The Art of Ordering Coffee
What else you gonna do? Grow a beard and open a coffee shop? It’s certainly of our time and place. But why? Perhaps it’s an attempt to live a more authentic life -absent cubicles and TPS reports. It also sits firmly at the nexus of art, craft, science and business. So many levels to nerd out on and completely emotionally vest with. But it’s also a bit of a land grab, the breadth of what’s possible in coffee is just beginning to be shown. As new vistas are discovered a sort of gold rush is happening where everyone’s trying to stake a claim and be the first to exclaim ‘eureka’ and plant their flag.
I say this because as America goes through the various waves of coffee -with its first wave of drip a la percolators and Mr. Coffees, and its second wave of a slightly Americanized version of a Continental European espresso based coffee experience vis-a-vis Starbucks, to its third wave and beyond with coffee experienced more like wine, with its emphasis on farms, terroir, and varietals; with tasting notes that rival the best 90+ point wines. This land grab of the third wave means that there are a lot of coffee shops out there trying to provide people coffee experiences that people may not even know they want yet. As an aside, coffee has 800 to 900 aromatic and flavor compounds that contribute to the taste of the cup, whereas wine has only 300 to 400 such compounds. Third wave coffee is an exploration of those 800 to 900 compounds -an effort to accentuate and highlight -not mute and carbonize.
So to make way for broader coffee experiences, here are my top 5 do’s and don’ts when visiting a third wave coffee shop. How do you tell it’s third wave or not? Look for these markings: facial hair – on the boys, not the girls, tattoos, ear gauges, sock hats, spare or extremely paired down menus, one size drink orders, lots of details about the coffee, unusual brewing appariti, and reclaimed wood.
Don’t place your order by looking at the menu and then saying ‘I just want a cup of coffee’. First, that is all these shops serve is coffee. Imagine doing the same thing in a wine store. Every coffee is unique, a snowflake if you will. By asking for ‘just a cup of coffee’ you’re negating the entire existence of such specialty coffee shops. Depending on the disposition at the counter you’re essentially beyond saving. You know who has ‘just a cup of coffee’ -the gas station down the street. Instead, tell them that you’ve heard wonderful things about their shop and would love to have a beautiful cup of coffee and ask them what they would recommend.
Don’t order decaf. If your body can’t handle caffeine you need to listen to it and not pervert the seed of a beautiful fruit. Sometimes just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something -like decaffeinate coffee. Caffeine is part of the package. No one orders non-alcoholic wine. If you’re in a specialty coffee shop, understand that they take the coffee very seriously, and decaf is not Cinderella at the ball, but instead the troll that lives under the bridge.
Don’t order an Americano. It’s typically not a good drink. It was developed when first wave coffee drinking American GI’s found themselves in Europe during two World Wars looking for drip coffee but instead only finding espresso machines, allowances had to be made and the clearest path was to water down and dilute the espresso. In a modern third wave cafe, you have both espresso based drinks and filter based drinks, both are optimally tuned as is.
Do order from the menu. A menu means (hopefully) that the people that run the shop have expended time and effort to develop the drinks on it -tasting them, dialing them in, and setting quality control stands for each drink. Not ordering from the menu disrespects the experience the shop is trying to create. It further demonstrates a narrow-mindedness on the orderer’s part and limits the possibility of having a transcendent coffee experience.
Do ask the person at the counter to go over the menu or make a suggestion. Any one in coffee worth a salt should be able to, much like a good sommelier, suggest an appropriate coffee beverage by asking you a feel simple questions, such as what do you normally drink, would you like something hot or cold, do you prefer milk or no milk, do you enjoy prevalent notes of fruit in the cup or do you look for more chocolate, nutty, caramel like notes.
In closing, if you approach a specialty coffee shop like a specialty wine shop and demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to have the experience the shop is trying to put forth, I think you’ll find flexibility and a strong desire on the part of the person behind the counter to demonstrate to you what is special in specialty coffee.
Photography by LesForge