There are still some corners of the world where you won’t find a Starbucks chain. And there are people who only ever drink instant coffee. To the uninitiated, the modern world of gourmet coffee culture can seem a bewildering place. But it doesn’t have to be. Understanding the language of coffee culture is easy when you know how.
Coffee Culture has been around for a long time. Back in the 17th century when coffee houses first began springing up around Europe, they were popular places for social gatherings. This is still the case today. A definition given on the Internet defines coffee culture as ‘A lifestyle characterized by drinking coffee (especially in a coffee shop) as a social activity.’
Every country has its own coffee culture. Continental Europeans like their coffee strong and rarely add milk. In France cafes are often part of a bar selling alcohol and in Italy they prefer drinking their coffee standing up. Indeed some countries make their coffee so thick that even the spoon will stand up.
More recently a new type of coffee culture has sprung up in the form of coffee chains such as Starbucks whose branches can be found worldwide. Their burgeoning popularity may have been helped by the hugely successful comedy Friends, whose daily trials and tribulations were often filmed while sitting in their favorite New York coffee shop ‘Central Perk’.
There is a term ‘coffee snob’ which applied to those people who turned their noses up at instant coffee and they say that once you’ve experienced ‘real’ coffee you can’t go back to instant. You can make a decent gourmet coffee at home but that involves messing about with filters and machines, coffee grounds, heating and frothing milk. Then you have to clean it out ready for the next time. As gourmet coffee is now so readily available it’s often easier grabbing a coffee from a shop than making one yourself.
To fully understand gourmet coffee you need to realize the importance of espresso. Espresso is the grandfather of coffees, for it is the espresso from which all other coffee based drinks are descended. Espresso is a thimbleful of strong, black coffee which is the result of forcing hot water through finely ground coffee leaving a thick foam on top called the crema.
Ordering a coffee is no longer as simple as asking for a cup of coffee. The assistant will give you a blank stare if you don’t use the right jargon. Coffees are sold in different sizes. In Starbucks for instance, the smallest is called a ‘short’ (8 oz cup), then a ‘tall’ (12 oz), a ‘grande’ (16oz) and finally a ‘venti’ (20oz), venti being Italian for twenty. However, Costa Coffee use primo (small), medio (medium) or Massimo (largest size).
Then you have to order your coffee to your preference. For milky coffee you’ll want a latte. Lattes usually contain one or two shots of coffee (measures of espresso) then topped up with hot milk with a small amount of milky foam. Cappuccinos are the same as lattes but topped with one third steamed milk and one third foamed milk and often sprinkled with chocolate. For a stronger coffee try a macchiato which is simply an espresso with a dollop of foamed milk on top. An Americano is an espresso coffee watered down with hot water.
Once you’ve understood the basics, you can be more adventurous. Many coffee shops have iced coffees and different flavored syrups. Or to make your coffee more personal you can ask for a ‘dry cappuccino’ which is the regular cap but with more foam and less milk. Likewise a wet cappuccino has more milk than a regular cap but less than a latte and a skinny cappuccino is made using non-fat milk.
While every country has its own gourmet coffee culture, the spread of coffee shop chains has set a standard that is quite similar around the world. So the next time you’re wandering past a coffee shop, why not step in and try out the language. If you order a skinny, dry, grande cappuccino, they’ll know exactly what you mean even if you’re still not entirely sure yourself. Gourmet coffee culture is there to be experimented with and enjoyed.