That Coffee Life
Coffee has been a part of my life for longer than I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother making a pot of strong coffee every morning. Every church gathering, school function, and family get-together included a pot of coffee, be it a large silver urn placed on a folding table in the corner or a small glass carafe from the Mr. Coffee maker. This is hardly a unique experience for those growing up in suburban America (or really anywhere in America). What is somewhat distinctive is travelling to two different continents and six different countries before even being old enough to vote, which I was lucky enough to do (coincidentally, the corners of the world I saw are places that ETA connects students with regularly). Through this experience, I was able to see coffee culture from various perspectives, from New Zealand’s obsession with the flat white, which just made it to mainstream America 6 months ago, to the United Kingdom’s well-publicized preference to tea, which leads to a lot of instant coffee. I shudder at the memory of the latter. I saw all these things, but didn’t really consider what they meant in relation to American coffee culture (where large-chain shops are king and a macchiato is twelve to twenty ounces) until I needed some money to pay for college and I got a job as a barista on campus. Several years and two coffee shops later, I still go by that title five mornings a week.
We love coffee here in the States, especially drip coffee. But, as with many things, Europe (and former imperial states) has us beat when it comes to coffee appreciation, a lot of which is based on the sheer longevity of European culture. Americans may like coffee as a way to keep themselves awake, but Europeans have been perfecting how to drink the stuff since the first cafés opened in Venice in the late seventeenth century, almost one hundred years before the American Revolution. Americans really only began to branch out into espresso and milk-based drinks on a daily basis with the emergence of coffee juggernaut Starbucks in the mid-90s, and even then it took about another ten years for it to really make its way to suburban America. Also, Starbucks has a habit of presenting customers with drinks that are only loosely based on the original drink of that name, which the customers then adopt as the name for the new drink. Mom-and-pop café baristas everywhere wring their hands and gnash their teeth and pull their hair out. Perhaps even more unfortunately, this can lead to embarrassing situations for Americans abroad when they order a drink, only to be given something that looks nothing like the drink they get at home. But never fear, for I am here to impart my painstakingly acquired experience, both around the world and here in the States. Over the next few weeks, I will break down some drinks curious customers tend to ask me about.
Before we get to our first drink though, let’s me assure any Starbucks lovers out there, this is not meant to be some sort of rant against the green giant. Taking a drink that seriously is a waste of time. It’s coffee; we’re not curing cancer. This is meant to compare coffee culture around the world and provide some (hopefully) entertaining insight into how the drinks we love came to be what they are today. Starbucks is a cultural touchstone. I mean, Tom Hanks had a whole philosophical rant about it in You’ve Got Mail, and that was in 1998. It is also the McDonald’s of coffee. They’re everywhere; they serve a consistent product; they create demand by withholding product seasonally (e.g. Shamrock shakes and pumpkin spice lattes). None of these are bad things; they’re great for business. But in terms of the accuracy of their drink names, well, there’s a conversation to be had. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our first drink is one of the most simple to make, but the most wildly varying sizes and ratios.
The Americano (or caffè Americano in Italian) is safe to order almost anywhere in Europe and the Commonwealth and you will receive hot water and a double shot of espresso. The volume of the water may change, but generally 2:1 or 3:1 water to espresso ratio is a reasonable expectation. Unless it’s being made with a single origin light roast not usually associated with espresso, in which case the ratio is 1:1 in order to avoid watering down the espresso too much. It seems I was too harsh earlier; Starbucks isn’t the only place that takes liberties with drink nomenclature it seems. Seriously though, for most of the world, an Americano is a way for espresso bars to serve brew-coffee sized drinks to customers that ask for it so it ends up being 8-12 ounces most often. It also is a way to pay homage to America’s love of drip coffee. Although I’m sure the Italians would use a different phase than “pay homage,” but what can I say other than, U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
The Americano is also interesting because no one really knows where the name originated. Over the years I have heard the most popular theory about American G.I.s in World War II diluting the European espresso; Europeans have also told me that it was a way to mock American tourists in Europe in the 70s. There’s probably a bit of truth in both of those. Regardless of where it started, “American coffee” (which is the literal translation of caffè Americano) has become a worldwide favorite for Americans and Europeans alike.
Next week. We’ll be looking at the ever-controversial flat white, as well as the granddaddy of all upscale coffee drinks in America, the cappuccino.
 I am slightly exaggerating here, but every single person I know who works in coffee uttered a sarcastic quip and rolled their eyes when Starbucks released their version of the flat white.