Serious Eats: Drinks

Would You Send an Espresso Back?

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The offending shot. (No, I won't tell you where it's from.) [Photograph: Meister]

Sometimes I think it's possible that the world is made of two types of people: Those who would send a dish back to the kitchen, and those who wouldn't. There seems to be a pretty distinct line drawn between the two camps, and nary a soul ventures across that line.

Among the foods and beverages that fall under the "could send this back, if you were the type" category—steaks or burgers under- or overcooked, eggs the wrong way, a cocktail poorly mixed or out of balance—does coffee have a place? I'm talking specifically about individually prepared coffees, such as espresso or a pour-over. When the resulting cup isn't what you've expected, should you—and would you—be able to send it back?

My squeeze, who's bolder than I am, is a very polite sender-backer: His service background (8 years a waiter; 10 years a bartender) ensures that he never takes it out on the server, but he's not above pointing out a grey center in a steak he asked for medium rare, or a cocktail that doesn't meet his expectations.

Me? I've definitely chewed and sipped my way through food and drinks made poorly, or not made to particular specifications. (Worse when they are specifications the server asks for, such as how well-done a piece of meat. And yes, I'm guilty of asking my squeeze to do the sending-back on my behalf.) Whether out of shyness or frustration, I'm not sure, but I do know one thing: Mr. Meister is far more likely to return to a place where he has repaired an undercooked burger or mistaken cocktail than I am if I was disappointed but didn't speak up.

Enter the coffee-shop: Coffee relies as much on the care and skill of the person preparing it as cocktails do, and when you walk into a gas station or a super-grungy dive bar, you basically know what you can expect from the coffee or the martinis they serve there. When you step into a specialty café or a bespoke cocktail lounge, you expect a different level of execution. So what do you do when the product falls flat?

Here's an example: A few weeks ago, I met a friend at a new café I'd been meaning to try. The coffee is by a roaster I respect, whose beans I have really enjoyed in the past. The shop itself was cute and comfortable, playing great music and offering great food. The espresso I ordered, however, was among one of the worst I've ever had: It was overpriced (I paid for a double but was given a single: I know because I watched the other half of the espresso run down the drain), ran far too long, had zero crema, and was watery, bitter, and presented without apology.

Everything about the coffee shop indicated to me that care was taken in the design and the products sourced and even the staffing. The coffee could have been a mistake, or it could have been the shop's signature—either way, it's not what I expected, and certainly wasn't what I wanted. (Or, in my opinion, paid for.)

Were I at a bar with my friend instead of at a coffee shop, and had ordered a glass of wine that was corked or a Manhattan that was too heavy on the vermouth, it would be acceptable for me to politely ask for a replacement (even if I am not typically so inclined). But could I with an espresso, or a cappuccino, or a cup of hand-dripped coffee? If the answer is no: Why not?

First of all, judging from the barista's technique, I can fairly assume that the second shot would be no better than the first. That's obvious. But even when the problem is less obviously a case of bad practices—say, the shot was a little long or a little short, the cappuccino had too much foam, the dripped coffee was too weak—there seems to be some unspoken rule against asking the barista to make good on your expectations.

Second, there's an implied no-negotiations policy at cafés, just like the one that exists at the dive bar and the gas station. Part of comes with the understanding of coffee as fuel: When you simply need caffeine to get you through your morning, you're less inclined to care how it tastes. (Your car doesn't complain about the gas you put in it.)

Another part of it comes with the WYSIWYG style that most coffee service comes in: Get in line, place your order, step aside, receive your drink, leave. At a bar or a restaurant, you have more time and more of an interaction with someone involved in the preparation and service of the product. You tell the bartender (not a cashier) what drink you want, and maybe how you like it.

At a café, there's also the potential for your complaint to gum up everybody's works: Drinks are prepared in a line, and that line comprises mostly people who are trying to get somewhere with their coffee. To interrupt it by asking for a replacement or an explanation about the quality (or lack thereof) of your drink takes some gumption.

All this being considered, however, I still wonder about the possibility of saying to a barista, "You know, this shot is really underextracted. Would you mind making it again?" There's never any guarantee—in a restaurant, in a bar, in a coffee shop—that what comes out as a replacement or a fix is any better than the offending dish, but without sending it back, that potential is nonexistent.

From a customer's point of view, I can see why it might not seem worth it: A coffee drink doesn't come with the $10 or $15 investment of a cocktail or dinner entrée, and so what's one mediocre $5 experience in the grand scheme, right? There's also the possibility of the barista snarking or eye-rolling: Baristas do have that reputation in some circles, which is a shame but too often true.

From a barista's point of view, I would so much rather a customer bring an unsatisfactory drink back to me than never see that person again and risk a potential regular sale. A few missed $5 drinks rack up pretty quickly when you're running the day's reports. It would also mean a lot more to me as a coffee and hospitality professional to know that a customer felt comfortable enough with me to bring their concerns or preferences to me in a polite, calm way, and trust me to make it right. That is way more empowering than seeing a description of me tacked up onto a Yelp review.

So what say you: To send back or not to send back the coffee or espresso? Does coffee play by all together different rules from other comestibles? Have you ever gone back to a café where you had a coffee bad enough to warrant complaint—that is, if you were the complaining type?

Sound off in the comments.

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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