Every restaurant serves coffee. It’s one of those standard beverages that any food service establishment takes for granted: restaurants of all kinds have always served coffee, and will continue to serve it forever. But unlike other standard beverages like Coke or Pepsi that are made by a third party, coffee is almost always brewed in house. That means the quality standard varies widely from restaurant to restaurant, and any customer who orders a cup knows it’s usually a crap-shoot on how the coffee will taste.
With the rise of Starbucks and the rest of the specialty coffee industry in the past 10 years, consumer’s tastes in coffee have become more refined, even as most restaurants still employ the same old standard pour-over coffee machine they’ve always had. And even though Starbucks has been getting killed lately as consumers cut back on $8 lattes, their taste for quality coffee remains. The fact is, customers want a better cup of coffee at a good value.
Restaurants are well positioned to provide good quality for a good price, and serving good coffee can lead to better sales and better profits for any restaurateur who takes the time to invest in a quality coffee brewing system.
That’s because not only can you make a tidy profit on coffee sales alone, but customers who enjoy good coffee are more likely to order other after-meal items like desserts and drinks. You can also use good coffee to boost sales during slow periods during the day like late afternoon. A reputation for great coffee plus a few simple appetizers or desserts off the menu can become a popular afternoon happy hour very quickly.
So how do you brew great coffee? Here’s some basics:
Water. Coffee is mostly water, so if the water you use doesn’t taste that great or is hard (full of minerals), your coffee isn’t going to taste that great either. You should always use filtered water to brew coffee. This is also important because a water filter will remove minerals from the water that build up in your brewing equipment and cause machine failures and bad taste problems.
Temperature. The ideal brewing temperature for coffee is between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. Water temperatures outside of this range can result in weak or bitter tasting coffee. Use a thermometer to measure the water temp in your coffee machine. Modern digital coffee machines allow you to adjust the temperature of the water with the push of a button. Older machines may need to have parts replaced.
Time. This is the most important factor in determining how the coffee will taste. The longer water is in contact with the coffee grinds, the more the soluble elements of coffee are absorbed into the water. This is what gives coffee it’s taste, but the best tasting elements are usually absorbed at the beginning of the brewing process. The longer water is in contact with coffee grinds, the more compounds that give coffee a bitter or strong taste are absorbed.
Clean surfaces. The surfaces the coffee comes into contact with inside the coffee machine and outside, like decanters, airpots, and cups, can all lend bad tastes to coffee if they aren’t cleaned properly. The most common problem is lime (mineral) buildup in the coffee machine. The best way to prevent this, as mentioned above, is to use filtered water. However, these surfaces should be cleaned regularly to ensure quality coffee every time.
Coffee grounds. The granule size of ground coffee will affect how long it takes to brew. Very finely ground coffee brews much more quickly than coarsely ground coffee. Experiment with different coffee grinds until you find one that results in optimum flavor. The depth of the coffee ground bed in the brewing basket also affects taste. A bed depth of 1-2 inches is ideal. A shallow bed will result in weak coffee. A deep bed will make the water percolate very slowly, which results in bitter coffee.
Stay tuned to The Back Burner this afternoon as I will be posting the second half of this article, which will cover the coffee brewing equipment basics you need to know to make sure your restaurant is brewing good coffee every time.