Coffee Shop: Hot Or Not!




For those of you older than 12 years of age, you may recall the early days of the internet. You know, remember those days of clicking a roller ball mouse to check your email, watching live NASA pics from the first Mars rover over a 28.8k baud modem, and chatting on ICQ? Well, you can’t get all nostalgic about our dear old internet without bringing up one particular website that was always on the cusp of conversation: “Did you see her pic on HOT or NOT?”, “…could you believe that he actually thought that that sleeveless shirt/super mullet combo was HOT?! …NOT!”

Yes, the HOT or NOT phenomenon was the talk of my campus in the early 2000’s and quickly reached pop culture status. It shall forever remain iconic in the annals of internet history. “But Nathan (I hear you asking), what does this have to do with Coffee?” And, my dear reader, that is indeed a good question to ask because could a coffee ever really be sexy? Well, maybe (and I know a few people who roast coffee that would marry their coffee in a SL28 second if that were legal), but in reality it’s often the “attractiveness” of a coffee shop that draws us in. It convinces us to sit down, have a pour over or three, and stay a while to enjoy a still moment of life whilst sipping one of nature’s most precious nectars.

Of course like any woman or man, there’s always more than meets the eye when searching for that “one” you want to spend time with. And today, right here, I’m going to give you some signals to look out for in order to see if that coffee shop you stumbled across is a NOT (run away and don’t look back) or a HOT (put a ring on it!)

If you read my last post you’ll know I did time in the circus, six years in fact. Over that time I visited and catalogued over 600 hundred coffee shops around North America. After the first few hundred I started to notice trends or common characteristics that would give me a pretty accurate idea of what was about to accost my taste buds once I crossed the shop’s threshold.

As I continued on my quest for quality coffee and the most interesting places within which to drink that coffee, there was a definite correlation between certain indicators and the final product. Hence, I’m going to outline these harbingers of HOT or NOT so that you can make an educated coffee drinking commitment with the greatest of ease.

NOT: If you see these things, run away, and don’t look back!

  • Dirty bathrooms: Any place where food is served the status of the bathrooms will give you a good idea of how the place is run.
  • Crusty milk on the steam wand: Yeah, everyone wants diarrhea after drinking their latte, right?
  • Cutesy names for drinks: I’ve never had good coffee at a tourist trap.
  • Wobbly tables: OK, this isn’t a deal breaker, but more of a pet peeve of mine. Do you know how it feels when you set your delicious coffee down, then accidentally bump the wobbly table which in turn spills half of the cup?! It’s like going for a nice walk and then someone tripping you with a cactus. Not cool.
  • Franchises: I’ve never had good coffee from a franchise. This is not to be confused with regional coffee chains. I have had nice coffee from one or two of them.
  • Your “barista” is only wearing underwear: Um, yeah, I’m thinking the focus in that shop isn’t on quality coffee.
  • There is no coffee grinder present in the entire shop: This means they are only using pre-ground coffee for everything! These places should be shut down and sent down the syphon of shame.
  • They mistakenly make a cappuccino instead of a latte: When you mention this they take a knife, scrape the foam off of the top, and then hand it back to you. Really, this happened. I’m calling you out Chattanooga Tennessee.
  • The portafilter for the espresso machine sits on the drip tray all day: It hasn’t been sitting in the brewgroup preheating. Thus, it won’t be up to temperature before they pull your shot.
  • They overpull the espresso shot, it overflows in the shot glass, so they pour the extra crema off the top: Oh, the horror!
  • Inside the shop you see the word “eXpresso.”
  • They use a superautomatic espresso machine: I’ve never had good coffee from a superauto. No cafe that is serious about quality would ever touch one with a 10 yard stick.
  • They re-steam their milk: Insert Mr.YUCK face here.
  • They don’t grind the coffee immediately before each shot, pourover, or drip.
  • They won’t tell you who their coffee roaster is: Really?! You should be proud of this fact, not hide it.
  • The coffee of the day is Hazelnut Almond Christmas Happy Spice Girl Pink Eye.
  • You hear the milk’s “screech of death”: which, unfortunately, is heard in 96% of coffee shops.  This means burned milk.
  • The in-house coffee roaster dude is spraying the roasted beans with water so that they cool faster.
  • The “baristas” spend more time talking to each other on their drive-through headsets than the person standing in front of them at the counter.
  • Flies: There should not be a plague of flies in a coffee shop. This is unacceptable. Besides, flypaper is cheaper than gas these days.
  • Trash is overflowing: I’m not making this stuff up.
  • Drinks left sitting around the cafe for hours: Leaves you to wonder what else has been sitting around for hours.
  • Excessive use of whipped cream.
  • They sell blended Kona coffee: The people who blend Kona also deserve to go down the syphon of shame, and with extra hot water!

