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I worked as a Starbucks barista for over a year. Here are 9 signs you're about to get a bad drink.

Dylan Clair   

I worked as a Starbucks barista for over a year. Here are 9 signs you're about to get a bad drink.
  • I worked at Starbucks for over a year, and sometimes mistakes or miscommunications can ruin drinks.
  • Some red flags to look out for are frantic baristas, loud steam wands, and "dead" espresso shots.

Whether it's the wrong order or the right one made wrong, spending (a little too much) money on a disappointing Starbucks drink can really set the tone for the rest of your day.

A bad drink isn't always avoidable — mistakes happen to everyone. But sometimes the signs are flashing in front of your face, and you can adjust your expectations or get the heck out of there before you waste your time and money.

As someone who worked as a Starbucks barista for over a year, here are some of the biggest red flags to look out for.

Good drinks aren't made by frantic baristas

Food service isn't for everyone. It can be physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding work.

Although even the most experienced barista can have an off day, generally you want to see the person making your drinks in a calm, cool, and collected manner.

If they seem overwhelmed, they're most likely not thinking clearly. And if the barista is visibly panicked, there's a greater chance of them making a mistake.

Loud steam wands aren't really a great sign if you want a drink with dairy milk

If I walk into a coffee shop and hear a loud scream coming from the espresso machine, I know immediately not to order anything using foamed or steamed milk.

Steaming milk for lattes and cappuccinos is a skill. Starbucks makes it a little easier with automatic machines and built-in thermometers, but there's still room for error.

Although a screaming noise often occurs when using nondairy milk, it can also indicate that the barista didn't aerate the milk enough before plunging the steam wand into the pitcher. Leaving it unaerated can scald the milk, which doesn't make for a good latte.

If you want to listen for the "right" sounds, for dairy milk, it should be like tearing paper for one to eight seconds (depending on the drink), and then a gentle bubbling until the steam turns off.

There shouldn't be an 'out of place' barista doing menial tasks during a rush

Depending on the time of day, you might see a handful of baristas behind the counter at Starbucks.

When it's slower, you'll often see some of the employees in the cafe cleaning up, restocking merchandise, or doing other side tasks. But if there's a huge line and you see someone restocking mugs — that's a recipe for an overwhelmed barista stuck making drinks for frustrated and impatient customers.

If you've ever had to pick up the slack (and the blame) for a coworker, I'm sure you can guess how that story ends.

It's a gamble ordering most drip coffees in the afternoon

Starbucks' brewed coffee is bad. There, I said it.

Taste is subjective, so if you're the kind of person who loves instant coffee or store brand, then Starbucks' roasts might be the creme de la creme for you. But between the overall quality of the beans and the brewing process used in cafes, I think it leaves much to be desired.

But even if the coffee is your jam, your timing can make all the difference between a potable cup of joe and the taste of regret.

Starbucks sees most of its business before 10 a.m., so many stores stop brewing more than one kind of coffee before noon. That generally means that the medium Pike Place roast is brewed all day, but blonde, dark, decaf, and specialty roasts are only brewed as needed in the afternoon.

Pots of drip coffee are supposed to be dumped and brewed fresh every 30 minutes, but I can tell you from experience that doesn't always happen. Whether the barista didn't want to waste a full pot or just forgot to set the timer, if you order a drip in the afternoon, there's a much higher chance of getting a stale cup of already-mediocre coffee.

But if you want to ensure that you're getting a fresh cup in the afternoon, you can just ask the barista to have an individual pour-over made.

Shots of espresso shouldn't be sitting on the counter for several minutes

There's a lot of debate among baristas and coffee lovers about whether a shot of espresso can actually "die," and how long it takes for that to happen.

A big myth is that shots can die (lose their flavor and texture) in a matter of seconds. But generally, an espresso shot from somewhere like Starbucks will taste pretty much the same immediately after it's poured as it will five minutes later.

Still, like most things, espresso is best served immediately. Although it isn't the standard practice at Starbucks — shots are supposed to be poured into beverages immediately — if you happen to notice a barista pulling shots and letting them sit for more than a minute or two, that's not a great sign.

It's not always wise to mobile-order a drink with cold foam or shaken espresso

Cold-foam cold brews have boomed in popularity over the past few years — pumpkin cold foam, Irish-cream cold foam, almond milk-honey cold foam, the list goes on.

I think it can be a crapshoot as to whether a barista can make good cold foam to begin with, but the biggest mistake you can make is ordering the drink too early.

If you use the Starbucks mobile app to order ahead, I wouldn't recommend getting anything with cold foam until you're at the store or in the parking lot. Luckily the app shows an estimate for how long your order is going to take, so it's easier to get your timing right.

The longer these drinks sit, the more the foam can start to melt or weep into the rest of the drink. A little mixing can taste nice, but you lose the texture of the cold foam, which is a delight in itself.

The same principle applies to any shaken espresso drink. Shaking the espresso adds lots of air and gives the drink volume and flavor. Letting it sit for too long means the espresso loses all of that, and you're left with a less satisfying drink.

You might be adding or subtracting the wrong ingredient from your order

A lot of Starbucks drinks have pretty straightforward recipes, but some of them have surprising ingredients that make a big difference.

The most common example of this is the caramel macchiato. When customers want a sweeter drink, they often ask for extra caramel drizzle. But the vanilla syrup is actually what gives the drink its sweetness.

Adding more drizzle will make it taste more caramelly and definitely add a sugar hit, but you'll also wind up with a lump of caramel at the bottom of your cup.

In general, if you're not happy with how a drink tastes, try to pinpoint what you don't like about it and just ask your barista what you can do to fix it.

If your barista looks confused by your order, you might not be using the right language

Starbucks (and coffee in general) has a language all its own.

I can't tell you how many different ways I've heard someone try to describe a strawberry-acai refresher or a caramel macchiato. And countless customers have ordered a frappe instead of a Frappuccino.

Most baristas are used to these simple mistakes, and we can usually figure out what you mean. But if you order something and the barista looks at you with confusion or tries to ask you a lot of clarifying questions, you might not be using the right language to order your drink.

If they can't even understand what you want, how can you expect to get it made correctly?

There's really no reason to be rude to your barista, and politeness might get you a better drink

A lot of the time, the way to ensure a great drink is by showing your barista a little patience and kindness.

A barista will pretty much never make a bad drink on purpose, but they will definitely take extra care when making a drink for a kind regular or a customer who politely asks for help.

If after everything you aren't happy with your drink, don't be afraid to ask the barista to remake it. It's Starbucks' policy to make the moment right — just don't be rude about it.

A Starbucks spokesperson responded to Insider's request for comment with an official statement on the company's policy:

"Since our earliest days, Starbucks has been the leader in coffee quality and the coffeehouse experience. A part of the Starbucks Experience, we are committed to delivering the highest quality beverages and take great care in ensuring each one of our customers' beverages is expertly crafted to their liking. If a customer is not satisfied with their hand-crafted beverage, our baristas will be happy to remake the beverage and make the moment right for the customer."

This story was originally published in December 2021 and most recently updated on February 28, 2024.

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