At one time or another, we have all likely spent time searching for a good, independent coffee shop which prides itself on serving a quality product. It can be difficult to find in some communities, but they are out there! But these shops very often offer more than just a clean cup, a drinkable beverage, and friendly service. They can be a good source of coffee education.
An independent coffee shop is very often operated by someone who is passionate about coffee. Some even roast their own coffee to be able to create a taste that is just their own. The passion is there and it shows in the product as well as in the employees. Time is spent training baristas in order to ensure that the product meets the shop’s standards. The employees areas educated and you can be as well.
When I go into a coffee shop I try to get there in the off-hours, avoiding the morning and lunch rushes. I always start by ordering a straight espresso. If a shop has put enough effort and training into making good espresso then the rest of their offerings will usually fall into line. Additionally, few people ever order an espresso straight and so it often make you stand out from the rank-and-file crowds.
If it is not busy I like to hang around the counter and watch my shot being pulled. While I am no master barista, I know enough about espresso to be able to examine the process as well as the product as it issues froth from the machine and be able to make a friendly comment or two; a conversation starter. A word or two usually is enough to know if the conversation should continue. Something as simple as, “That flow looks good,” or possibly, “It looks like the grind could benefit from being a little finer.” That might lead to commenting on the taste of the espresso. The response I receive dictates where I go from there.
While it will not always happen, in most of these shops with a dedicated staff you will find employees who are more than willing to share some of what they know. That is the whole point of starting the conversation. I go in assuming that I might learn something that can make my home espresso production better, or more efficient, or just different. I once befriended a commercial roaster who has since moved on, but I learned a lot about coffee roasting from him. Learning about coffee, like any other knowledge, is cumulative. A small tip here, an idea there, and eventually it comes together for you. I started out as a home enthusiasts and now work in the coffee industry. You just never know where the road may lead. But back to the coffee shop..
If the espresso is good the rest of the visit is easy, particularly if the opening conversation was friendly. I usually then order something to eat and a cappuccino. But what to do if the espresso is not good? What do you say? What do you do? A friend who worked as a professional waitress once told me never to upset your server (to put it politely). It is good advice to not be rude to people who are preparing food for you. If the espresso was close then I might go back again. Sometimes my comments, with some thinly veiled advice, are taken to heart and the barista will try again. But if not, if the conversation is curt or unfriendly, then next time in town I try a different shop.
There are small towns may only have two or three coffee shops so your choices are limited if you are avoiding the chains (which I generally do). If that happens, you can always fall back on your home barista knowledge and your ever-improving coffee making skills.