It’s About More than Just the Coffee

Think about the last time you went into a gas station and got a cappuccino simply by pushing a button. You realize that what you were drinking probably wasn’t really a cappuccino, right? Machines like these are partly the reason why some people order a cappuccino and then ask why there’s so much foam in their drink, not realizing that what they asked for is a shot of espresso with half foam and half milk. Or that special customer, legendary to nearly all baristas, who asks for a no-foam cappuccino and must be told discreetly and diplomatically that such a thing doesn’t exist. These are the victims of coffee lies, and they need a little guidance.

I’m a barista, and just last week as I was in the middle of a cold weather rush, a woman stood at my bar and grilled me with a list of questions. Part of our conversation went like this:

Customer: “What’s the difference between a latte and a mocha?”

Me: “A latte is shots of espresso with steamed milk on top. A mocha is a latte with chocolate syrup and whipped cream.

                Customer: “What’s the difference between cafe mocha and a mocha latte?”

Me: “There’s no difference. Just the name.”

Customer: “Does the mocha have coffee in it?”

Me: “Yes. The mocha has espresso shots, so mocha without coffee would just be hot chocolate.”

Conversations like these can be entertaining for customers and baristas alike — in small doses. Sure, most baristas understand that the coffee learning curve can be a little steep at first, so for everyone’s benefit, here’s a quick lesson in coffee knowledge and ordering etiquette.

To begin, every barista caught yawning has probably heard this one: “Why are you tired? You work in a coffee shop!” Before you blurt out anything along these lines, just keep in mind that your yawning barista probably woke up hours before the rest of the world, usually before sunrise. He or she most likely survives off of endless shots of espresso and has found out that there is, indeed, such a thing as too much caffeine. However, it is true that most baristas have mastered the art of the “Undertow,” a layered espresso beverage that delivers a lightning-fast caffeine fix, with a perfect balance between hot and cold. Usually, only baristas know about the Undertow, so if you ask for one, the barista will probably ask you if you work in a coffee shop. Now you’re in on one of our cool little secrets. Feel free to use it at your leisure.

A typical day in the life of a coffee shop worker can look a lot like this:

If you’re on the morning team, your day probably begins at about 4:00 a.m. If you work at a chain store, you’re most likely throwing on a bunch of black clothes, the ninja look, but if you work at a local coffee shop, you slide into your favorite hipster outfit and hit the road. Most lady baristas probably contemplate the thought of not bothering with makeup at this hour, but they also don’t want to face the horror of having that one customer say, “You look so tired,” which is basically the same thing as saying, “You look terrible. Go home where the rest of the world can’t see you and go to sleep.” It’s always worth the extra 10 minutes to try to look presentable, even at 4:00 a.m.

Once you get to work, you make sure the pastries and lobby look and feel welcoming. Then, you date and stock everything and start brewing coffee. Nearly every customer who comes in before 9:00 a.m. has one major goal — caffeine. The early morning crowd tends to be a diverse mix of businessmen and -women calibrating their days, doctors and nurses just getting off of work, students, postmen beginning their routes, some homeless folks needed a place to warm up a little, and a plethora of others. But they all want their caffeine, and they want it fast. Most of them aren’t interested in sharing any type of drawn-out conversation, and after only getting a nap for a night’s sleep, the barista often feels the same way. These encounters are short and sweet, consisting of a friendly exchange with the mutual and unspoken understanding that there’s no need to share life stories, just a quick hello, the order, a money transaction, and a pleasant farewell.

Most morning people’s preferences reflect their need to prepare briskly and efficiently for the day. They tend to get straight black drip coffee, Americanos (shots and water), Mistos (coffee and steamed milk), or a straight Latte (shots and steamed milk). And if you’re really serious about your caffeine, a doppio espresso (double shot) will do the trick. Your barista knows you’re tired and probably not awake yet, but she does like it when you reply to the question “How are you?” before everyone proceeds with the transaction. She wants to be more than just another coffee minion and would like to connect with you at least a little bit. Some baristas in certain parts of the country have become so inured to impersonal behavior that they dispense with pleasantries altogether and jump straight to the question, “What can we do for you?” They might even be surprised when someone asks them how they are doing. In short, avoid distant, vacant, or discourteous behavior, and defend your local coffee shop with kindness.

The next group of guests arrives in the late morning, and some of them stay through the late afternoon. They aren’t quite as tired, and they’re in no rush to get to work or school. In fact, most of them are there to spend the day relaxing, meeting with friends or clients, doing work on their laptops, browsing the Internet, reading a book, or people watching. They’re also a lot more likely to stay a few extra minutes to chat with their baristas or even engage other strangers in conversation for no particular reason.

Quite a few senior citizens enjoy hanging out in the coffee shop during tranquil afternoons. Some visit every day, and they tend to be appreciative of the fact that their barista knows their name and drink by heart. Most of the senior citizens I serve are long past caring about counting calories, so they throw caution to the wind and order their drinks with whole milk, the way it should be ordered — basically, straight from the cow. In fact, afternoon people aren’t in dire need of caffeine, so their drinks are a little bit more fluff and fun to make.

The most popular drink in my store is the vanilla latte, maybe because it’s well known and doesn’t take any coffee knowledge to order. It’s also sophisticated and tasty. Some people go for fruity drinks, such as iced teas, smoothies, spritzers, and the like. Iced macchiatos are very popular with the afternoon crowd. Macchiato is the Italian word for “marked,” which means pouring shots on top of milk, which bleed down to create the marked effect. Blended beverages are in high demand during these hours, as most people don’t like milkshakes first thing in the morning. If you’re looking for a more chill, relaxed environment, I would suggest hitting your local coffee shop in the late afternoon. Even the sunlight and temperature seem just right for a relaxing stay during this time of the day.

The evening attracts a whole different group to the coffee shop, to include young couples, hipsters, Bible study groups, old friends catching up, and desperate-for-caffeine college students working on homework for hours on end. Some of the young couples are embarrassingly affectionate, which makes everyone uncomfortable, especially the person behind the counter trying to take their order. The hipster likes the chill nightlife of the local coffee shop. Typically, he wants a non-corporate, local shop because it’s lesser known and therefore more “exclusive,” somehow. You can spot the hipster from a mile away. Skinny jeans, flannel, square-rimmed glasses, long beard, long hair, and most likely a beanie partially covering that long hair. He might very likely order a chai tea latte or perhaps a dirty chai, which is just a chai with shots of espresso. Occasionally, he’ll go for a green tea latte or steamed apple cider.

The college student who sits at the same table for five hours straight, tapping away at his laptop keyboard, flipping pages, and burying his face in his hands from time to time is most likely drinking something strong but not too strong, perhaps a mocha or white mocha. He’ll come up once an hour or so to ask for a refill of water or coffee, just to stay awake, or alive, depending on his homework load. There’s no rush in the night crowd whatsoever. They often stick around to talk with their baristas about life, theology, politics, and really, any given topic that might come up. They enjoy connecting with the people in the coffee shop, and thrive on human interaction.

For most of the people I serve, life tends to be about a lot more than just a cup of coffee. It’s about engaging human interaction and things that bring people together. Every good barista understands the power of a cup of coffee and the atmosphere he or she is responsible for setting. Coffee creates moments. Think about the last time you said to somebody, “We should go grab a cup of coffee.” Was it really about the coffee, or was it about that person? Coffee is social, and it has the power to bring people of all generations, ages, languages, and nationalities together. Baristas who love their jobs are there to connect with people and create moments for customers to remember, to brighten their days with a smile, conversation, and well wishes. They care enough to ask questions and get to know the people they serve, and of course they love to provide a high quality cup of coffee.