The great thing with coffee is that you can really have it however you like. Large or small, strong or weak, white or black, sweet or bitter, its all up to you. In that sense, ordering a coffee is a bit like ordering a steak: many like it rare, but if you want it well-done with ketchup on top, you can. That’s fine. The chef, upon receiving the order, might shake his head in disgust and shame, but he’ll make it for you.
Having worked in a few coffee shops for the last two years, I can tell you that there are certain things you can order that will elicit a similar reaction from the baristas. This is because, like with the steak, there are certain ways of having coffee that don’t bring out the best from the ingredients. In fact, some ways bring out the very worst from the coffee and the barista.
If you want to enjoy coffee at its best, and keep your local barista happy then have a look at the following tips.
Warm coffee tastes better than hot coffee. So stop asking for extra hot lattes.
Why, I’m sure you’ve wondered, does the barista not heat up the milk as much as the machine in the office does? It’s never really hot, only ever somewhere between hot and warm. Nice at first, but goes a bit cold if you’re nursing your drink. Firstly, this is so you won’t burn your tongue, but the main reason for this is because the milk tastes better when it’s kept below 60 degrees celsius. The sugars which make milk so tasty burn at high temperatures, thereby losing their sweetness and becoming bitter and, well, burnt tasting. Often, extra hot people spoon in sugar as a result of this; they’ve ruined the natural sweetness and have to compensate with added sugar: unhealthy!
If you’re ordering an alternative milk, the temperature has to be lower still; oat, almond and coconut milk are very sensitive to oversteaming, so if you like a hot latte, don’t get a vegan milk. If you’re vegan and you like em hot, consider a black coffee.
(Good) filter coffee tastes better than americanos
If you’re lucky enough to frequent a coffee shop which serves filter coffee as well as espresso-based coffee, and you’re still ordering an americano, then consider a change. Whereas an americano is an espresso with hot water added, filter coffee has been brewed entirely. Filter coffee is made by pouring water slowly over grinds, which trickles through a paper filter. It has a significantly slower extraction than the espresso in your americano; probably a few minutes compared to the thirty seconds or so of an espresso. The method allows for a slower release of the oils, and so the quality is usually much higher. Filter coffee is extremely well-revered amongst baristas, and if there’s a flask in the shop, you can bet it’ll be the only kind of coffee the baristas are drinking throughout the day.
Soya milk is vile. Get oat milk if you don’t drink dairy milk.
Ordering a soya milk latte in a fancy coffee shop is a bit like ordering a rare single-malt whiskey with coca cola. You’re going to mask any interesting flavours in the espresso and, frankly, just utterly ruin the most important component of the drink. If you’re lucky, the shop won’t have it – soya milk is expensive, hard to steam, and causes deforestation, so often coffee shops choose not to stock it. However, if they do, don’t expect decent latte art; this stuff is tricky to do well.
Don't get skinny either, sorry
Surely everyone knows by now that the whole thing about fat being bad and sugar being ok is a myth pedalled by the confectionary industry, right? No? Do some googling! You wouldn't believe the amount of times I've made people skinny drinks with a caramel syrup in it. Such an oxymoronic order, with emphasis on the moronic. If you're looking to lose weight, maybe go for a black coffee instead; there's a lot of calories in a cup of milk, skinny or otherwise!
The other issue with skinny milk is that is can't rival the beautiful silky, creamy texture that full-cream reaches once steamed. It just cannot hold air inside it like the full fat stuff, and that's why baristas hate steaming it! It's rare that skinny milk is available in nice coffee shops, and if it is, it'll be semi-skimmed. But please, move past the fallacy that skinny milk is what's keeping you in shape and enjoy those silky flat whites and lattes!
Large drinks are just more milk, less flavour.
Very few places outside of the big coffee chains put extra shots in their big drinks, so if you order large, you’re ordering an extra two ounces of milk for a latte, and two extra ounces of water in an americano. If you like milky drinks then go for it, but just know that this is what a large is. I often hear people saying things like, ‘better get the large, I need the caffeine’, so clearly this is information that needs sharing.
And yes, I agree, it is a con; if you order a large glass of wine they don’t just top it up with water, they serve a consistently strong but larger quantity of liquid. But we live in a broken world. This is how things are. Make peace with it.
If you’ve got a long train ride ahead and want a big coffee to last you the entirety, consider ordering two lattes instead.
If you don’t want caffeine get a tea or hot chocolate.
Decaf coffee doesn’t taste nice. This is because it is made by washing out all the larger molecules from the unroasted beans, and the larger molecules in coffee are the caffeine and the flavour. Not a very scientific description but trust me. What you’re left with is a worse tasting espresso at the bottom of your latte.
But this is only half the problem. The other issue – maybe even the main issue – is that your barista doesn’t care about decaf coffee. If you order decaf, you’re essentially telling them you don’t really care how your coffee comes out as long as its vaguely the flavour you’re used to. There’s a very slim chance the grinder has been properly adjusted at the start of the day, an even slimmer one that your espresso is going to be weighed properly. Consequently, there’s almost no chance that the espresso will have been properly extracted.
So the issue is two-fold: low quality beans combined with low-effort coffee making. If you don’t want caffeine but you want a nice hot drink, consider a tea, hot chocolate or chai, if that’s your vibe.
Intrigued or infuriated?
I hope these tips aren’t overly contentious. Really you can have what you like but these are the unfiltered opinions of the people on the other side of the machine, and I've heard the same complains circulating in every shop I've worked in. So it's not that I'm just stubborn. We all are.