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Coffee with a swirly fancy surface

When exactly did middle-class Ireland become a cafe society?

We’ve had coffee houses for centuries, but this was something new, bubbling away during the boom, and after the smoking ban in pubs and cafes – when many establishments expanded onto the street with their tables and chairs.

The first thing you’d notice: it wasn’t so much a cafe society, more an espresso society, a society on the move. People still sat down to linger over a coffee and a slice of cake, but most customers were ordering “coffee to go”.

Things changed again after the Big Crash. Coffee became more sophisticated, more like wine tasting, what with its barista schools and barista championships and latte art competitions and artisan roasters.

As for the coffee language, instead of asking for a plain old cup of coffee (“Do yez want milk with tha’?”), these things were now Tall or Short or Skinny – and phrases like “Mine’s a double skinny latte with wings to go” started rolling off our tongues.

It reminded me of that scene in the Steve Martin film LA Story (1991)…

Tom: I’ll have a decaf coffee.
Trudi: I’ll have a decaf espresso.
Morris Frost: I’ll have a double decaf cappuccino.
Ted: Give me decaffeinated coffee ice cream.
Harris (Steve Martin): I’ll have a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.
Trudi: I’ll have a twist of lemon.

What those terms mean

I’m no coffee expert (apart from detesting decaff and avoiding instant). It took a while to grasp that all this bewildering espresso lingo is really based on a modest number of building blocks. Three basic components:

  • The plain espresso
  • Steamed milk (as in a latte)
  • Water (as in an Americano – an espresso diluted with water rather than milk)

Three simple building blocks that form the basis for an infinite number of “fugues” and variations on a theme. Here are just 15 of these variations…

  1. Americano (or Caffè Americano or Caffè Lungo): an espresso diluted with hot water. The ratio varies greatly from coffee house to coffee house.
  2. Café crema: a Swiss interpretation of espresso, a reminder that many variations on the original espresso are not Italian at all, but Swiss, French, American, Starbuckian etc.
  3. Café au Lait: “French style” – coffee and boiled milk poured simultaneously into a cup.
  4. Caffè Con Leche: espresso and a good deal of steamed milk.
  5. Caffè Freddo: chilled espresso in a glass, sometimes with ice.
  6. Cappuccino: a shot of straight espresso with foamed milk ladled on top. Involving much less steamed or textured milk than a latte, the name comes from the Capuchin friars, who traditionally wore habits of similar colours.
  7. Espresso: the basis of all great coffee drinks – a coffee brewed by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water under pressure through finely ground coffee beans. It’s generally thicker than coffee brewed by other methods, and should come with a crema (a creamy foam) on top.
  8. Frappuccino: an iced or chilled cappuccino concoction dreamed up by Starbucks.
  9. Latte: an espresso with steamed milk, topped with a small amount foamed milk.
  10. Macchiato: literally “stained with” – a shot of espresso stained with a dollop of frothy milk.
  11. Mocha: a latte with chocolate. Traditionally coffee from the Yemen city of al-Mukka (hence Mocha in English).
  12. Mochaccino: a cappuccino with chocolate.
  13. Noisette: from the French (“nutty” or “hazelnut”), an espresso with a dash of cream or hot milk. A common term in France, it’s not widely understood even in “French” bistros in Dublin yet.
  14. Ristretto: made with the same amount of coffee as an espresso but with less liquid, and the brewing time is reduced (ristretto is Italian for “restricted”). So it’s shorter and sweeter.
  15. Skinny: a latte made with non-fat or skim milk.

The coffee photo above comes from the 3fe coffee bar on Lower Canal Street in Dublin. I think I took it shortly after it opened, around 2012. Here’s a crime fiction question: do different coffee shops have their own clearly identifiable latte art, almost as distinctive as a fingerprint?