Coffee Terms, Slang and Culture Explained
It's time to demystify all those complicated coffee terms used in coffee shops across the western world, because if there's one failure of third wave, specialty coffee (translation: post Folgers era), it's that we've made coffee WAY too complicated, and in reality it's anything but.
Disclaimer: This is an intro. There's no way we can cover every term, drink, brew method, and variation of the above herein. If your favorite drink happens to be left out, we're sorry. Just tell us why you love it in the comments!
Coffee Terms Explanation # 1. A Background: The Third Wave of Specialty
Imagine you're sitting around a campfire in Colombia. You hear a noise in the distance. Emerging over the dim light of a Colombian sunset comes Juan Valdez, riding a mule.
"Senior Valdez!" You call out. "Tell us the story of coffee, please!"
His hearty laugh reaches your ears like a familiar, childhood melody. You listen as he tells an exciting tale of coffee's origins, development, and hopeful future...
Unfortunately for us, Juan Valdez is actually a subject of fiction and marketing. But to many Americans, he was the symbol of fresh coffee in the 70's and on, always hefting burlap bags of fresh coffee over his shoulder.
Of course, when this amazing coffee reached the U.S., it was roasted, ground, packaged, and shipped out to retail shelves across the country. Now, at the time there was nothing actually wrong with this model inherently.
But like many industries, it became apparent over time that men, women and children were being exploited. Families and farmers would harvest crops year round, only to be paid sometimes 10-20 cents per pound for picked coffee cherries. This meant many farmers could barely survive, and some didn't. This wasn't unique to coffee, but it partially explained why it was so accessible.
Scaling any kind of fresh fruit on a national level is a very expensive process. It's easier if you just can something, or find a way to make it last a longer. There weren't necessarily evil intentions here, but this is simply what happened with coffee in the early years of Western distribution. Once a coffee bean is ground, it goes stale, just like an apple or pear. But because no one had historically ground coffee in the home, and because it was more costly to keep it fresh, most national chains ground their coffee before packaging, meaning by the time it hit store shelves, it was stale.
Dark is Fresh
Company's like Starbucks and Peet's began fresh roasting beans and serving them immediately in their cafes, Italian style. These cafes exploded in popularity, and over a few decades Starbucks became famous in the states for fresh, high-end drinks and beans.
Light is Fresh, Too
During this time, many educated coffee drinkers assumed that fresh coffee tasted the way Starbucks made it. Intense, dark, with an often creamy mouthfeel. However, primarily during the 90's, not only did information become more readily accessible, but so did the rich diversity found in coffee plants, countries that grew them, and coffee bean roasting as a whole.
This slowly revealed what was previously unknown to many, that fresh coffee beans can vary widely in taste, sometimes even tasting much like the fruit that covered it: Cherries, blueberries and raspberries soon became common descriptors for beans roasted on a light to medium scale. While this knowledge naturally existed for centuries, it was relatively unknown to the consumer at the time and even some in the industry.
Third Wave, Specialty Coffee
So what is specialty coffee, then? Simply stated, it's a wave of businesses (and consumers) who are beginning to understand coffee crops, the farmers who grow them, and consequently how fresh coffee compares to traditional coffee, like a fresh apple compares to an aged one (people are always so excited the first time they taste it, it is that different).
Of course, Specialty has other fun and not so fun associations, here's a few:
Hipster (wikipedia will enlighten you)
Specialty coffee isn't actually hipster, but many hipsters love specialty coffee. And that's cool. If I could actually grow an awesome beard, I'd probably be a hipster too. Sadly, it's not in the genes...
Coffee shops have always been places to spend time with your besties and your bff's. That has actually grown, and along with it Specialty has adopted many communities and turned them from coffee drinkers into coffee lovers, which means people now meet up at shops not merely to talk life, but everything coffee as well.
Specialty coffee was highly involved in the Fair Trade movement (fair wages among other things). This was inevitable. When a roaster or coffee business owner would begin to fly overseas to buy coffee directly from the farmer (Direct Trade), they witnessed the mistreatment and the true conditions of the industry. While Fair Trade sparked some good changes, it was mostly politicized and has done very little to improve a very complicated, socioeconomic problem.
Many specialty coffee shops have that Cheers vibe, and some people view them as their second home (or rent-free office space). Regardless, whether the environment is nineties eclectic, sleek and modern, or fun and lively, they're one of the more human and friendly places to spend your time. If you're in Kansas, or driving through, Check out Judee's in west Topeka for a perfect example of this. Their business model is built around community.
But like all subcultures the opposite can also be true. If the specialty movement wants to continue to grow, they have to kill the pretentious vibe. Much of this was unintentional, like failing to cater to your average coffee drinker in language and product offerings. No matter how friendly you are, if your product isn't easily understood or accessible, it's not welcoming.
I remember a store manager once asking me "what I was trying to achieve" with my order.
Other less common but easily correctable mistakes: not offering creamers or sweeteners. Fortunately these places are few and far between.
