It all just gets so confusing. We’re supposed to get cleverer as we get older but each new year comes around and realisation continues to seep into the widening cracks. Suddenly that mountain of knowledge you carry is nothing but ego and badly-recalled facts; New things happen like flexible phones you can fold up like card-machine receipts, or the electricity company introduces a new “standard rate charge,” adding another row of Kw/h numbers to the quarterly-payment-emotional-breakdown. Or you read something in a science magazine about the theory that every possible eventuality is played out simultaneously, and the information we don’t perceive lumps together to form alternate realities. And then you’re wondering whether you should have drop-kicked the man who tipped his Costa coffee into somebody's bike basket. Because after all, in another universe he would have made the right decision. ["He wouldn’t have gone to Costa." Is the cheap joke I might have made had I not been so wary of seeming arrogant and mildly cretinous like this bunch. ] We are faced with a deluge of uncertain decisions, so much so it can be hard to recognise the important ones.
It’s been a good few months since we changed the big menu board from this:
A lot of people asked why. Why change, why make it harder to understand, why upset everybody ? I just want a coffee. (Which is the same reaction as I had when the last utilities bill arrived.)
Trouble is, people don’t really mean that. When they say they “just want a coffee” what they’re asking for is their personal idea of a coffee, which varies considerably depending on where and when you started drinking coffee. It’s a combination of hard-worn habits and the mystic bewilderment, the shield of “knowledge” employed by Barista cult to reinforce this idea of there being some cachet in making coffee.
Or maybe Sometimes there’s some vain competition when ordering in a bar or restaurant to appear worldly or even worse: “well traveled.” It is lovely that you spent last winter in Cuba but we don’t make Cortaditos. Hey perhaps we do, or at least maybe we make something similar (the 6oz Espresso+milk?) but you’ll never find out because you’re too hung up on using a word you learnt when you spent last April with your cousin in Florence. And you’ll complain to your less traveled friend that you ordered 2 Cappuccini (putting extra emphasis on the plural form) and what has actually arrived is nothing like they made at that little bar round the corner from Piazza Annunziata. In this blind motor-action you’ll order each coffee the same. You’ll keep ordering macchiatos and latte’s and “Capuccinose” because that’s the Pavlovian password that makes the caffeine appear, and you can sit down and breathe a sigh of relief having got through the order without looking foolish. Plus everybody now knows that you’ve been to Italy, or watch Sopranos, and you can go back to worrying about things that actually matter like the new row of numbers on the utility bill.
But what is a Cappuccino? It’s generally thought of as coffee plus one third steamed milk and one third milk foam, Go too foamy or "dry" and you‘ll have very little milk in the cup, too flat and you’ll be wondering if you ordered a “cafe latte”. All of this uncertainty depends on how much volume the espresso takes up before you've even added the milk and what the person in charge of the steam wand thinks is 'too foamy'. So Why have that much uncertainty? You order a Cappuccino in France you’ll probably get whipped cream on the top. Order it in Vietnam and the foam might be made with whipped egg.
So if the focus is supposed to be on the coffee bean, perhaps it would be better to do away with the distractions, to simplify the beverage to it's constituents. But then you don't have the easy name, it would be hard work for everybody if you had to order "a double shot of espresso-made coffee, with about that much milk, not too much air in the milk, but enough to give it the texture of white velvet being draped over fudge."
So here’s how we’re working it, the same as many other places, it’s not a new idea that we can take credit for: The milk stays the same texture, the amount of coffee stays the same, and the ratio changes. And Instead of vague descriptive nouns torn hastily from other cultures, we just use the volume of the cup. By default a double espresso base is used as for each drink (please excuse the hypocrisy- there are some words we don't need to replace,) and this gets topped up with steamed milk. Or water if you’re a not a fan of milk.
The bigger the cup, the more milk (or water) will be added, thus diluting the intensity of the espresso. So it all depends on what your palate is craving, creamy and delicate or sharp intensity.
Surely this way it removes any uncertainty from the process, both customer and barista know what to expect. That's the theory anyway. But the hard-worn habits will remain. Perhaps we're missing point, perhaps the uncertainty found when ordering coffee using these hyperforeignisms is the last bit of exotic excitement to be found in our well-explored globe. Perhaps its the equivalent of comparing dishes of the same name in differing restaurants. To see which chef produces the best Eggs Benedict, it's precisely that sort of urban exploration which fuels the growth of independent coffee shops and restaurants.
The menu change is to focus on the bean. That's the bit we want people to compare, we do the coffee this way because we think it's the way it works for the beans we roast. It's not whether or not we've fully grasped the most commonly accepted definition of each kind of coffee.
The responsibility is all ours though, the fact that I thought this blog entry necessary, the fact that we have to explain the system is either an indication that we’re doing something wrong. The menu board does need simplifying drastically, which we're working on.
Or, you’ve all got far more important things to care about than how you receive caffeine. Perhaps you're just here to work.
If you’re tempted to confuse us by ordering something we've never heard of, then you’ll find an explanation of all the things we don’t have on our menu, here on Wikipedia: I'd like a coffee?