Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

Shop Inconsistency: 4 Steps to Address the Problem

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Let’s get straight to the point: inconsistency is a bad thing for cafés. Yes, you need good drinks. Yes, you need cool decor and good marketing. But your products also need to be consistent.

Why? Because consistency correlates directly with sales.

The problem is that specialty coffee doesn’t like producing consistent work. After all, coffee is a craft. Expecting a craftsperson to create a cookie-cutter product everyday is expecting them to behave contrary to their very nature. This obstacle is what I like to call “The Invariable Variable.”

SEE ALSO: Service: The Missing Step in Serving Specialty Coffee?

Gibraltar Latte Art

Specialty coffee is inherently inconsistent. Credit: @elivera21.

Consistency and (the Coffee) Business

In a recent Forbes article, consistency was listed as “One of the 7 Characteristics of Successful Brands [or business”.

“With so many industries being saturated with competitors, inconsistency is often enough of a reason for consumers to take their business elsewhere,” wrote Audience Bloom founder Jayson DeMers.

And this couldn’t be more true in the world of coffee.

The reality is that the bulk of coffee consumers may venture into a specialty coffee shop for the occasional “change of scenery”—with the key word being occasional. Yet day in and day out, these habitual consumers return to large chains comforted by the knowledge that their drink is going to taste exactly the same as it did the other 200  times they ordered it.


Starbucks Coffee

Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Tim Horton’s and even McCafe: In most of the developed world, you would be hard-pressed not to find at least one of these within a five-mile radius. Credit: mashable.com.

So, the question is: How can specialty coffee shops construct the same type of consistency (i.e. overcome the invariable variable) in order to create and retain the life-blood of their businesses—“regulars”?

The good news is that consistency and specialty coffee aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s quite easy to produce consistency. All you have to do is follow these four crucial steps:

1. Hire Baristas That Care

If your staff don’t care about what they’re serving, it doesn’t matter what kind of protocols or procedures are put into place—consistency will never be achieved.  

The problem is, not everyone you hire is going to see coffee as their life’s work. To some it will always be “just a job”—and that’s OK.

Scout Coffee

Although ideal, the key isn’t to find baristas who want to make a career out of coffee; it’s to find people who appreciate craft. Credit: @nicoleavila21.

Look out for these characteristics. They’re essential for combating the invariable variable:

  • Work Ethic: Yes, I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right, it would be difficult to find someone who denies having strong work ethic. Yet you can test their claims. Ask them what they know about your company. Odds are that the amount of effort they put into learning about your business will directly relate to the amount of time they take to do their job correctly (and vice-versa).
  • Attention to Detail: Some people, while well-meaning and hard-working, just do not have this character trait. The thing is, small details can completely alter the way a pour over or shot of espresso tastes.

So how do you check someone’s attention to detail? Add some seemingly minuscule directions to the application process. For example, require that the application be filled out in only blue pen or ask them to bring a #2 pencil to the interview.

  • Teachability: Whether you are looking to hire a seasoned barista or someone who has never touched an espresso machine, teachability is vital. Without this trait, your new employees will be unwilling to learn the unique ways in which your shop runs its program—especially the seasoned baristas. And naturally, this will cause inconsistency that will likely rub off on other employees.

A good way to check for this characteristic is to teach them something very fundamental in the interview and see how they respond. Perhaps ask them to make a pour over, provide a (constructive) critique throughout the process, and then analyze their reaction.

2. Provide Equal Training

Have you ever experienced hesitation in ordering a cappuccino because a particular barista was working?  Or, perhaps you’ve heard the elated customer exclaim, “You make my drinks the best!”

Both are sure signs of a very big problem within specialty coffee: inconsistent training.

The French Press

A shop is only as strong as its weakest barista. Credit: @elivera21.

Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Methods for creating well-rounded training include:

  • Standardized “new hire” training: Create a process that each employee, regardless of experience, must complete before being given the opportunity to make drinks for customers.
  • Taste-testing: On a regular or semi-regular basis, have your staff make you drinks and see if they taste as they should. This is the most efficient way to test skill level.  
  • Calculated pairing: Schedule newer baristas to work the same shifts as your more seasoned baristas; that way, the newer staff can become familiarized with “the ways of your shop.”

