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Well, I did it.
It was exhausting, expensive, sometimes stomach churning, often surprising and usually led to a number of strange looks and suspicious gazes, but I assessed ten cafes of varying size and reputation on ten criteria and came up with a number; 66%.
This might seem like a pretty decent score but before we get carried away it is important to temper the celebrations with the harsh truth that these criteria do not guarantee great coffee, they merely ensure a minimum standard is in place. Once all these boxes are ticked the real learning begins. There is no skill involved in implementing these ten standards, just a desire from the cafe itself to create a higher standard to start from. It is only after these are in place that the quality of raw materials and the baristas skills will begin to shine through. Without them your wasting your time.
I am loath to criticise an unskilled barista as I’ve been one myself. It infuriates me to see people beeping at learner drivers, the very drivers who deserve our patience, so I’ll apply the same logic here. When your learning a skill, no matter what that skill is, you generally do as you are told and learn from those around you. If the person telling you what to do has more experience or authority then your going to believe them every time. Its also very difficult to enter a work environment as the least skilled member and try to convince your peers that you have a better idea. Only where a more skilled person arrives on the scene will standards improve, and even then it can be quite slow.
I really believe that 99.9% of people would work at a higher standard if they were trained to do so, understood why, and saw that it took little or no more effort (an important one!).
As the day progressed it became increasingly apparent that cafes become quite institutionalised in that all the baristas tend to mimic each others actions and rituals. If one of them flushes, they all flush. If one of them uses dirty baskets they all use dirty baskets. I think this observation is one that applies to all industries, be it finance, health, food or any other sector. The challenge is in questioning your norms and presumptions.
One thing that did surprise me was the prevalence of “microfoam”, i.e. milk that has been frothed so that the bubbles are so small that they reflect light and thus appear like a silky white cream, similar to a Guinness head. I was admittedly quite generous in assessing microfoam but i felt it important to not be too fussy or snobbish. The test was merely there to show that there was an aspiration or desire to create that specific texture. However in saying that, the easiest way to create microfoam is to re-steam old milk with new milk EXCEPT this method gives you a milk that is bland and tasteless as all the lactose in the milk will have been destroyed. Too often the milk looked okay, but tasted awful.
I was stricter in other areas though. A lot of machines have a mechanism that grinds huge amounts into the doser where it sits for long periods of time before it ever comes near a portafilter basket. I decided this wasn’t freshly ground as although it has been ground on site, at quiet periods it could be sitting there for 20 to 30 minutes. Grinding straight into a basket will take a few seconds more and provide infinitely better results.
Wiping baskets was wiping baskets except where they were wiped by something dirtier than the baskets themselves.
The “similar extraction time” test was often preempted by programmed machines but at least they were consistent and thus got a ticked box.
So, overall I was pleased to see a good level of standards although in saying that, some places scored highly but their coffee was still pretty bad. This reinforces the point that the standards are only a foundation that are a prerequisite and not an assurance of great coffee. Out of the ten coffees I bought I’d be happy to go back to four of them, notwithstanding the possibility that all these places now have a CCTV freeze-frameof my ugly mug stuck on the back of their tills. You earn quite a strange reaction when you assess a menu for 10 mins before finally deciding on “The Cappuccino”.
I do feel however that Dublin is definitely coming along. I have no means of proving it but I do feel that even a year ago, the city would have scored a forty something. Results are posted above so have a read, and if you have time to kill why not score your own hometown. ..