The Number One Way To Tell If Your Barista Is Any Good

The Number One Way To Tell If Your Barista Is Any Good
Image: Getty Images

Making outstanding coffee is pure alchemy – as much art as science is involved. There are countless variables: the barista, her technique, the machine, the grinder, the humidity, the air temperature, the grind-setting. The temperature and pressure of the water. The beans, of course – how recently they’ve been roasted, the wash method, their country of origin and how they’re blended together to meet milk.

But so much of that is invisible to you, the consumer. You see your friendly inked and bearded barista and need to know: can I trust the coffee he’s making?

My rule of thumb is this: a good barista cares about the product they make. They know a discerning palate like yours and mine votes with their feet and wallet.

So here’s my #1 method to discern the good barista from the bad: watch the tamp.

Wot’s that then?

This is a coffee tamper. My custom Pullman tamper, to be precise. (Photo: Haoran Un)

This is a coffee tamper. It compresses the coffee grounds within the group head (the thing at the end of a handle that holds the coffee grounds). Not every person behind a coffee machine knows how to use a tamper correctly.

Water needs to go through the coffee grounds at extremely high pressure (more or less 9 bar, which is nine times the atmospheric pressure at sea level). That means the coffee grounds needs to be compressed as much and as evenly as humanly possible in order to generate a beautiful creamy crema.

So watch your barista. Look for a right angle with their elbows, pushing down firmly and evenly. Make sure they tamp with their full body weight. Make sure they understand something about the science of brewing coffee. If they do not, handle with suspicion, and don’t be surprised if their coffee is weak, bitter, or unpleasant.

Bonus: The Sweep

If you have a keen eye, you can try to watch for the sweep. The sweep is the action of distributing coffee grounds before tamping. Some excellent baristas will use a tool but you may see others looking like they’re quickly polishing top coffee grounds. This is called the Stockfleth’s Move, which is passed around from coffee nerd to coffee nerd, and now over the internet.

Watch master barista Tim Wendelboe (2005 World Barista Champion) demonstrate Stockfleth’s Move here:

The Lazy Person's Guide To Great-Tasting Coffee

I love coffee. I drink it every day. I love trying new brewing methods at home. I'm also lazy when it comes to my daily cup of coffee. I'm not willing to go through the ridiculous steps most coffee connoisseurs suggest for the "perfect" cup. With that in mind here are a few tips I've picked up over the years to make a good cup of coffee as conveniently as possible.

Read more


  • Making outstanding coffee is pure alchemy – as much art as science is involved. There are countless variables: the barista, her technique

    did you just assume that females make better coffee?

  • If you tamp with your full body weight, you’re ramping too hard. Water takes the path of least resistance through coffee, if it’s tamped so hard the water can’t penetrate it, it’ll simply go around the outside of the grounds and you’ll end up with a weak coffee.

  • The thinking on tamping has changed, at least in Australia. It is no longer deemed necessary to push the grinds with so much pressure. When i first learned coffee in the early 2000’s, it was compress hard, extract, the puck should be dry. Now, it’s press to ensure an even, level top, if the puck is wet after extraction, that’s fine.

  • “There are countless variables: the barista, her technique…your friendly inked and bearded barista”

    Now I am imagining a rather thicc, pasty white, red headed, inked and bearded tea lady, ciggie hanging out of the corner of her mouth as she puts a spoon of Nescafe instant into a chipped mug of tedpid water drawn from the silver urn.

    “You want milk n’ sugar luv” she asks as the ash seemingly defies gravity.

Log in to comment on this story!