It was a busy night at Handground HQ when we finally mustered up the courage to hit “send” on an email to thousands of Team Handground members and Barista Magazine subscribers.

The email contained a new survey we were conducting along with Barista Magazine to learn more about coffee shops and their customers. We wanted to learn how people discovered new coffee shops, what created a positive coffee shop experience, and why customers became loyal to some shops but not others. It only took a few minutes for the first completed surveys to roll in.

We noticed a trend beginning to form as we looked over the initial results: “Quality coffee” was clearly the most popular answer for all questions related to coffee shop discovery, experience, and loyalty.

Coffee shop customers and professionals answered these questions the same way. Both groups felt that quality coffee was the reason why customers decided to visit a shop, why they had a positive experience, and why they eventually became loyal to a shop. This trend became more profound as we received more feedback.

Graph of most important factors in a positive coffee shop experience: quality of coffee, attitude of staff

The problem was we didn’t ask any questions in the survey specifically about quality coffee. We knew quality coffee was a big deal, but we were left with some huge questions:

  • What does “quality coffee” mean to people?
  • How do shops ensure they create “quality coffee”?

We decided to add five new questions to the survey to learn more about quality coffee. Not only did we learn what “quality” meant to customers, we also learned how the best coffee shops consistently create quality coffee.

First, let’s take a look at what “quality coffee” really means.

Defining “Quality”

When a customer says, “This coffee is great,” what do they actually mean?

We used the official SCAA coffee grading form help determine what taste characteristics are most important to customers. This is the form professionals use when cupping coffee to test its quality.

Graph of most important factors in quality coffee: unique flavor, finish, body

There were three characteristics that were more important to customers than the rest:

  • Unique flavor
  • Body or mouthfeel
  • Finish or aftertaste

Many customers like the experience of trying something new, and therefore enjoy coffees with unique flavors. We found and published similar results in the article, “Surprise and Delight: 48 Simple Ideas to Create the Ultimate Coffee Shop Experience,” where customers preferred a wider variety of bean and coffee roaster options.

Customers also expect coffee to be brewed properly, and they can tell the difference when it isn’t. A coffee’s mouthfeel and aftertaste are both impacted by the brewing process and can change dramatically based on the extraction rate. Weak, under-extracted coffee will create little body with a sour aftertaste, while strong and over extracted-coffee will taste like bitter sludge.

Properly brewed coffee is one of the biggest reasons why customers visit a coffee shop instead of making coffee at home. As experts, coffee shops must be able to deliver a perfectly extracted cup of coffee every time.

What does “Quality Coffee” mean to you?

We also wanted to hear what quality coffee meant to customers and coffee shops in their own words, so we added a question to the survey asking both groups to define it for themselves.

Interestingly, customers and coffee shop professionals perceived “quality” in different ways.

Customer Responses

Customer answers about quality focused mostly on the end-product, the cup of coffee they receive from the barista. Almost half of customer responses mention “taste” or “flavor” when it came to quality:

“Great balanced taste. Nice lingering aftertaste (not acrid nor bitter). Nicely texturised milk of good temperature that can be drank instantly. The kind of coffee that makes you want to gulp it all down after the first sip.” 

-Jing T, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

“I love being able to taste all of the nuanced flavors. I enjoy trying to synthesize the flavors that I taste before reading the tasting notes and trying to identify each flavor in the profile.”

- Adam Suhy, St. Louis, MO, USA

“Quality coffee is coffee that exposes its individuality. It is captured in that moment where you smell fresh blueberries wafting off of the cup, or taste apricot in that first sip. It is the simultaneous experience of the familiar and the surprising.” 

- Matt Butcher, Longmont, CO, USA

SCAA coffee flavor wheel
The new SCAA flavor wheel. Coffee shop customers tended to focus on characteristics in the cup to describe quality coffee. Photo by

Coffee Shop Responses

On the other hand, coffee shop professionals gave more holistic definitions of what quality meant to them, mentioning sourcing, serving, and everything in between:

“A good cup of coffee is.... ethically sourced, thoughtfully roasted and brewed to perfection.”
- Dale Schotte, Park Avenue Coffee, St. Louis, MO, USA

“Sourcing the best tasting green beans that are also ethically grown and harvested, perfecting a roast process to bring out the optimal flavor for each variety of bean, brewing it with clean filtered water and with high quality equipment, and having it served by a knowledgeable and most importantly, friendly, barista.”
- Peter Froehle, EVP Coffee, Madison, WI, USA

“The entire journey from seed to cup. The idea is serving a quality cup to someone after every hand has done their part - incredible farming practices, quality sourcing, proper roasting, skilled baristas, and ensuring the experience at the hand-off is memorable. Coffee is about community and experience, so many people's most memorable cup of coffee comes with a story and an experience and if we don't deliver that every time, that we haven't done that specific coffee justice.” 

