Don't even think about adding nondairy creamer.
Photo: David Sifry/Flickr
Buying a cup of coffee has become a lot more complicated in the last half decade. Yes, you can still run into a diner, or a convenience store, or even a Starbucks and get your usual, but a new breed of specialty roaster that respects every aspect of the coffee-making process — from the welfare of the folks who grow the fruit to the technical skill of the crew crafting your cortado — has changed the rules, for the businesses and for customers.
This level of care and skill doesn’t come cheap. It’s not uncommon to pay $5 for a cup of top-tier coffee at places like Stumptown, Intelligentsia, Four Barrel, or Verve. The added cost is worth it, of course, for people who care about the quality of their coffee — comparing a Starbucks latte to a Blue Bottle SG-120 is like comparing a dollar-menu cheeseburger from McDonald’s to a Black Label burger from Minetta Tavern — but plenty of others are deterred not only by premium pricing but also, and perhaps more importantly, what they perceive to be added hassle of just buying a damn cup of coffee.
Some of that is the shops’ fault. Most of these establishments, “third wave” shops in industry parlance, aren’t exactly inviting. Cold surfaces, a lack of WiFi, spartan trappings, crazy instrumentation, long lines because of the extra time it takes to make specialty coffee drinks, and menus that are difficult to decipher if you aren’t already a coffee snob are just some of the hallmarks of this new breed of coffee bar. (Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema called a new Blue Bottle location in New York, “the most pretentious coffee bar in town.”)
But still: There is nothing quite like a perfectly executed Hair Bender macchiato from Stumptown. So what can you do to adapt to the new breed of coffee shop and achieve a sort of coffee-buying Zen?
The key is changing your thinking about what a coffee bar is. Approach it less as a daily refueling station — we wouldn’t even suggest going in the morning if all you want is a caffeine fix — and more in the same way you would a bar bar. And just like saddling up at your favorite cocktail joint, there’s protocol you need to keep in mind if you want to be welcomed as a regular.
It starts with respecting the barista. The familiar trope of the agitated slacker pulling shots is, thankfully, passé. “There was definitely a good chunk of time where baristas brought an F.U. mentality behind the bar,” says Ryan Knapp, co-founder and competitive barista at MadCap Coffee in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “But there’s a way to diplomatically communicate instead of being snotty. That’s one of the nuanced details of being a professional. We are really making an effort to steer away from that.” Mike Hudson, creative director at Handsome Roasters in Downtown L.A., adds that getting chatty with a barista is “sort of like talking to a chef when they’re cooking — they need to focus, especially when executing at a high level. It’s a learned skill to snap between casual conversation and precise execution of a task.”
There’s also the obvious stuff: Leave the laptop at home, tip well ($1/drink is coffee industry standard, too), and most importantly, don’t order anything that requires hazelnut syrup or grated cinnamon sprinkled on top. Get rid of extraneous gunk — artificial sweeteners, flavored syrups, that nondairy creamer — in order to get a drink that lets the flavor of the fruit shine. Some purveyors of specialty coffee, like Handsome (which is opening its first New York location any day now), don’t even offer sugar or dairy substitutes. Using stuff like that is just gilding the lily. You wouldn’t glop a spoonful of tartar sauce on Le Bernardin’s striped-bass tartare, would you?
So, what to actually drink? There is, of course, a scratch pad of industry drinks that will tip your barista off to your general interest in heightened coffee culture. “The Gibraltar [a 4.5 oz. espresso-and-milk combo] is finally appearing on menus, but for a long time it’s been an off-menu, industry sort of drink,” says Joshua Lurie, coffee writer and founder of Food GPS. “It’s a cross between a macchiato and a cappuccino, and is served in a specific type of glass tumbler that makes it easy for baristas to drink quickly on their shift.” Of course, as with bartenders, you can always (quickly) ask the barista what drink they’re liking these days.
Next up, realize that the added cost isn’t all about the Japanese siphon or La Marzocca GS3 the staff is using to make the coffee. “There are different labor costs at each different stage of growing, processing, roasting, and brewing,” says Lurie. “Picking the cherries when they’re actually ripe instead of sweeping through the plantation no matter what stage the fruit is at requires going through the field multiple times throughout the season. And don’t forget about the cost of getting it to America.”
Lastly, don’t linger. There’s a reason why a place like Intelligentsia Venice Beach doesn’t offer heaps of cushy seating. By all means sit and enjoy your (expertly made) drink, but save the script-writing sessions (and the Bluetooth chatter that comes with them) for the Starbucks that’s inevitably down the street. “We aren’t opposed to anyone working here,” Hudson says. “But we want to create a space where people are coming in pairs and having real conversations.”
Yes, it would be easier if some third-wave shops hedged at least a little bit to what the coffee-buying public masses wanted (comfy chairs, outlets for laptops), but the hard line they draw against such Starbuckian things is part of their appeal, and respecting the nature of a shop, instead of trying to force your skinny-vanilla-latte-loving ways on it and its staff, will pay off in the end. You might even get a smile out of your barista.
Related: The Iced-Coffee Economy: Why the Cold Stuff Costs More