Of course, in any craft there are going to be different levels of skill. Yet when it comes to the items on your menu, the level of skill should be (at the very least) comparable.

3. Regulate Filter Coffee

“Is this how it tasted when you ordered it?” he asked, handing me the warm, freshly poured cup of caffeine.

I reached out for it, full of hope. I sniffed and then took a slow sip. Yet the moment that coffee touched my tongue, my shoulders sagged. “Not at all,” I said.

Confession time: this is actually the moment that sparked my inspiration to write this article. My husband and I had reached into our beloved “date stash” to visit a local coffee shop. I excitedly suggested that he order the Guatemalan pour over that I had enjoyed only a few days before. He did. And… well, you know the rest.

That being said, let’s take a look at some things that can help minimize the problem of inconsistency regarding filtered coffee:

  • Use batch brews: With this, the element of human error is removed.
    Do you feel like you couldn’t give up serving pour overs? Some shops, such as Handlebar Coffee Roasters (Santa Barbara, Ca), choose to allow their baristas to focus on espresso by eliminating pour overs completely. Yet others, such as Wahfles Dessert and Coffee (La Verne, Ca), choose to keep pour overs for their more adventurous customers while providing batch brew for those simply looking for a predictable caffeine fix. This allows you to meet the expectations of all your customers.

Batch Brew Coffee

Batch Brew is the most simple way to provide stability. Credit: @elivera21.

  • Set ratios: Pour overs are great. They are one of the primary arts within coffee. However, they can also be delicate. A good way to ensure consistency is to implement one set ratio for all pour overs.    
  • Dial in each roast: This is arguably the best way to marry the craftsmanship of third wave coffee with the consistency that consumers desire. When a new pour over option is made available, take the time to find out what ratio best highlights its notes.

One of the many beauties of specialty coffee is the ever changing roasts. With each coffee comes a nuance of flavors unique to that batch. Yet, how can you reveal these intricacies using the same recipe for every pour over? You can’t. So make sure to find the perfect ratio for each coffee.

4. Optimize Your Espresso

Espresso is arguably  the most difficult thing to keep consistent. There are so many variables that can change its flavor profile. Furthermore, in specialty coffee, the invariable variable cannot be removed in the same way batch brew removes it from filtered coffee.

Yet despite this, there are a handful of protocols that will allow for optimal consistency:  

  • Check your parts per million (PPM): Water is the most important ingredient in coffee. And, water changes constantly. Therefore, it’s important to check your PPM routinely to ensure it’s at your desired setting.
  • Dial-in regularly: This is crucial for consistency. As mentioned, espresso is incredibly finicky. A slight change in temperature or humidity can throw off its taste. As of such, it’s so important to dial-in multiple times throughout the day.

Espresso in Portafilter

Perhaps consider implementing a dial-in schedule. Credit: @elivera21.

  • Set parameters for dialing-in: Giving espresso an exact recipe will not produce the same consistency as a pour over; however,  a similar procedure can be put in place. Each time a new espresso is introduced, dial it in to find where it is tasting best. Then, working off that information, provide your staff with extraction parameters.

For example, let’s say you find that your espresso tastes best when pulled at 19g in, 40g out, with a time of 28-30 sec. In order to maintain some consistency, but also leave room for the inevitable fluctuations of espresso, you could tell your staff that the espresso should be dosed between 18.5-19g, yielded between 35-40g, and run between 25-30sec.

Make sure, though, that your staff understand that the original extraction is the goal and these parameters are only there should the espresso begin to taste unfavorable.

Target Extraction on Hopper

Use a chalk marker to write the target extraction on the hopper. Credit: @elivera21.

In a world of mass production, it can be difficult to merge craftsmanship with the necessary business principle of consistency. But it is both possible and crucial. Follow these steps to ensure your coffee lives up to your customers’ expectations every single day without compromising.

What are some other ways that third wave coffee shops can improve their product consistency? We’d love to hear your ideas via Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Written by N. Avila.

Feature photo by Johnny Jaquez Photography.

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