First of all, I'm a newbie to espresso. Although I've had many lattes throughout the years, most have been mochas. I tired of paying $5 for way too much sugar and way too little coffee flavor so I bought an espresso machine. Hey, you don't need 30g of sugar in a latte or a capp! In fact, you don't need any sugar at all. Hmmm. Then I went to a Coffee Fest here in Minneapolis. Wow. First time I had a shot of (multiple shots, really) of espresso that wasn't bitter. I was blown away how good espresso could taste. I don't mind a bit of bitter, but most of the shops here have terrible espresso. (There are a few excellent exceptions, Kopplin's, Rustica.)
Now, to the point. I sorta want to interview the barista when I check out a new shop. Do you drink espresso, do you adjust the grind daily, how many shots do you pour out a day? I don't know how you could pull a good shot if you don't like the taste of espresso. It's not my style to be confrontational. I went to a shop the other day and was served a 6oz "double." I couldn't choke it down. Took 4 or 5 sips and left. I'm sure most connoisseurs would dump 75% of the shots I pull. I probably dump 20% of mine.
What should I say to not come off like a jerk? How about if they ask me, how was it? I have my doubts about asking them to remake a shot. If they're over-extracting a double to 6oz, what are the odds they'll pull a good one the second time?

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Basically, you're just trying to assess whether your barista and you are on the same page when it comes to quality. I have a few coffee snob customers who are really picky, but really, they just know what they like and aren't afraid to ask for it.

You might start by saying nicely "I'm a bit of a coffee snob, and pretty picky about my coffee. You could say you just got an espresso machine at home and you've been learning about pulling shots. How do they pull them? Do they adjust the grind? How fast do you like the shots to come out? And then just make it like you're comparing notes. WHen the coffee is done, you could give them a mini review of it, say, "it's a little bitter, so maybe you should do this next time." Of course this might be difficult to do if there's a line, but just take the approach that you're a newbie and you want to learn.
I understand where you're coming from man. I can't tell you the number of times I've had a bad shot and wanted to walk around the counter and be like "look, this shot shouldn't be ready in 5 seconds! Do you even know what you're doing?!" but alas, my brain kicks in and I regain my composure. I just wouldn't want to seem like an a**hole, but at the same time I feel like I could give them good advice. On the other hand, if some guy came up to me and said I served him a terrible shot and he wanted to give me advice, I can't say that I'd be grateful. It's a tough situation. I suggest maybe getting to know the baristas if possible. become a regular and that way it will be easier to approach them about it. the bad part is you may have to suffer through some bad shots haha.

Also one thing I notice alot is that there are usually one or two baristas at a shop who can pull a good shot, while the rest tend to pull terrible shots. That's a training issue that I won't get into on your post. Good luck
Yikes Jeff.....I think anyone that is paying 5 bucks for a drink should expect it to be good. It's not the customers fault that the shop is busy and the barista doesn't get paid much. If its undrinkable then ask them nicely if they would kindly pull another one for you. If they don't do it then ask for your money back. The only way most of them will ever know its bad is when customers complain. I haven't turned back but a few in my life but when I did they were more than happy to give it another try.
Boy do I feel your pain!

Where I work, there are five of us who try to do a good job. The rest don't care. The chain doesn't care. All they care about is the cash register.

My advice to customers who aren't happy with what they get from us on different shifts is to ask for it to be done properly.

When I have the time, I like to ask my espresso customers just exactly how long they like it. Same for adding steamed milk...some like a dash, others like a mini-cap. Fine by me, just tell me and I'll try to do the best I can.
As you are seeing, this is not an uncommon problem.

I think there are two scenarios - a) you are trying out a new shop, or b) you are contemplating trying to fix your neighborhood one.

In both scenarios, I think it is difficult to change what the barista is doing. I'd venture to guess that one of our collective least-favorite things is the smirking know-it-all customer. Regardless of how solid your technique and product, someone that just started at the chain store around the corner will wander in from time to time and act like a jerk. Even if you happen to be a customer that knows what you are talking about and are trying to help, you will probably be dismissed as being "that guy". For this reason, I personally don't attempt to correct technique. I would love to see some more suggestions for how to get the point across though.

My approach when wandering in to a new, unknown shop is to hang out for a second and assess the situation before ordering. No interview necessary. I have a couple of red flags, and if I see any of them I'll go for a small drip. My red flags include:
Dirty steamwands.
Milk pitchers with thermometers in them, sitting half-full on the machine or counter.
Full dosers.
Espresso misspelled on the menu board.
Auto steam wands in use.

There are a couple of others that I can't think of right now, but you get the idea...

I also watch a couple of drinks before stepping to the counter. How do the shots look? How does the milk sound?

I have been known to just leave as well... if your steamwand is brown, nothing good can come of the experience. I work too hard for my money...

My 2 cents.
Look, I'm a barista and I'm not a fan of customers telling me how to do my job. I honestly don't think it's their place. I'm not speaking about creating a discussion or receiving feedback - we all benefit from opening up about what's going on. I'm speaking to the folks who disregard the rights of a business to operate how they choose and assume that everything - service, quality, terminology, standards - will be the same everywhere.

If you bring your concerns to the shops attention in a genuine manner, I'm sure they'll do what they can to try to accommodate you. Keep the expectations real, though. If the shop is serving up 6 oz double espresso, and if the owner isn't a friend, do you really need to let them know they're dropping the ball in your estimation? I'd start looking for another shop.
I face the same predicament as you everytime I'm coerced into drinking coffee at other coffee shops. I'm just luckier because I know what to look for because of my experience.

