secrets to recipes, only ability to roast and identify good coffees to purchase. Skill in blending is a direct result of the previous so there is zero value in hiding blend components unless the individual components are not as attractive as the branding leads you to believe.
There are other ways to rate a cafe: ambiance, free wifi, service and all manner of pastry bits. When rating purely the coffee and espresso drinks though, those 5 items are something to think about next time you go for a coffee or cappuccino.