Looking Beyond the Latte? Our Guide to Talking Barista
But First, Coffee
You don’t have to have to become a barista to understand good coffee. But you can, and should, get to know your local coffee shop crew if you want to venture beyond the basic drip coffee you’ve grown accustomed to ordering.
Cillian Hegarty, co-owner of The Girl & the Raven, an Abingdon, Virginia restaurant with an impeccable coffee program, likes talking to guests about coffee and will try to suggest drinks that showcase the bean on its own without all the bells and whistle that can sometimes detract from the complex flavors.
That said, Hegarty, in spite of his serious coffee cred, doesn’t shun syrups or sweeteners.
The coffee program at The Girl & the Raven encourages guests to try something new, thanks in part to a separate coffee menu complete with imagery and descriptions for everything from piccolos to flat whites to cortados, while also acknowledging that taste is a matter of personal preference.
If you’re still figuring out what tastes good to you — or you’re simply ready to mix up your routine in a low-risk way — it can be fun to experiment with the wide variety of espresso and coffee drinks available at your local coffee shop before replicating the experience at home. If you like a milk-forward beverage, consider the flat white, a coffee drink that originated in Australia and eventually made its way to the likes of mega-chain Starbucks in 2009. And if you are in need of a major pick-me-up, the doppio, a double-shot of espresso, is a smart choice.
Even this potent concoction, however, can be modified with a little syrup or a dash of sugar. The bottom line is finding your sweet spot. Any barista worth their beans (sorry, not sorry!) will guide you through the coffee menu to help you find a drink you’ll enjoy. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
To Hegarty, it’s much less about winning people over to the dark side (read: unadulterated espresso) and much more about getting an excellent cup of joe in people’s hands. At the end of the day, “Whatever's most enjoyable for the customer is most important.”
This means it’s ok to let the barista know that yes, you do need room for cream in your Ethiopian pour-over. Or, better yet, do they have almond milk? Oat milk? How about soy?
Hegarty himself likes a little cream in his coffee, even though “coffee purists would say you need to take your coffee black.” Cream can enhance the existing flavors in the coffee, explains Hegarty. And if you feel that a caramel flavoring elevates your drinking experience or allows you to get more nuances of flavor out of the coffee, don’t be shy. Your coffee order is nobody else’s business.
As Hegarty says, “I don't feel like there's one way to do it.”
While some coffee shops have simplified matters by only carrying one or two types of creamer or milk, many offer a plethora of options, leaving it up to you to determine what goes best with the Honduran blend with tasting notes of chocolate and toffee.
Some creamers or alternate milks do cost more, though, so beware how much your double soy latte, light ice is going to cost you before you make it a daily thing.
Brewing a Better Cup at Home
Now that you’ve experimented with trying a few new-to-you coffee drinks outside your home, you can see what’s possible in your own kitchen.
That said, unless you’re madly in love with espresso drinks and ready to make the significant investment of an espresso machine purchase, it’s best to get coffee creative at home with tools, ingredients, and methods that won’t break the bank.
All of the beans at The Girl and the Raven are roasted in house, which Hegarty feels strongly about, but since most people won’t be going this route, he says to purchase high-quality beans that you plan to use within a couple of weeks for maximum freshness. Beans can be stored in a regular coffee container in your cupboard, says Hegarty.
The French press is a great way to make coffee at home, especially if you’ve only ever used a basic drip coffee maker. In a French press, which you can buy for as little as $10, the ground coffee — and it’s best to grind the beans right before you brew, so you’ll also want to invest in a coffee grinder — is steeped in the water. There’s no filter to absorb some of the coffee’s oils, lending it a more potent, rich flavor.
One of the tricks to making a good pot of French press is to be mindful of your water temperature.
Hegarty says to get the water to boiling and then let it sit for half a minute or so. If you pour the water as soon as your kettle whistles, you risk scorching the beans. You can play around with how much coffee to use — and how long you let it brew. A general rule of thumb is about 12-ounces in a 17-ounce French press, but if you like your coffee a little less strong, or vice versa, you can adjust accordingly. Once the water has cooled ever so slightly, it’s ready to mix with the freshly ground beans for about three to four minutes.
The pour-over, which allows you to brew a single cup of coffee using a contraption that sits atop of your coffee mug, is another affordable tool and excellent for helping mix up your staid coffee routine. Hegarty also likes a Bialetti, an Italian percolator, that produces a full-bodied cup of coffee.
As with sweeteners and dairy or non-dairy additions, it’s all a“matter of personal choice and preference.”