I was a Starbucks barista for a year – and know by which 9 signs you can tell that you are about to get a bad coffee
Business Insider writer Dylan Clair worked at Starbucks for more than a year and knows: Sometimes mistakes or misunderstandings can ruin drinks.
Some warning signs you can look out for as customers, he says, are hectic baristas or steam wands that are extremely loud when frothing milk.
Clair also says: It can bring you a lot if you know how to order properly.
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Whether it’s a wrong order or a right order done wrong: Spending (a little too much) money on a disappointing Starbucks drink can make your day a bit miserable.
Yet a bad drink is not always avoidable. Mistakes happen to everyone, including us baristas. But there are often signs early on that can tell you the quality of a drink later on. They’ll help you either adjust your expectations right away – or get the heck out of there before you waste your time and money.
As someone who has worked as a Starbucks barista for more than a year, here are some of the top warning signs to look out for:
1. Good drinks aren’t made by frantic baristas
Food service isn’t for everyone. It can be physically, mentally and emotionally demanding work. Even the most experienced barista can have a bad day, but in general the person making your drinks should be calm and collected.
If he or she seems overwhelmed, he or she is most likely not thinking clearly right now. And if the barista is visibly panicking, they are more likely to make a mistake.
2. Noisy steam wand is not a good sign if you want a drink with milk
When I walk into a coffee shop and the espresso machine really "screeches," I now know right away not to order anything with frothed milk. Foaming milk for lattes and cappuccinos properly is an art form. Starbucks makes things a little easier with vending machines and built-in thermometers, but there’s still room for error.
A shrill noise, while common when using milk alternatives, can indicate with regular milk that the barista did not allow the milk to air sufficiently before dipping the steam wand into the pitcher. If it does, the likelihood of scalding it while frothing increases – which is not conducive to a good latte.
And these are the "right" sounds you should listen for: With milk, it should sound like paper tearing for one to eight seconds (depending on the beverage), and then there should be a gentle bubbling sound until the steam is turned off.
3. There should be no out-of-place barista working in a hurry
Depending on the time of day, you might see a handful of baristas behind the counter at Starbucks.
When things are quieter, you’ll often see some of the cafe staff cleaning up, restocking merchandise or doing other side tasks. But if the line is big and you see someone refilling cups, that’s a clear sign of overworked baristas who have to make drinks for frustrated and impatient customers.
If you’ve ever had to fill in for a colleague, you can probably imagine how this story plays out.
4. Ordering a filter coffee in the afternoon – it’s a gamble
The coffee brewed by Starbucks is bad. There. I really said it.
Taste is subjective. So if you’re one of those people who loves instant or supermarket coffee, Starbucks roasts may be the creme de la creme for you. But the overall quality of the beans and the brewing process in the cafes leave a lot to be desired in my opinion.
But even if you like Starbucks coffee, your timing can make the difference between an enjoyable cup of coffee and a taste of regret.
At Starbucks, most sales are made before 10 a.m., so many stores stop brewing more than one type of coffee before noon. This generally means that the medium Pike Place roast is brewed throughout the day, while blonde, dark, decaf, and specialty roasts are brewed only as needed in the afternoon.
The pots of filter coffee are supposed to be dumped out and freshly brewed every 30 minutes, but I can tell you from experience that this is not always the case. Whether the barista didn’t want to waste a full pot or simply forgot to set the timer, if you order an afternoon filter coffee, you’re much more likely to get a stale cup of mediocre coffee.
But if you want to make sure you get a fresh cup in the afternoon, you can ask the barista to prepare a custom infusion.
5. Espressos should not be left on the counter for several minutes
There’s a lot of debate among baristas and coffee lovers about whether an espresso shot can actually "die" – and how long it takes for that to happen.
A common myth is that an espresso can "die" – lose its flavor and consistency – in a matter of seconds. But as a rule, an espresso at Starbucks tastes just as good immediately after it’s poured as it does five minutes later.
Like most things, espresso is best served immediately. Even if it’s not standard practice at Starbucks, the espresso should be poured or served immediately into the drink. If you see a barista leaving espresso shots for more than a minute or two, it’s not a good sign.
6. It’s not always advisable to order a drink with cold foam or shaken espresso
Cold foam drinks have become increasingly popular in recent years: Pumpkin cold foam, Irish cream cold foam, almond milk honey cold foam – the list is almost endless.
I think it can be a matter of luck whether a barista can even make good cold foam, but the biggest mistake you can make is ordering the drink too early.
If you’re using the Starbucks app to order ahead of time, I wouldn’t recommend ordering anything cold brew until you’re in the store or parking lot. Luckily, the app shows how long your order will take, so it’s easier to get the timing right.
The longer these drinks stand, the more the foam can melt or blend into the rest of the drink. A little blending can taste good, but you’ll lose the texture of the cold foam, which is a treat in itself.
The same principle applies to any shaken espresso. Shaking the espresso adds a lot of air, which gives the drink volume and flavor. If you let it sit too long, the espresso loses all of that and you’re looking at a much less delicious drink.
7. You could be adding or omitting the wrong ingredient from your order
Many Starbucks drinks have fairly simple recipes, but some of them have surprising ingredients that make a big difference.
The most common example of this is the caramel macchiato. When customers want a sweeter drink, they often ask for extra caramel sauce. But it’s actually the vanilla syrup that gives the drink its sweetness.
If you ask for more sauce, the drink will taste more caramel and definitely be sweeter, but you’ll also have a lump of caramel at the bottom of your cup.
If you’re not happy with the taste of a drink, try to figure out what’s bothering you about it and ask your barista what you can do to solve the problem.
8. If the barista looks confused when you order, you may not be using the right terms
Starbucks (and coffee in general) has a language all its own.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone try to describe a strawberry acai refresher or a caramel macchiato. And countless customers have ordered a frappe instead of a frappuccino.
Most baristas are used to these simple mistakes, and we usually figure out what you mean somehow. However, if you order something and the barista looks at you confused or starts asking a lot of questions, you may not have used the right terms to order your drink.
If the barista doesn’t even understand what you want, how can you expect him to prepare it properly?
9. Be polite
To get a good drink, you should show patience and kindness to the barista.
A barista will almost never intentionally make a bad drink. But he will definitely take extra care when preparing a drink for a nice regular or customer who is polite to him. If you’re not happy with your drink despite everything, don’t be afraid to ask the barista to redo it. Starbucks is committed to doing everything right.
A Starbucks spokesperson responded to Business Insider’s inquiry with an official statement about the company’s policies, saying, "Since our beginning, Starbucks has been a leader in coffee quality and coffeehouse experience. As part of the Starbucks experience, we are committed to delivering the highest quality beverages, and we take great care to ensure that each and every one of our customers’ drinks is expertly prepared to their specifications. If a customer is not satisfied with their handcrafted drink, our baristas will be happy to remake the drink."
This text was translated from English by Mascha Wolf. You can find the original here.