An Argument for the Home Barista

Talk about your favorite cafes, local barista events, or plan your own get-together.

#1: Post by Milligan »

I'm not naming the cafes we went to, the location, or posting pics since there are some negative comments. The point of this post is not to bash specific cafes, but to celebrate the home barista.

I recently returned from visiting family for the holidays. I roasted some coffee and brought it with me as a hospitality gift. My brother-in-law has a Breville Barista Express and enjoys buying from local roasters. I went with a dark roast Liquid Amber from Sweet Marias since he enjoys milk drinks on the larger side. We had a good time dialing it in with quite a bit of variability since his BBE doesn't have the OPV mod, he doesn't use scales, and his machine could use a good descaling (slow flow.) We had fun shooting from the hip and managed to get some tasty drinks.

We decided to do a cafe hop on New Year's Eve through a loop of shops that roast their own. We started off pulling a drink each at home to get us started and headed on our way. The first stop was a new roaster/cafe that just opened within the year with some decent investor funding. They had a Loring, knowledgeable baristas, and a great vibe. I ordered a cortado and he ordered their seasonal latte. The cortado came in a funky double-walled glass tall shot glass. Excellent micro foam, nice heart latte art, and the texture looked very creamy. We found a seat and indulged. The barista did a fantastic job on this drink, but it tasted underdeveloped. The main note was a straw/hay taste. It wasn't bad enough that I didn't drink the cortado but it isn't a note that you'd want in your coffee as a roaster. His latte had some kind of powder in it that didn't full incorporate so that was strange.

The next cafe/roaster was one that had been established well over 20 years. It had an aesthetic similar to Blue Bottle. Sterile, white, natural lighter wood tones, greenery, and airy environment. I've had their coffee before and enjoyed it but they switched ownership a year ago so I was curious to see if anything had changed. I ordered my cortado and he had a normal latte. They called my name and I went to get it. I noticed some larger bubbles around the parameter of my glass and quite a bit of fines sitting on the top. His latte looked picture perfect. We found a seat and started to drink. I went to pick up my glass and it was too hot to handle. The milk had been over steamed to the point of scalding. It tasted as such. His latte was good, but not mind bending.

After my brother-in-law's 3rd latte for the day he noted that my cortado was a much better choice for cafe hopping, he was getting bloated from too much milk. We took a break for brunch and headed to our final stop. The last cafe we visited had my favorite aesthetic. It was an older brick building perhaps it used to be a train station with large black-iron beams. The bar had a thick wooden top, decorative wooden base, and restored La Marzocco equipment sitting on top. The roastery could be seen through a glass barrier and the greens in burlap bags were lining the walls. I ordered a cortado. The barista looked puzzled, looked at the menu, and said they don't serve that. I looked and saw a 3oz macchiato on the menu, so I ordered that. We moved down to the end of the bar and watched the barista work. She had shaky hands and it looked like it was her first day. Oh well.... It tasted as such.

Thoroughly buzzed we drove around looking at old architecture, visiting a few antique/thrift shops, and then made our way home. A great day to have with my brother-in-law. After spending nearly $60 on drinks after tax and tips we both agreed, we are glad we have home espresso gear. Even without scales and on a tired BBE we managed tastier drinks than our cafe hop could manage. Again this is not meant to be a dig at cafes, but an interesting anecdote.

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#2: Post by another_jim »

The simple answer: If you drink espresso at home, especially if you roast; you can develop your own taste and preferences. So the more you do that, that more your taste may diverge from those of the wider public to which cafes cater.

Complicated answer: In the 1980s and 1990s, both US cafes and home espresso were all over the place, and mostly awful, since they each lived in their own little world. (as opposed to the established cafe cultures in many European ones that told people exactly what to expect). Starting from Seattle, Starbucks and then the internet created a North American and then global coffee culture that told the world what to expect at cafes. The web created new variations for cafes (3rd wave, light roasts etc, ultra cool decor, etc), and a lot of expertise and much more usable gear for home baristas. In this complicated answer, I have no idea why this all leads to greater conformity in cafes, and less conformity in home espresso.
Jim Schulman

Milligan (original poster)

#3: Post by Milligan (original poster) »

I completely agree that home baristas have access to a lot more unique and interesting flavors than someone who only frequents cafes. There are exceptions for the lucky few that live in highly competitive coffee areas. We ran into scalding hot steamed milk, grass/straw note, and inexperienced baristas. I hadn't been out to cafes since a Chicago trip 6 months ago (which I thoroughly enjoyed) so it was interesting to get a peek at that again after fussing over puck prep, staring at roast graphs, and further developing my palate.

I'm even happier to have my own setup after that trip.

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#4: Post by dparrish »

Great discussion. As someone who has been into high-quality tea for literally decades, but high-quality coffee for about 6 years now, I have concluded that, generally speaking, most coffee drinkers (and similarly for tea) in the US are not looking for a complex flavor profile expertly roasted (or even a more simple one done well), but for a coffee-flavored sugar drink. Though there are discerning drinkers and coffee shops which really do strive for high quality and unique offerings presented well, these are few and far between.