- Lyndsey Lee, Coffee Studio

“Carefully grown, responsibly harvested, fairly acquired, attentively roasted beans that are then in turn brewed appropriately, paying close attention to proper processes every step of the way, all the way up to when it reaches the lips of every thirsty customer.” 

- Kelly Fennell, Cool Beans Coffeehouse & Cafe, Madison, WI, USA

Shared Responses

There were also definitions of quality that coffee shop customers and professionals aligned on. These definitions mentioned roasting, brewing, and freshness:

“Brewed by an experienced barista from professionally roasted beans within the freshness window (ideally of a week or so) from roast date and ground right before brew.”

 - Ed A., New Jersey, USA

“Quality coffee is something that takes time. The people who brew the coffee know where it came from and how to bring out the flavors. Quality coffee is something that's clean and full. Something that took time to perfect, yet seems effortless.” 

- Melissa H., Sarasota, FL, USA

“It means the baristas and roasters take the time to roast freshly in small batches, and prepare coffee the right way because they care about their customers' satisfaction.” 

- Reid Būrförd, Benicia, CA, USA

“Freshly roasted beans plus an expertly executed brew. I'm not too picky on brew method, as long as the brewer knows what they're doing.” 

- Joe A., San Antonio, TX, USA

“Quality coffee means the roast is impeccable and the brewing method is flawless. To round it out: the barista gives you the confidence that you're drinking something worth drinking.”
- Dani Kahn, HG (Higher Grounds) Roastery and Cafe, Gilbert, AZ, USA

“High quality beans, roasted to create a desirable flavor profile, prepared with proper brewing techniques and top quality ingrediants, and presented in an appealing fashion.” - Sean Lawless, Cougar Grounds UH

“Well developed roast profile that brings out the best characteristics of each bean, brewed consistently and served fresh.” - Lesa Wood, Eighth & Roast

Correcting a Bias

After hustling to add these new questions about quality to the live survey, we realized we might have biased coffee shop customers when answering the question, “What does quality mean to you?”. We asked  this question right after asking about the tasting characteristics most important to them (unique flavors, mouthfeel, and aftertaste), which may be the reason why we saw so many answers about flavor and taste.

To hear more feedback from customers on what quality coffee meant to them, we turned to the Handground Content Team. The Content Team contributes to the Handground Grind section by posing topics to write about and contributing their collective years worth of experience to the articles.

We showed the Content Team six real responses from customers to the question, “What does quality mean to you?”, and asked them to choose the response they most agreed with. Surprisingly, the Content Team chose two responses that weren’t even in the top 5 for the customers who took the original survey:

  • Consistency
  • Overall coffee shop experience

The Content Team chose higher-level factors as opposed to the taste characteristics of the coffee. These definitions are similar to what we saw from coffee shop professionals, which might mean customers and coffee shops are more aligned in how they perceive “quality” than we first thought.

How do Coffee Shops Create “Quality”?

Coffee cupping at Blanchard's Coffee
The team at Blanchard's Coffee Roasting conduct a coffee cupping. Photo by

Successful coffee shops focus on the quality of their product above all else. So far we’ve learned that “quality” includes unique flavors, balanced body, pleasant aftertaste, consistency, and overall coffee shop experience. How do coffee shops achieve this broad definition of quality on a consistent basis?

We asked coffee professionals what factor they thought contributed most to creating quality cups of coffee in their shop. They responded heavily in favor of one factor:

Barista training

How could this be? With tens of thousands of dollars worth of specialized equipment in coffee shops, and trips to all corners of the world to source the best beans, why does quality boil down to how well a shop trains its baristas?

Baristas impact every factor that coffee shop customers deem most important for quality: taste, consistency, and coffee shop experience. As the last hands to touch the coffee before it reaches the customer, baristas can literally make or break the customer experience with that drink.

How do coffee shops train their staff to consistently provide quality coffee? We asked this question too. We compiled the best advice from coffee shops professionals on barista training.

Word to the wise coffee shop owner: This is not a full training program, but rather ideas and tips you can take back to your shop to improve your existing training program. Read them, steal them, and use them to deliver higher quality coffee to your customers.

Tips for Coffee Shop Barista Training

Get baristas certified through the BGA

“At Pablo's we have a very robust training and certification program. All employees are members of the Barista Guild of America and are in various stages of obtaining their BGA Certification; over half of our staff is at this point Level 1 Certified by the BGA! By adding value to the work that we do through creating a transferable skill set, increasing staff knowledge and enthusiasm, and creating a true career out of the barista pathway, we are more effective at meeting the needs of our customers in an increasingly high-quality market.” 

