Best Drinks to Judge Coffee Shops

When you’re visiting a coffee shop for the first time you’d want to taste the beans to see if they’re roasted correctly and the beans are high quality. Coffee shops can mask the quality of their beans with milk and sugar and serve specialty drinks that no longer taste like coffee.

If it’s your first time at a new coffee shop, here are the drinks you should order to make sure you’re getting a quality bean & properly brewed coffee.

The drinks you should try and why

You can learn a lot about how a shop is run and what you can expect out of your cup of coffee by watching the baristas. Keep a close eye on them as they make your coffee.

You’ll learn if they use the proper technique and if they care about the coffee they serve. This is true for an espresso shot and a pour over. By watching this you will learn a lot about the overall business as well as the coffee.

Of course, this doesn’t mean observe your local Starbucks barista. Starbucks and many other chain coffee shops barely train their staff. Most of these employees will not know how to do a halfway decent pour-over.

The best coffee shops will have specific training regimens for their baristas and have proper technique across all their locations. There should be 4 basic skills that baristas are taught.

  1. How to grind and brew drip coffee and make simple syrup for lattes
  2. How to make pour-over and french press coffee
  3. How to make espresso drinks (Latte, Cortado, Cappuccino, etc.)
  4. How to calibrate and pull espressos for specialty drinks

Different shops can specialize in different drinks. If they specialize in espresso order the espresso and if you hear they have great pour-overs order the pour-overs. Some local shops may have really high order volume, and they simply don’t have the time or staff to do proper pour-overs but have great espressos. Try to play to the shop’s strengths when ordering to give them the best chance of impressing you.

Espresso or Double Espresso

It is not easy to extract the flavors out of a lightly roasted coffee bean as an espresso shot. Many places brew unacceptably sour espressos that are unpalatable.

Currently, lighter roasted beans are hip and are supposed to be brighter, but when brewed incorrectly can result in a sour face puckering experience. It’s harder to brew correctly and has a narrower dial-in window to brew a balanced, sweet espresso.

If you are currently in the learning process or want to learn about espresso this is a great way to compare different espresso to determine what your preferred taste profile is. When ordering an espresso there are a few things you can look out for.

  • Look for a scale to see if your espresso is being properly dosed
  • Check the bean hopper to make sure it is properly cleaned and there isn’t old coffee oil and residue left on it

Make sure to drink your espresso piping hot and freshly brewed. If you leave the espresso to cool it will lose most of its flavor and aroma removing a lot of the joy and enjoyment from drinking espresso.

If you are in Italy the espresso is usually brewed at a 1:3 ratio of espresso to water. Around 7 grams of espresso will yield a 21-gram shot. This is less potent than in the United States where espresso is brewed between a 1 to 1 ratio to a 1 to 2 ratio where 20 grams of grounds can yield 40 grams of espresso out. Keep this in mind if you are traveling around and ordering espresso around the world.

Pour-over Coffee

Pour-over coffee is a great way to judge the quality of a coffee shop. This is only if a pour-over is listed on the menu for that specific coffee shop. If a pour-over is not listed on the menu please do not order a pour-over to “test” how good the place is. You’re just setting everybody up for a bad time.

A pour-over should take around three minutes. If it takes longer than that they may have ground the beans too fine or the barista does not know what they are doing. If the pour-over takes less time they may have ground the coffee too coarse.

A well makes pour-over should be smooth and flavorful. Pour-overs are the best test of the skills of a barista and if it tastes off then you will know they will not be able to correctly make more complicated espresso drinks. You can also get a taste of their beans.


If you are judging a shop for its overall ability to deliver good espresso drinks, good coffee beans, and trained baristas, a cortado is the right drink to order. A cortado requires steaming milk, pulling an espresso, milk texturing, and portioning. You can also still taste the beans because cortados only have a small amount of milk.

And if they ask you what size cortado you want, you know they have not been properly trained and it’s probably best to abort the order. A cortado is typically 1 to 1 espresso to steamed milk with 2oz of each. There is no such thing as a small, medium, or large. They are just different types of espresso drinks.

There may be different variations of a cortado, but it usually is a shot of espresso plus a little milk with less milk than coffee most of the time.

Why we order steamed milk is because of the great caramelized flavor that properly steamed milk imparts in the espresso. This is an important part of brewing great espresso drinks and cortados allow you to evaluate this without overpowering other parts of the espresso.


Overall, we all have our preferences when ordering coffee and we have drinks that we prefer. When going out to a new coffee shop, you should order one of the drinks listed above if you want to determine whether to continue coming back or not.

If you are not a coffee connoisseur don’t worry, you will eventually find a coffee shop that you love that you keep going back to. That is the most important part!


1 thought on “Best Drinks to Judge Coffee Shops”

  1. I just moved to a new town, so I want to find a new go-to coffee shop. It’s good to know that trying a shop’s espresso will give you a good feel for their quality. I’ll also have to try a cortado as that’s my favorite drink.


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