Paper cups of molasses-brew beckon me from the bagelry down the block. I enter, knowing full well what's in store: A cup of an industrial-roasted coffee that slashes through my palate like a dagger. I suffer it, in a lazy attempt to thrust myself out of Saturday's sleepy womb and into Sunday's world. Sometimes the coffee is so spiked with its two parts bitterness, one part caffeine that a cupful with cream and sugar careens through my veins on a non-stop flight to the heart and the head, erasing the idea of "stillness" for the day. My body is filled with coffee and chaos. By evening, as the barbed brew's effects wear off, I slip back into pre-coffee lethargy. Monday's on its way.
I now know why coffee from this shop elicits such a response: I saw an employee press the "brew" button and run hot water through already-spent grounds into a pot one-quarter filled with coffee. This accounts for the caustic cups I've swigged. So does the very appearance of the beans, which range in tone from straw to soot. The roasting process likely leaves a lot to be desired in the smoothness department, which can ease the effects of caffeine pandemonium.
When it comes to coffee, whether American or espresso, I try to play detective before I order a cup in a restaurant or cafe, especially after a nice meal. In my mind, a cup of bad coffee is a tragedy, especially if it's the thorny finish crowning fantastic food -- the palate loves to finish food with fantastic coffee. What could be more satisfying than leaning back in your chair, contentedly full, sipping a warm cupful of roasted paradise brewed to perfection? Or waking your body and mind to coffee's a.m. potion?
Here are a few things you may want to keep in mind when ordering coffee out:
1) A Brew By Any Other Name…
Ask what brand of coffee or espresso the cafe or restaurant serves, and if you enjoy it, make a mental note. It may take some trial and error to learn which brands you like -- and which cafes serve them -- but in the long run, knowing your favorites will help you immediately decide whether or not to order. If your server has no clue what kind of coffee is being brewed, it's probably a sign that the place doesn't care much.
2) Be A Machine Head
If you can peek into the kitchen, or if the espresso machine is in plain sight as in many cafes and restaurants, take a look at it. Note the brand of machine, and, depending on whether you like the coffee or not, keep it in mind when you order subsequent cups in other restaurants. It's amazing the effect the machine used to brew the cup can have on the finished product. If I go to a restaurant and notice a home machine on the counter, I steer clear of the espresso coffee. Not only does that tell me that the establishment doesn't serve a whole lot of specialty coffee drinks, but it also tells me it really has no interest in doing so.
3) Cleanliness Is Next To Holiness
Always note the appearance of the machine with regard to cleanliness. If the espresso machine brandishes a steam wand crusty with old milk, you probably don't want to order the house-special bacteria-infested cappuccino. Likewise, look at the coffee pots.
4) My Cup Runneth Over
Espresso should be served in a white porcelain demitasse cup. This cup cradles the warmth of the infusion, coddles the crema (which is the thick golden froth that tops a finely prepared cup) and allows for the perfect amount of water to pass through the grounds. On that note, you'd do yourself a favor to order your espresso "short" or "ristretto," which means that less water will pass through the grounds during the same standard brew time, resulting in a stronger, more flavorful espresso. Also, while it may seem frivolous to mention the color of the cup, the contrast of white cup against brown coffee creates the right environment for appreciation of brew quality. If you've ever downed espresso from a black cup, you can appreciate what I'm saying.
5) The Hand That Brews The Espresso
And finally, if you're ordering espresso in a restaurant you visit regularly, you may want to remember who makes the coffee well and order only from them. Just as everything else mentioned affects the flavor of the finished cup, so too do the people who perform the brewing. Usually, certain people develop a talent for eliciting great espresso from a machine, while others completely lack the passion required.
Hopefully these tips will help you avoid late-night agita and coffee's cruelest moments. But if in your experimenting you still experience the occasional sharp brew, remember: You can always go back to your favorite coffee place tomorrow and erase the bitter memories.