HOT: Can you fall in love with a coffee shop? Well, these are things that just may seduce you.

  • Coffee education: Either in the form of posters/pamphlets or cupping classes.
  • Simple syrup: If they’ve thought through this far on the sweetening of their iced coffee, you can bet the rest of their coffee program falls in line.
  • Water/sparkling water served with espresso: Not necessary, but a nice touch. I’ve never had undrinkable espresso from a North American cafe that presents its espresso this way.
  • Home brew equipment available for purchase: Bonus points if they know which one you should buy and can give reasons why.
  • The coffee brewing process is open for the customer watch. Even better if it is a featured part of the customer experience!
  • There are suggested coffee pairings with the food served in the cafe.
  • Coffee is seasonal: Thus they rotate coffee according to its availability.
  • Coffee farmer’s story is part of the cafe’s coffee presentation.
  • Coffee is ground immediately before each shot.
  • The barista warms the espresso or coffee cup before brewing: It’s like a handshake and a warm hug whilst listening to Robertino Loretti.
  • You see the barista re-pull a shot that didn’t look quite right: This means quality is of utmost importance, even when it means having the customer wait another minute or two.
  • The barista is tasting shots and tweaking the grind between customers: Coffee changes with weather as well as the internal shop environment.
  • You see scales to weigh the coffee behind the bar.
  • They offer small, traditional Italian sized cappuccinos.
  • There is a picture of James Hoffman hanging somewhere in the cafe.
  • They are offering single origin espressos: They probably know what they’re doing but when this becomes a “the cool kids are doing it” thing, then all bets are off.
  • There is no milk/cream on the condiment bar: This is a gutsy move to be sure. If a shop can pull it off, they are definitely confident in their coffee and have convinced their customers to largely drink their coffee without dairy.

There you have it. You can now benefit from my coffee disappointments (and there were MANY!) The next time you venture out into the culinary unknown, at least when it comes to coffee, you’ll be able to call out posers and treat yourself to a coffee experience that your taste buds deserve. Take a shower, put on something nice, and go find a coffee shop that is HOT and worthy of your attention. Let’s have a photo look at these places!


Espresso Bar?
I always stop for an espresso on my motorcycle journeys…unfortunately I was disappointed with this one


Coffee in a church-housed art gallery, an example of touristy coffee.


Unforgettable Women!
Came upon this coffee place in the middle of the Arizona desert; their main attraction was the “unforgettable women”?


One of the top three espresso shots I’ve tasted in my life.


Presented with water – always a good sign – at 49th Cafe.


Watching a live feed of dogs swimming whilst sipping; this was a coffee shop first for me


Somewhere in the middle of Illinois. Nice house at least!


Octane in Talnta
Out and about on my first bike in Atlanta. Some famous coffee folk have come from Octane!


It looks pretty on the outside, but this is definitely touristy coffee.


Here i am ordering a coffee at my favourite version of Espresso Vivace in Seattle


Good coffee attracts good bikes!


Pretty on the outside
The presentation might look pretty, but don’t be fooled – this was hardly drinkable.


Pretty on the outside and…
Also tasty! This is an example of good presentation and good taste!


Dubai Coffee
Coffee adventures in Dubai!


4 Barrel, San Francisco
One of my favorite coffee experiences of all time, 4 Barrel serving amazing coffee out of their back door before the shop itself was ready to open…awesome!