For me, I tend to watch the barista, watch the drinks being served and looking for details that tell me whether or not I will wade into the waters and order espresso, coffee or iced tea. Nine times out of ten, it's iced tea.

First thing I check out is the flow. The volume. Are they busy? Then, it's the grinder hopper. Is the ground hopper full or have a pile of ground coffee in it? That means the coffee is staling. If that's filled, I'll pass on the espresso. If not, I see if their using acceptable dosing, distribution and tamping techniques. Then I try to see how fast their shots time. But more importantly, I'm looking at the cups of the people in front of me. Do they look good?

Also, I'm calculating the cleanliness and appearance of the barista and staff. Does the place look safe to eat? Are they following acceptable sanitary practices? Did the barista shower? Comb his hair? Scratch his balls?

Usually I just order iced tea...

Also, I wanted to add that I don't usually share my thoughts with the barista, manager or whomever - even if they ask. Because most people don't want to hear it. They don't want to hear the negative or bad. Even myself, someone who champions everyday with my customers my desire to hear the bad, I dislike hearing it, but force myself to listen and learn.
My approach would involve the following four things:

1. Buy a little moleskine/notebook with and use it for notes every time I try a new set of shots.. Be they God shots or Dogshots, try them and evaluate them , what do they taste like, if you gets notes of "tire fire" write it down. Whats the body like, any sweetness, bitterness, any tones that are pleasant in there, watery... write it down.

2. Write it off as a learning experience, 2 dollars for a terrible set of shots is pretty annoying but two dollars for a learning experience is much easier to handle and a much better investment in an untried shop.

3. Talk to the barista, for sure, I've got a few questions that I ask in these situations. I usually start with something like "What kind of coffee are you working with?" And Then let the conversation unfold. I typically don't tell people that I work in coffee because they can get a little weird / defensive about it. If they ask you how it was, be honest. Be polite but be honest. Don't tell them how to fix it because that's not what they asked. At best you've made a connection and have an opportunity to help them down the road once you've developed a worst you know that you're not headed back.

4. Finally, what you've admitted is that your new to the scene and have a long way to go. I would remember this whenever I walk up to someone else's bar and consider offering correction. Believe it or not there may be instances where you could learn a thing or two from a barista who pulls a 6 oz espresso.
Thanks for all of your replies. Like I said, I usually just walk after a crapresso. Excellent espresso takes talent and attention, decent espresso takes attention, bad espresso, hmmm, a lack of effort or training?
I think Brady gave some excellent advice. But the place that gave me the el grande double had their own roaster, great reviews on Yelp! (albeit none mentioned their espresso). The barista seemed enthusiastic at the fact that I wanted espresso. The point that was missed by everyone was, what do I say if they ask how was it? "Fine!" and skedaddle? Just stare at the ground and shuffle my shoes?
If they ask, answer truthfully. Reminds me of an experience while attending a major kite festival a couple years ago. There were two different espresso carts. While I traveled with espresso machine and grinder in my hotel room while out on the beach all day thought a shot would be nice. Went to the first cart and ordered a double espresso. She pulled two shots from the same portafilter build! Obviously especially the 2nd pull through the PF ran totally watery. (Lever machine) I was kind of shocked and then asked if she could make it without pulling the coffee twice. She said no, that's the way they were supposed to make a double. I refused the drink, walked away and didn't pay. Went to the second cart and ordered a double espresso. Her eyes lit up ground fresh to build the shot and pulled. Then she dumped the shot and started again apologizing it didn't look quite right. I thanked her for a great job and tipped her well. Oh, the shot was quite decent. And I returned to the second cart a number of times during the weekend.
Chris/Dale said some stuff that included this little snippet:
...If they ask you how it was, be honest. Be polite but be honest. Don't tell them how to fix it because that's not what they asked. At best you've made a connection and have an opportunity to help them down the road once you've developed a worst you know that you're not headed back.

This isn't something I've given a lot of thought to, since (as I said) I usually don't critique baristas that I'm not training. Maybe a good way to approach it would be to speak in terms of your preferences, as opposed to absolutes of technique? For example, when the barista asks you if you are enjoying your 6oz espresso that pulled in 15 seconds, what if your reply was along the lines of "I really prefer the flavor of espressos that are pulled alot shorter and slower using that same amount of coffee."? Perhaps they will offer to make it that way for you, perhaps not. This at least makes the discussion about your preferences and not your barista's technique.

Though this probably wouldn't work any better.
i think you have every right to let the barista know what is expected in a tactful and kind tone. in what other industry is this level of incompetence tolerated? if a microbrewery was charging $4.50 for carbonated water that had been sitting open for 3 weeks, its patrons would be IRATE. why is coffee different?

if someone handed me a 6 oz. 15 second double, i would tactfully ask them (in a tone that suggested i cared about their business succeeding) if they knew the SCAA's definition of espresso was a 20-30 second 60ml shot. i don't think it's rude or intrusive to expect something within the national coffee body's standards. if you ordered a $30 t-bone at a restaurant, and you got a charred bit of jerky and gristle, that is unacceptable. yet a 6 oz. 15 second espresso pull is acceptable? the situation is never going to get better unless we make the standard known.

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