Helping decipher coffee shop menu terminology - The Explorer: Editorials

Helping decipher coffee shop menu terminology

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Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 3:00 am

It’s no longer possible to walk into a coffee shop and say, “I’d like a cup of coffee,” and expect to get one. This seemingly straightforward request usually evokes the response, “Which one of today’s brews and what size?” When life was simpler, there were only two options: 1) regular or 2) decaffeinated, and both of them were served in one size cup. If only it could be that easy again today.

Granted, you may really want a plain cup of black coffee, but ordering it in such a manner won’t get you off the hook for more questions by the barista. I should mention a protocol issue. The people who take your order are cashiers, and those who actually make or brew your coffee are called baristas, coffee-making professionals. I learned last week that there’s now a coffee master, one whose brewing expertise has reached the highest pinnacle.

So, once the cashier receives your initial request, he or she will ask at least three more questions: 1) What size? (And it’s no longer small, medium and large; that would be too easy. It’s now short, tall, grande, venti and trenta; 2) Leave room? This means leave space between the actual coffee in the cup and the lid on top for adding milk or cream and sugar; and 3) Mild, smooth or bold? This means a lighter, morning blend, a moderately full-bodied blend, or one offering a strong taste, distinct aroma and a jolt.

Once you’ve decided the size, your specific information is noted on the side of the cup that is handed off to a barista for preparation. The days are long gone when a counter-waitress came over with two coffee pots. The one with a brown top held regular, while the other with an orange top contained the decaffeinated brew. If you really wanted to live on the edge and make your own there was always Sanka. I can’t believe we actually drank that stuff. 

Eventually, you’re likely to succumb and try one of the more exotic drinks that you’ve heard some patrons ordering. But intimidation is a legitimate factor because their orders can mimic a foreign language with a string of terms meaning absolutely nothing to you. For example, I routinely order a trenta-iced-decaf-quad-expresso-dry-with-no-room. Basically, that’s a darn strong cup of decaffeinated coffee that fills the largest plastic cup and is loaded with ice. Surprisingly, mine is a common, easy drink for barista preparation, so let’s get into more unconventional brews, and all of them are available hot or iced.

We’ll begin with latte, a popular standalone drink and one often associated with other exotic coffee drinks. Essentially, it’s espresso, steamed milk and foam, and is void of flavors unless requested. Embarrassment saver: EXpresso doesn’t exist; there’s no letter X in the Italian alphabet.

More complicated is a caramel macchiato. Basically, it’s a vanilla latte with reduced vanilla and extra foam, along with gooey, sweet caramel sauce drizzled on top. This was my favorite until I noticed my expanding waistline. Mocha is espresso and steamed milk mixed with chocolate and topped with whipped cream. It isn’t blended; if you prefer a milkshake-type drink, then order a mocha frappuccino. Adding flavored syrup or sugar sweetens it, but weigh in often to avoid future surprises.

Need to be wide awake? Order an espresso macchiato. It’s espresso in milk foam ordered by the number of shots, not cup size.

Now for coffee-based and cream-based blended drinks. These go down easy, but they’re diet busters that tighten your pants. Take, for example, a coffee frappuccino with caramel syrup served with whipped cream and caramel sauce drizzled on top. This is the sweetest coffee-based frappuccino; baristas make them often. Then there’s basically a milkshake: vanilla cream frappuccino. A base of nonfat milk and soy (for thickening) blended with vanilla syrup and ice topped with whipped cream. No coffee or caffeine. Syrup flavors can replace the vanilla. Some prefer mint and Valencia (orange flavor).

There are also seasonal drink specialties. In today’s high-end coffee shops, if you can describe it the barista can make it. And there’s good news. If you sip and hate it they’ll gladly take it back and brew something your taste buds like.

Be daring on your next coffee shop visit. Order something you can barely pronounce, don’t fully understand, but may pleasantly surprise your palate. Life’s an adventure, and coffee is one of the best and easiest ones you can experience.

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