We think of ourselves as coffee connoisseurs, and yet, as the New York Times recently, rightly pointed out, it can be difficult to discern at first glance whether a café serves a delicious cup or crap.
In the March 3 Times piece, writer Lindsey Tramuta considered this conundrum through the lens of Paris and its mushrooming coffee culture. “Once you get past the familiar allure of a place — colorful ceramic mugs, La Marzocco machinery, distressed wood interiors, artisanal cakes and tattooed baristas — how do you determine what is actually good?”she asks.
To approach an answer, she asked coffee experts from the City of Lights and then distilled four ways to judge an exceptional versus mediocre cup of joe, and recognize the different between trend and technique.
1.) DON’T BE FOOLED BY THE FACADE
Resist aesthetic seduction. The Paris aficionados were proponents of tunnel vision: avert your eyes from cool design elements, head straight for a barista and ask what they’re serving. If they understand the different between the coffee’s origins and its roaster, you’re good to go – as in, we serve coffee roasted by Intelligentsia, but each roast hails from a different, direct-trade farm. As Chris Nielson, co-owner of Fondation Café, said in the Times: “There are plenty of pretty walls in Paris. Don’t get distracted by design if you’re looking for good coffee.”
2.) BARISTA KNOWS BEST
Turn to knowledgeable baristas as guides to navigate not only the café’s menu but also the surrounding coffee scene. Ask for their coffee recommendation – perhaps the espresso being pulled that day is truly outstanding – or suss out their favorite cafés in the neighborhood. “Ask what they recommend,” explained Nicolas Clerc, owner of Télescope. “We taste our coffees all day long, so we’re bound to have a preference. Also, coffee is seasonal, so we will know which is the newest harvest and how best to serve it.”
3.) CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS
Immaculate machines and stellar roasts are moot if the baristas aren’t properly trained, a skill set that centers on knowing how to carefully clean the setup. Notice if the bar is tidy and if staff seem frazzled. A mess and stress are indicators of sub-par coffee.
4.) WHEN IN DOUBT: TRUST YOUR TASTEBUDS
Any note of sourness or saltiness means the coffee is under-extracted. Bitterness or dryness in the mouth often signal over-extraction. Lattes and flat whites should strike a harmonious balance between soft, smooth milk and a well-pulled shot. “If it tastes good, you really don’t need to know much else,” Clerc said. Amen.
The article closes with an excellent list of Paris cafés, curated by the interviewed experts – all logged for our next trip to France.