- Jason Cain, Pablo's Coffee, Denver CO

Hire intentionally

“It's not necessarily a technique. We spend a lot of time on hiring/selection and training. Every potential barista has to go through a phone screen, a group interview (with 2 interviewers and 10-30 interviewees), a panel interview (with 3-4 interviewers), and a shop interview (focused on service). The potential barista must be interviewed by at least 5 current employees and every employee must sign off on the applicant. If any employee says no, the applicant is not hired. Then, our training takes 75-90 hours that includes customer service, our mission, our culture, basic cafe operations, barback duties, register training, drink training, practice shifts, and an evaluation shift.” 

- Salvador Sanchez,  A Cup of Common Wealth and Magic Beans Coffee Roasters, Lexington, KY, USA

Host a “Barista Bootcamp”

“Recently, we realized our staff was becoming disconnected as we have hired 12 new baristas in the past 6 months. To address this, we created a "barista bootcamp" which allows us to send our top 10 potential hires through a three-day coffee and customer service course. Through this program we create a fun, yet competitive, environment where our baristas show their ability to learn necessary skills. Through our training process our employees have become much more motivated and proficient at their jobs in every way!”
- David Adkins, Arrow Coffee Company, Manhattan, KS, USA

Train new barista at the cafe AND the roaster

“Training is led by our managers and then after their first week they are sent to our roaster for training. Before they are alone in front of a customer, our baristas have had almost 40 hours of paid training.”

- United By Blue Coffeehouse & Clothier, Philadelphia, PA, USA

Focus on “Why” your shop does what it does

“We measure everything and create systems for baristas to follow. Then in training, we focus a lot on them learning "why" we do things how we do so that they understand both the ‘how’ and the ‘why’.”

- Matthew Scott

Never discourage employees

“Never discourage your employees - always make your criticism constructive so they may not be afraid to learn and ask questions. The most meaningful lessons are made through mistakes. By allowing employees to make mistakes and spinning it to a positive situation, they will be driven to do the best they can do without fear of messing up which makes it easier for everyone to learn and make quality coffee.”

- Minnie Antonio, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Do coffee cuppings and customer service skits

“Communication is huge in our shop. The staff write down specs for all of our drinks to track what's tasting the best. We have frequent Coffee Meetings where we cup current coffees, work on pourover techniques, and dial in espresso. It's also a great time to talk a skit the challenges of customer service. We also have a private Facebook page that we use to communicate with each other as well. Is a fast way to get info to everyone at once.”

-Misha Neidorfler, Morsels Espresso+ Edibles, Traverse City, MI, USA

Cup Rigorously

“We cup our coffees rigorously, from the sourcing stage, through profiling, to marketing strategy and throughout the time the green coffee is available to ensure the quality is high and our presentation is accurate.”

-Stephen T. Robertson, Blanchard's Coffee Roasting Co., Richmond, Virginia, USA

“We have weekly staff cuppings so everyone is up-to-date on the flavor profiles of the coffees on offer. After cupping we can more accurately reflect the best qualities of each coffee as we transition from the cupping lab to the coffee bar.”
- David Mugg, Washington, D.C., USA

Encourage baristas to share skills and knowledge

“We constantly ask roasters and baristas to share their knowledge with us and routinely hold coffee/espresso workshops to keep our skills fresh.”

-Ben Hernandez, Oak Lawn Coffee, Dallas, TX, USA

Never stop practicing

“Practice. never assuming we know it all or are finished learning....always striving and perfecting the art & science of coffee. ” 

-Scott Conary, Owner, Caffe Driade, Chapel Hill, NC, USA

Employ a Coffee Educator

“We employ an educator at each location who is responsible for diligent contact with each coffee. They are the person on the ground who report to the Dir. of Coffee and Dir, of Roasting. It includes providing feedback on a tasting notes document shared with all of the stores.”

- Amanda Byron, Joe Coffee Company, New York, USA

Reward training with pay raises

“When we hire, it takes at least a month for even the most experienced barista to get in a flow of work and people to make sure the relationship piece will work. Then our training program meets the barista where they are and works with them to the point of confidence with taking a written and practical test. Once they have passed these tests, they can begin pulling shots and making drinks for customers. The next stage of development comes with our partner/roaster, Counter Culture Coffee. Each barista is encouraged to become certified with Counter Culture within the first year. Each of these marks ensure a pay raise and the fun/growth of baristas continues as a part of their job.” 

- Jay Weatherly, High Five Coffee, Asheville, NC

Creating Quality Coffee

Coffee shops agree that staff training is the most important thing to create quality coffee, but how you train is important too. The common theme from the tips above is that “one-time training” is not enough. Baristas and staff should be constantly challenged to hone their palettes, techniques, and customer service skills.

The lesson we learned from the Barista Magazine survey is simple: Quality is still king, no matter how cool the shop space, how shiny the equipment, or how high fast the wifi. When it comes to running a successful coffee shop, nothing can replace a commitment to excellence at every step of the quality chain, from sourcing, roasting, brewing, to serving.


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