Hearing? Did he say hearing?
Yes, you can hear a good latte. Well, actually you can hear all the parts that make up a good latte.
A great latte is simply a wonderful shot of espresso mixed with some well steamed and frothed milk. You can listen for each part while your barista prepares your drink.
A good shot is freshly ground and well extracted after you order your drink. Weaker coffee places will grind up coffee beans ahead of time to quicken production. Grinding ahead is a bad practice so hearing the grinder go for your drink is the first place to listen for a quality latte (No grinder sound for you, no fresh espresso).
Espresso extraction is the next place to listen for quality. Good coffeehouses and good baristas will vary how long an espresso shot is extracted, but the industry standard is between 20 and 30 seconds. You can hear the water pump engage during your shot extraction. I automatically start counting when I get drinks in other places. Cheap huts often pull very fast shots (say 12 seconds) – this tends to lead to sour under-flavored espresso. So listen while your shot is being made – also watch to see if the barista is keeping on eye on your shot.
Oh my god, no! Yes, a few bad places actually pull shots ahead of time – this is a terrible practice because espresso deteriorates so quickly. If you don’t hear the espresso machine engage for you and they hand you a drink in 20 seconds, then you should find a new coffee place.
Lastly, listen while the barista prepares your milk. You should hear a bit of frothing (air insertion) at the beginning and then hear the gentle swirling sound as the milk rises to the proper temperature. Don’t hear any frothing? (Bad) Is it screaming like a jet plane landing? (Bad) Again, watch the barista … do they just set the pitcher on the milk tray and leave it alone to steam? (Bad)
New employees at Vectors Espresso are always amazed that I can tell how well they are doing even when I am in the back room. I am constantly monitoring them with my ears. You can too. Ask for a demonstration and I can help you learn to “hear a good latte.”
Watch, listen, enjoy!