A couple of independent (non-Starbucks) shops have opened near where I live, and I have visited them several times just for the "vibe" and to get out of the house. All use good machines, water, and pretty standardized espresso blends consisting of South/Central American and African (sometimes Indonesian) beans). Sometimes the shots (I usually order cappuccino, as I am usually disappointed by straight espresso) are pretty good, but rarely are they great. And they don't offer any real choices (though one does offer a choice between a medium roast more complex blend and a very darkly roasted one intended, like Starbucks, for sugary drinks). This in a very busy metropolitan area.

During the holidays I visited a shopping area in a smaller mid-cities town (between Dallas and Ft. Worth, the area where I live). This area had a newish coffee shop with all of the "vibe" one expects these days, natural interior, lots of plants, cozy, handle-less ceramic coffee cups. And they had a medium-light roasted blend which had a delightful peach and honey note, even in a cappuccino. The folks behind the 3-group Strada they used were very serious and paid close attention to what they were doing, including excellent latte art. The whole experience was so much better than anything I'd experienced locally. I will hope to get back there, but it isn't that close to home.

Having accumulated equipment and skills of my own (much learned through this forum, BTW), I know I will be able to do much better than the majority of shops around me. What is sad is that there are so many who aren't experiencing the same level of variety, complexity, and quality because most of the shops just don't really invest where they should-in the beans and their preparation. So I'll go to the better shops as I'm able for a "change of scenery", but mostly I'll be making and enjoying much better coffee at home. So maybe a house redecoration is in order? Haha...that's exactly what we're planning for the new year-a complete kitchen remodel, complete with lighter colored wooden floor, new cabinets, and maybe some plants :).


#5: Post by CSME9 »

I see this often, so so drink preparations . Light roasted coffees that lack substance, overpriced roasted beans and served drinks.

Milligan (original poster)

#6: Post by Milligan (original poster) »

dparrish wrote:I'll go to the better shops as I'm able for a "change of scenery", but mostly I'll be making and enjoying much better coffee at home. So maybe a house redecoration is in order? Haha...that's exactly what we're planning for the new year-a complete kitchen remodel, complete with lighter colored wooden floor, new cabinets, and maybe some plants :).
Now that is an idea! So much for the coffee corner in the kitchen. I now need an entire room dedicated to a mini cafe. :mrgreen:

You are very correct in your assessment that most Americans seem to want a Diary Queen milkshake that is served from a cozy cafe with a hint of dark roast coffee flavor. We had a place open in my town called "Scooter's Coffee." It is a drive through joint. They were giving out free small latte samples when they first opened so I tried it. Wow, it tasted like 1/4 of the drink was simple syrup. The names of their drinks harken more to Diary Queen names like "Mocha Caramel Blast" with the calories to back that up. I'd like to think of these places more as the carnival side-shows of the coffee world, but I think they are the main event for the average American coffee drinker :oops:

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#7: Post by drgary »

One of my frequent pleasures is inviting friends for brunch or dinner and serving them a coffee drink crafted to their taste. It's easy to exceed their usual experience as most aren't used to a pourover that tastes good with nothing added or a milk drink with actual microfoam and my passable latte art. I bring brewed coffee to community potlucks, and it's always well received. We live just north of Portland, OR and have access to Compass Coffee in Vancouver or Nossa Familia, Heart or Barista in Portland. But it's so convenient to eat at home that such outings are rare, especially since we don't go to restaurants during a tripledemic. We and friends who visit do Covid pre-testing, and we run HEPA filters during such visits. So far, so good.

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!


#8: Post by Graymatters »

I recently returned from visiting the in-laws and, while killing time, I stopped in to a coffee shop that is rated pretty highly on the googles and whatnot (though this is in a relatively small city with limited selection beyond the national chains). I sat down at the bar and, when my order was called over to the barista, I couldn't help but notice that they were pulling shots on a three-group Vitoria Arduino spring lever machine - my expectations immediately shot up.

Unfortunately, when my latte was delivered, my expectations crashed and burned. The frothing was terrible. It looked more like a poorly executed capp than a poorly executed latte, topped with a frothy mound of big bubbles. Ugh. I was already feeling homesick and that just made me look forward to getting back to my machine even more.
LMWDP #726

Milligan (original poster)

#9: Post by Milligan (original poster) »

I took my daughter to an appointment and had some time to burn until I picked her up. So, I stopped by one of my local cafes (a few towns over.) I was quite impressed! It rivaled some of the best cafes I've had in major metropolitan areas. Perfect milk foam, well balanced shot, and flavor that edges into specialty. Not very fruity but there was a hint of a natural process in there. Mostly caramel and milk chocolate. Quite a pleasant surprise. They use a roaster out of Paducah KY.

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#10: Post by Martin »

another_jim wrote:The simple answer: If you drink espresso at home, especially if you roast; you can develop your own taste
I'd add a reflexive element that a home barista employs that is not as easily found at a cafe: we guide, manipulate, tweak our gear and roasts to realize our tasting preferences ("I know what I like"); and the drink our gear and coffee produces (often unwittingly) shapes new preferences ("I never knew what I was missing.")
Heat + Beans = Roast. All the rest is commentary.