Whether you take your coffee with two sugars or none, or prefer it iced instead of hot, there's something special about enjoying your caffeinated beverage at a café instead of at home. But it's not just in your head that drinks made by a barista taste so good. There are more factors than you might think that go into making every cup of coffee.
We spoke with Colby Barr, a coffee expert and co-founder of Verve Coffee Roasters, to figure out why coffee tastes so good when it's not made at home. Plus, we offer some tips on how to duplicate the experience at home.
In a competitive industry, coffee shops will stand out from the crowd with high-quality products that the customer can taste, and sustainability practices that they'll be impressed by. And with coffee consumption at record highs according to the National Coffee Association, people are falling for coffee harder than ever.
"There are great roasteries all over the country serving specialty coffees with unique flavor profiles, so in order to stand out it's essential that the quality of your coffee shines above the rest, both for your customers in cafés or at home," Barr explains. "So, it's really important to [source] coffee from producers who have a focus on quality."
After the quality beans are sourced, they must be roasted. You've likely seen signs in coffee shops boasting that they roast in-house. Roasting in-house typically gives the business more quality control, as they're able to determine how the beans are prepared before being ground and brewed, compared to purchasing roasted beans wholesale via a distributor or independent roaster. Roasting in-house can enhance the flavor of the coffee sold to the consumer at the counter as well as enhance the reputation of the café, because they can develop a flavor profile or style of roasting that is characteristic to their business. For example, a café may be know for lighter roasts with beans from Kenya, or darker roasts with beans from Colombia.
From the buyers and roasters to the managers and baristas, having coffee experts every step of the way—from the green beans (coffee beans are a pale green color before they're roasted) to your cup—is key to great coffee. But just because a coffee shop has sustainably sourced and high-quality beans that are roasted in-house doesn't mean much if their baristas aren't properly trained and knowledgeable about the coffee they're brewing.
Baristas work in a fast-paced environment that can be stressful, and mistakes are bound to happen so make sure you're being polite in case something is off about your drink and it needs to be sent back. Becoming a skilled barista takes time, training and dedication. When you find a good barista, hang on to them, and don't ignore that tip cup.
Keeping your coffee maker clean is just as essential to a great cup of coffee as the beans are. Coffee shops and baristas take great care of the makers and machines that they work with because it leads to a better overall coffee experience.
"Dedication to properly maintaining and servicing all equipment is where most coffee roasters will stand out. Taking care of the machinery not only gives you longevity in your equipment, but most importantly, your product will perform at a higher level," says Barr.
But it's not just a dirty coffee maker that can impact the flavor of your coffee. Not using the proper filters (if applicable), the right ratio of water to coffee, and even the temperature of your water can bring your coffee down a few notches from barista-level.
Compared to a bag of coffee at home that might be sitting around for several weeks before it's used up entirely, coffee shops go through beans and bags at a much faster pace, meaning their brews are likely fresher than yours. If your coffee no longer smells rich and toasty, but smells flat or like nothing at all, it's time to replace your coffee—it will do you no favors toward a tastier cup.
In general, "Coffee is definitely best a few days off roast, [but] high-quality coffees will continue to brew beautifully past the month mark," Barr says. "It's best to ask the barista about the coffee! Great questions include: 'Do you get your coffee from a local roaster? Is it fresh?' Your local barista will be able to provide the information on roast date and frequency of deliveries."
These questions can also help inform your purchases of coffee for at-home brewing. Coffee beans should be stored properly to help preserve their flavor. The National Coffee Association advises against using a clear container to store your beans, or leaving the canister near sunlight or the oven. But if you thought your coffee should head for the freezer, think again. Instead, use an opaque container to store your beans at room temperature.
Just like coffee in bean form should be properly stored to maintain freshness, brewed coffee should be stored properly as well. Once you've made coffee, it shouldn't sit around for more than 30 minutes in your pot. While it might save you some time to reheat your afternoon coffee in the microwave, the flavor pales in comparison to a freshly made cup.
Much of making coffee at home boils down to personal preference, which will also inform the right coffee maker for you. Maybe that's a pour-over or a classic drip coffee maker, or one that strictly makes cold brew, but finding one you like should be the first step before you even look into buying beans.
As it goes with many food items, fresh is best. Many coffee pros recommend buying whole beans over bags of pre-ground coffee, and grinding your beans at home prior to your morning brew. Not only will your perfectly uniform grounds leave your coffee brewer to work its magic even more, grinding coffee beans smells fantastic.
Knowing what you like, or don't like, in your coffee is also key to at-home creations. "If you have a favorite café, talk to the baristas. If you buy online, don't hesitate to call or send a quick note to the roaster asking for their opinion," suggests Barr. "Tell them what you normally like and don't like and then start exploring the space to find the right flavors, blend, etc., for you."
Still feeling a little lost on what to pick? Verve's handy quiz will help you find the right coffee for you, based on factors including your at-home equipment and how you take your coffee.
Your coffee order at a café may taste better than your home-brewed cup of joe for a variety of reasons. From expert buyers who source beans on-site to accomplished roasters and skilled baristas, there may be a whole team of people making sure your coffee is delicious. Short of training as a barista at your local shop, there are a few ways you can improve your home brew. Talk to your baristas and other coffee staff, buy quality beans and equipment, and store your coffee properly.