10 tips on how to buy a coffee – and not look like an idiot

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Want to experiment more with your daily cup? Expert barista Sam MacCuaig, who’s worked at DASH in King’s Cross, imparts some useful knowledge


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'' Photo: Sam MacCuaig
A Woodneck filter, the writer’s method of choice: ‘forget the snobbery and give it a go.’ Photo: Sam MacCuaig
The speciality coffee industry is a lot of things: intriguing, surprising and wonderful. It offers the opportunity to explore a true connoisseur’s product, and hosts a thriving community of like-minded individuals.

One thing it is not, however, is accessible. To a generation raised on instant coffee with milk and two sugars, the speciality shop, with its siphons, areopresses and chemex brewers, can be intimidating to say the least.

Fear not: I am here to help. What follows is a ten-step guide to ordering great coffee, enjoying it – and not making a fool of yourself.

1. Do your research

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‘The people behind the counter are working there because they want to be’. Photo: SM

There’s no point trying to get to grips with speciality coffee if you aren’t drinking it. Check out the London’s Best Coffee app, the most comprehensive overview in the capital. Beyond that, there are a number of great blogs but they are perhaps less accessible to someone with less background knowledge. If you aren’t sure, try the really established shops: Caravan, Prufrock, Kaffeine, Curators Coffee and Mother’s Milk are guaranteed to serve the bean as it should be.


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2. Read the menu

This sounds very basic, and it is. A lot of high end coffee shops have eschewed the ‘cappuccino, latte, mocha’ format to focus on drinks that show off the best of their roasts. A common set up now is the size-based menu. Typically this will feature espresso with or without milk, and filter in a range of different sizes. If you order a latte in one of these shops they’ll nod and then give you an 8oz espresso with milk. Take the time to be aware of what you are buying.

3. Ditch the milk and sugar

If you like your coffee milky that’s fine, opt for espresso with milk. If, however, you are a white americano/filter type then try it without first. Milk and sugar take the edge off dark roasts, and mellow out flavours that might be unpleasant in poorly prepared coffee. A really good cup needs neither, and they only serve to dilute and mask the individual aspects of the bean.

Black Kenyan Rugi at Caravan. Photo: SM
Black Kenyan Rugi at Caravan. Photo: SM

4. Try the filter

Yup, it’s in the midst of a proper renaissance. It’s not a less embarrassing way of saying you like instant, and is not something to be sniffed at. Filter is becoming widely regarded as one of the best ways to experience coffee. Forget the snobbery and give it a go. There are a lot of different ways of preparing it, so just ask for filter or drip. The barista will recommend what they think will be the best bean, and the best method for you to try, which leads us to the next point…

5. Talk to the barista

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‘Speciality coffee is not about having the same drink every day’. Photo: Notes King’s Cross.

This is not Starbucks. The people behind the counter are working there because they want to be and have an active interest in the subject. Ask them questions, and watch them open up to wax lyrical about their favourite topic. Not sure what to have? Ask them. Want to know whether you should have the Guatemalan or the Kenyan? Ask them. They are there, once again, because they want to be – and they want to talk to you.

6. Step outside of your comfort zone

The speciality coffee world is a connoisseur culture, where everyone develops and discusses their own preferences. It’s impossible to develop an opinion on something that you’re unfamiliar with. You like filter? What did you try last time, Chemex? This time, ask for Aeropress. Normally drink espresso macchiato? Why not try it straight up instead? Speciality coffee is not about having the same drink every day, experiment to see what you like, and what you don’t.

7. Take time to think about flavour

Coffee has the richest flavour profile in the world, with almost twice as many notes as wine. It’s not just a cup of joe. Have a glass of water with it and sip in between gulps. Think about what you are experiencing: is there the taste of berries, honey, or meat and savoury flavours? You’re paying to experience something different, so take the time to appreciate it.

8. Make notes

Good chemistry? Coffee's 'coinoisseur' culture. Photo: SM
Good chemistry? Coffee’s ‘connoisseur’ culture. Photo: SM

This is the next step in getting serious about coffee. Make a note of each cup you try, what you liked about it and what you didn’t. Over time you will be able to track the trends in your taste in the same way a sommelier records his customer’s preferences. This may be a step too far for some, but if you really want to get to grips with the coffee scene, with the differences between different region’s coffee, and with your own preferences, then this is the best way.

9. Your preference is your preference

Once you have an idea of what you like, understand that that is up to you. There is a trend right now for very ‘bright’ East African coffee, but some people find it too flowery. That is fine. Just because it’s in right now doesn’t mean you should drink it if you don’t like it. As a barista, I would much rather discuss coffee with someone whose opinion differs, than someone who thinks the exact same way that I do. Preference is what makes things interesting and causes new development.

10. Don’t forget to enjoy it!

This is an article about getting serious with coffee, but it is only a drink at the end of the day. People take it this seriously because they enjoy doing so. This attitude is meant to enhance your experience of the drink; if it does the opposite then stop right now. That said, once you’re started down the road of speciality coffee it’s almost impossible to go back. It is just too good – and that is the point.

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Sam MacCuaig is a contributor to Caffeine Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @sammaccuaig and on instagram with @sammaccuaigcoffee

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  • Will Worboys

    Just go to the pub and drink Stella and stop stuffing your head up your arse it’s just coffee.

  • Adam Trozzo

    You clearly don’t drink much coffee. Or good beer for that matter.

  • Chris Cassidy

    Try saying ” 1 coffe please” im sure that would work,

  • GuyGardener

    Number ten is all you really need. If you don’t enjoy it, then you ordered the wrong thing. I wouldn’t say you look like an idiot, that is, unless you order it again thinking it will taste different. http://www.chpsoh.com.au/ShortCourses?RecurringEventID=31