Any coffee snob knows the feeling: You’re sitting down at an amazing brunch place, anticipating your favorite meal. The waiter asks you what you want to drink and you imagine a beautiful hot cup of high-quality joe. Then your heart sinks, because even though the place may have artisanal, locally sourced, housed-cured bacon, their coffee is awful — burnt, weak, cold. Sometimes, magically, all three.
Louisville is a town known for both its foodie culture and its award-winning coffee shops and roasters. So why can’t we get seriously good — “That’s a damn fine cup of coffee!” — coffee at brunch?
After countless disappointing experiences, I now drink water or something fun from the bar, and then leave to go get coffee at a specialty shop when I’m done.
Before we get started, I have to give shout-outs. Gralehaus, Wilstshire Bakery & Café and Four Sisters all got a lot of love from the public while I was Face-sourcing this article. And they all deserve it. Those spots offer some of the best coffee in the city and a tasty array of food, including breakfast options. I visit all three regularly. But I don’t really think it’s right to categorize these places as brunch spots. Brunch means bacon, pancakes, gravy and freshly fried eggs. Brunch means waffles, bloody marys, mimosas and at least one version of Eggs Benedict.
I want full-on, hard-core brunch action.
These questions are based on my experience as a restaurant worker and, more recently, as a barista. Each query is aimed at identifying possible problems at various stages in the coffee-making process.
1) Where is your coffee sourced? Is it a local roaster or a craft roaster?
Louisville has a bunch of good roasters. Some of them have been recognized at national competitions. It’s not impossible to make damn fine coffee with inferior beans, but it sure helps to start with quality.
2) Does it come whole bean or pre-ground? If it’s whole bean, is it ground at the beginning of shift, or just before use?
Coffee oxidizes or “goes stale” based on the surface area that is exposed to air. When you grind coffee, there is suddenly a 100 percent increase in the surface area. So your ground coffee starts going stale 100% percent faster. That’s just math. Coffee should be ground immediately before it is brewed.
3) Do you use an auto-drip brewer? If so, is the coffee removed from heat and placed in a thermos, or does it stay on the warmer?
Coffee in most restaurants is auto-drip. There is no reason that drip coffee can’t produce excellent coffee. Many specialty shops still make most of their money off drip coffee. But there are many ways auto-drip can go horribly wrong.
Many soups, stews, chilis and chowders all get better with extended simmering. Coffee just burns. And yet this is exactly how many auto-drip machines work. Please put brewed coffee in insulated urns or carafes. We’re not animals.
4) Do you employ timers to limit the amount of time coffee sits around?
Hey, do you want this plate of eggs that has been sitting here for three hours? No? How about this coffee? Coffee is fairly tasty up to two hours later. Many places just assume coffee is being consumed fast enough that timers aren’t a concern. You know what assuming makes out of you and me, right?
5) Who is responsible for making your coffee? Servers/waitstaff? The bartender? The kitchen?
Waitstaff, we need to talk. You know I love you. But I can’t let you make coffee anymore. You have too many things to focus on to make sure coffee stays fresh and tasty.
Sigh. If only there were some person already employed by this restaurant whose sole job is to use delicate measurements to make sure liquids are of maximum tastiness. Oh, hey bartender. Didn’t see you there. Whaddup?
In preparation for this article, I emailed and contacted several of Louisville’s well-known brunch spots. Every place I emailed is a restaurant whose food I love. I sent them all this questionnaire. Very few of them responded. I find this frightening.
The only bonafide brunch place willing to talk to me was North End Café, and they had a lot of good answers. They use local roasters Safia, grind coffee directly before brewing, and remove the coffee from heat.
Now that we’ve identified some possible problems, let’s talk about possible solutions.
The No. 1 solution is training. There is more to coffee than putting hot water through ground-up coffee beans. For example, how hot should that water be? The answer matters, and it changes depending on what kind of coffee you are brewing and what extraction method you are using.
But gee, it sure is expensive to give extensive training to every server …
Hire a barista. Seriously. Spend the money.
If restaurants can’t hire a full-time, experienced barista for their brunch shifts, they can at least move the coffee behind the bar. That way there are fewer people responsible for the making sure the java tastes right. That makes real coffee training a more reasonable option. Every good roaster in town offers quality coffee training. Plus, with the coffee passing through the hands of a select few employees, it also becomes possible to assess problems if the coffee isn’t tasting amazing.
Some people don’t care about coffee, and they don’t want to pay more than a couple of bucks for their drink. Let the servers make and distribute mediocre joe to those folks.
But for those of us who have evolved the use of thumbs and higher reasoning, offer something better.
Some places attempt this by offering espresso drinks. Unfortunately, all the same problems that make coffee bad apply to espresso, ever more so. It’s a delicate art, and there are about a thousand ways an espresso machine can mess up. Fixing that is expensive.
What isn’t nearly as expensive is having some handmade options.
I say french press with a pricey local bean, but there are several attainable goals, from a good Chemex to a variety of nice pour-overs. The upkeep on the machines is non-existent — simply keep them clean.
Charge coffee snobs $5 for snobby coffee. I bet they’ll pay it. Gladly. If it’s good.
Please, Louisville restaurants. Get it together. Your customers deserve coffee that is just as good as that $12 plate of locally sourced eggs.
Who has great brunch coffee? I know you have opinions. Share them in the comments.