Navigating a speciality coffee shop

Navigating a speciality coffee shop

June 30, 2015
Cartel Staff
Educational Series

Summer has set in and many of us either travel or have more time to spend indoors.  When it comes to coffee, many of us in the industry have a good idea of where to look, what to look for, and what questions to ask. Although, for most people, specialty shops can be confusing, overwhelming or strange. This is not to say they aren’t that way, but here are some tips for how to navigate specialty coffee shops.


The first thing I scope out in a new space is retail shelves.  Based on the products the shop carries, I can gain an understanding on the philosophy and objectives of the shop. If I see a wall of bags that are filled with various whole bean, single origin options, it is safe to assume that some, if not all, of the coffees are served in some way or another.  I am also able to tell if the shop roasts their own beans or if they have a wholesale partnership with a (or several) roaster. This helps me to keep two questions in mind: "What is on batch brew" and "What is on espresso”.  I keep those questions in my back pocket in case ordering is unclear — it buys some time.

Secondly, I look to see if there is someone waiting to help me at the register.  If there is, I know that the barista at the register will most likely be awaiting my questions, eagerly.  While seeing if the register is occupied, I also look around for small paper menus of whatever sort.  This implies that the shop probably has a rotating selection of origins, signature beverages, and/or roasters. The impermanence of smaller menus makes it easy to change things up regularly without too much hassle.

Always keep in mind that the barista is the biggest expert on the shops offerings. Consider engaging them with questions instead of staring at a menu (I know, eye contact is the worst) — they want to help and won’t steer you wrong. Even if they do not have “your” drink, most baristas are happy to find something that you will love on their menu. 


Processing (or washing) Methods: When coffee is harvested (in the cherry form) it is either dried with the fruit on the bean, allowed to ferment and then be stripped of the fruit, or immediately stripped of the fruit.  These processes are simply defined as Natural, Semi-washed, and Washed. Naturals tend to be very fruit forward, Semi-Washed are usually sweet with some complexity, Washed coffees are complex with emphasized acidity.

Single Origin (or Estate): These coffees are from the same farmer on the same plot of land.  Actual yield size can vary, but the beans are usually a known variety and have endured the same growing conditions.

Blend: Usually a mix of multiple single origin options.  These blends are developed to create consistent experiences with espresso or other coffee offerings.

Signature Drinks: A “coffee cocktail” of sorts.  These drinks may or may not involve coffee, however, they have probably been meticulously crafted with well sourced or thought through ingredients.

Cold Brew: A brewing method that takes more time than brewing coffee hot.  Ground coffee sits in cold or room temperature water for 8-24 hours depending on the shop. This is a great cold option for summer, a lot of shops have it on tap.


Ask your favorite local barista.  The chances are high that we have a small list of shops that you should check out.

Look online.  Yelp is always fairly trustworthy. Apps like Dripper (iOS) have a fairly decent selection of shops. Sites like are always finding the best of the best and writing about them.

This article was originally written by Drew Scharnitzke.