Coffee Terms Explanation # 2: Espresso, Drip, Batch Brew, Pour over, Cold Brew, Aeropress, French Press, Nitro - wait, Whaaat?!
Now, coffee can be prepared in an infinite number of ways, and it seems nearly every week there's a new gadget or device raising funds on Kickstarter or launching on Amazon (just google American Press, Leverpresso, Nanopresso, or Cold Press maker for more recent additions). Naturally, Specialty is really it's own scene and crowd, so much so that walking into a shop we assume you should know what all of these terms are beforehand.
For instance, menu items don't have descriptive names or explanatory subheadings, their menu titles are the way the coffee is prepared. Again, if you're inside the specialty circle, it's hard to appreciate how challenging this is for everyone else.
I really miss simple coffee menus that would just read: "black coffee", or slightly larger, outlined terms with concise descriptors underneath (that's just me). But alas, those days are like a poem lost in the wind...or a half-forgotten melody of ages past...
Espresso: Originating in Italy, machines force pressurized water through very fine coffee grounds. This results in essentially a coffee concentrate. If it's done precisely, many espressos can taste very sweet, depending on the roast and country origin of the bean.
Drip. This coffee is prepared much like the coffee pots many of us have in our homes, though often times the brewers have larger shower heads, timer controls, temp controls, and the like.
Batch Brew. Pretty much the same as above, but will always be made in large quantities.
Pour Over. A kettle is used to pour water (often in circular motion) over the entire coffee bed and through a filter below. Isn't this just like drip coffee, you ask? Why yes, the method is very similar.
But here, however, the user has total control over everything, including temperature, brew time, saturation of coffee bed, etc. It's rise in popularity is explained by the fact that very few drip coffee makers could create a good tasting cup back in the day (though this has changed with Bonavitas, Technivorms, and other makers now on the market).
Plus, customers would watch the barista carefully attend to their craft, which naturally added to interaction and education between for the customer. And naturally, curious coffee consumers fell in love. However, many managers have come to hate pour overs, because they take roughly 4-6 minutes to brew, which is F-O-R-E-V-E-R (cue Sandlot kid) in the coffee shop multi-verse.
Of course, there are many different pour over makers on the market, each with its own slight variation. The more popular versions being the chemex, v60, and the more recent kalita wave (the latter is our favorite because it has a flat bottom for more even extraction as water passes through).
Aeropress and French Press
These are referred to as full-immersion brewers, because unlike pour over and drip, the coffee grounds are completely immersed in water for the entirety of the brew. Naturally, these methods can produce coffee that has slightly more flavor and body to it (this immersive method is similar to the same way coffee is tasted and evaluated in coffee roasteries, where coffee beans are roasted).
Another advantage full-immersion has is that it's simply easier to make. You dump the water over the grinds, walk away, then plunge the filter screen down. Because there's less variables it's also harder to screw up.
While the french press is the older, more popular method of the two, the aeropress has gained so much momentum that world championships are held every year in Europe and other continents.
If you're trying to decide between the two, know that the aeropress has one distinct advantage: the plunger creates a seal and actually forces air through the grinds. This force creates a richer cup that only espresso can really beat. That being said, it's small, and makes once cup at a time.
Speaking of aeropress, one of our favorite coffee shops is a place called Decade in Lawrence, KS. They always have aeropress on the menu with a choice of several different coffees to try. I've never had a bad cup there, ever. There are very few shops around of which I can state the latter. Moving on.
Unlike most brews, the coffee steeps in cold water for a long period of time (anywhere between 12-36 hours). When we brew in large batches, we use brand new, washed pillow cases, using them just like you would a tea bag.
Bonus tip: when preparing cold brew, pour hot water over the grounds for 30 sec, then dump the remaining cold water over the rest.
Adding hot water at the beginning brings out nuanced flavors that cold brewing can produce. Don't worry, as soon as cold water hits the grounds, the brew process slows drastically.
Nitro is the new kid on the block in specialty coffee. It's infused with nitrogen, has a creamy texture, and looks really cool in a glass (yay bubbles!). Time will tell if this method is another fad or is actually here to stay.
Coffee Terms Explanation # 3: Lattes, Breves, Cortados, Oh my!
There's not much to drinks (see, it isn't complicated!). We'll simplify these terms by stating that nearly all these drinks are just different milk variations with the espresso. For instance, a latte is 2/3 milk and 1/3 espresso. A cappuccino has espresso, 1/3 steamed milk and 2/3 foamed milk. It's milk and espresso almost every time. There are a few exceptions to this, like the commonly ordered americano, which is espresso and just 2/3 water.
Making a good latte is another thing entirely. So next time, leave your barista a tip. Or at least give them that knowing glance which says, you're an amazing human. Just don't be weird about it.
Starbucks has many of their own proprietary drink names, and with their success it's hard to blame them. But baristas at local coffee shops love to do just that anytime someone orders something only made at Starbucks (and it happens a lot).
Where to From Here?
If you're dying to know more, here's a few recommendations of fun people to follow in the specialty world. Don't blame me later for entering the black hole. Remember, you clicked.