What You Can Learn From Restaurant Coffee
There are few things more disappointing than dining out and having a perfectly good meal ruined by lousy coffee. Most restaurants, cafes and diners manage to be at least remotely competent at coffee, but others mar a good dining experience by getting fundamental things wrong with their coffee. If you can learn (what not to do) from the pros, the guests at your next gathering will thank you for it.
There are a few reasons that restaurant coffee can be so hit-or-miss.
1. Inexperienced preparation: Coffee prep is equal parts art and science. Unless the place you're visiting is serious about their coffee, your waiter or waitress may be the one preparing the coffee, and despite their best intentions, they may not be the best person for the job. The large drip machines used in many establishments are relatively foolproof, but if a cafe or restaurant is serving espresso or French press coffee, the wait staff may not have the know-how to get the best out of the beans. When the same person preparing your coffee is responsible for half a dozen other tables (each with its own requests and issues), it's easy to get distracted and end up with coffee that's under- or over-extracted.
2. Wrong preparation method: Beans "respond" differently depending on the brew method used. For some, a pourover takes out oils that would otherwise muddy the subtler notes the beans offer, and work best in a pourover or chemex. Others shine with the inclusion of oils and solids, making a French press or Kone a better option. The dark roast, heat, and pressure of the espresso process, on the other hand, brings out the best in some other beans. Since restaurants need consistent results, they're typically relying on standardized beans, grinds and brewing methods. The taste that results is often underwhelming.
3. Lazy sourcing: Your average restaurant is using, well, your average beans. Bustelo, Pilon, Lavazza, Illy, and other mass-produced (and sometimes pre-ground) beans are common. Leaving aside the marketing hype, many of those commercially-sourced beans are selected with profit margins rather than taste in mind.
4. Lousy roasting: Yes, espresso is a dark roast. But let's underscore that, shall we? Dark roast. Not charcoal. The problem with commercial beans is that very often, they mistake an overwhelming bitterness -- with notes of bonfires or terrible industrial accidents -- with quality.
5. Age: Diners are notorious for this. Coffee sits on the burner 'til the coffee is burnt, stale and syrupy, while the "works" of the brewer and pots aren't always cleaned as well between brewings as they should be. What results is coffee that tastes old and stale even when it's fresh.
What can you learn from this?
- Buy good coffee, grind just before using, and brew it fresh
- Experiment ahead of time to find out the best grind, water-to-coffee ratio, brew method and brew time
- Take the time to prep and brew properly
- Don't let coffee sit on a burner. If you're brewing more than you're serving right away, use an insulated carafe to keep it hot without scorching it.
That may seem like a lot of work, but think of it from a different angle for a moment. You've likely spent a lot of time planning a menu, shopping for food, preparing everything, and doing all that you can to make it a meal to remember. Don't let your coffee be the weak link.