I’m embarking on something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Coffee reviews for traveling nerds. I don’t travel extensively but I do go places and my trip logistics are often driven by my need for acceptable espresso drinks. Over the years I’ve raised the bar several times for what I want in a coffee shop. I used to just get excited that I could find Starbucks on road trips through Nebraska and Oklahoma or had a Starbucks across the street from my hotel.
These days I look a little harder for local shops serving artisan espresso drinks. I have been know to pore over Google Maps and search the internet for hours before choosing a hotel for a trip. For road trips I look ahead of time at where we might be able to stop for coffee, mostly because I’m afraid we’ll miss the only coffee shop within 300 miles (this can happen in Texas!).
I’m not a top of the line coffee snob. I don’t attend cuppings and I’m not sure I could tell the diff between espresso shots. To be honest, I’m not too fond of straight espresso. I prefer my drinks to be about cappuccino strength. I don’t roast my own beans although I’ve met those who have. I can’t make very good coffee art, although I enjoy trying.
I drink most of my espresso at home, which is part of what’s raised the bar when I look for coffee shops. If you spend a lot of time pursuing a great shot, you start noticing when you’re served bitter espresso or scalded milk. I went from religiously drinking Caribou cappuccinos to actively loathing them over a period of a few years.
Many years ago I had a Krups pot boiler espresso machine and a blade grinder. I used that for years and considered it fine. Then I started thinking I wanted a nicer espresso maker and started reading. That’s when I learned about grinders. Instead of buying a new espresso machine, I ended up buying a Mazzer Mini. This was before the Euro and when things were less expensive. I believe it cost me around $350 at the time. That was all the money I could afford to spend for a long time, so I had a super nice grinder and a crappy pot boiler espresso machine.
Eventually my boyfriend and I each got Starbucks Barista machines on sale for $200 and they were great for their price point until they died. At that point, I was making more money and decided I wanted something nicer. I opted for a Rancilio Silivia which I later modded with a PID that allows you to see and regulate the brewing temperature for espresso. This is where I’m at today: Mazzer Mini, Rancilio Sivia. I tend to use the same espresso beans as calibrating the grinder for different kinds requires wasting about half a pound and too much time. So I stick with a local provider: Peace Coffee espresso beans. What do I consider an artisan shop? There are several optional components but a few obvious things:
- Their espresso machine aren’t automatic: If you push a button to make the espresso, chances are good it’s going to taste like ass, no matter how beautifully the beans were roasted. Example: I ended up at a Pete’s Coffee in Santa Clara and was surprised at how downright yummy my latte tasted. This shop was using a La Marzocco. I was so pleased that when I went to the airport, I ordered some there. The same drink came out of an automated machine and was so vile I threw it out. Seriously. So this one isn’t negotiable. You can’t have an automatic and call yourself artisan. Please point me in the direction of anyone making sublime drinks with an automatic if you disagree.
- Beans are ground for each drink, not hours in advance: Yes this really happens. I have stopped at a few places and had them make espresso with grounds from a bin.
- Coffee Art: I consider this mandatory although not necessarily every single time if I go often. What this tells a first time visitor though is that your baristas have been trained on more than how to look at a theromometer and push a button. It also adds a nice finishing touch to the drink, communicating that each drink is an individual effort.
Less mandatory, I like it when the barista can talk about calibration and taste notes with their espresso(s). Another thing you’ll find in serious artisan shops is milk snobbery. When the Angry Catfish opened in Minneapolis, they did several taste tests before settling on a local milk provider. They also only serve whole milk, no arguments, although they’ll also use soy.
So anyway, I’ve started writing up my NYC coffee shop experiences and will post a separate snippet for each shop. I’ll also create entries for places like that awesome shop we found in Denton, TX and other recent trips to Baltimore, Seattle and Santa Clara. I know this is a technical blog, but coffee is so much a part of our lifestyles that it seems a natural add-on. I hope you enjoy it and if you have suggestions for places for me to visit, please let me know.