What’s in a Latte: Making Unique Coffee Choices

I ordered a latte today at a small coffee bar. To my surprise, I was asked what flavor did I want? When I replied in somewhat of a puzzled manner, the young person helping me was equally caught off guard; everyone orders a latte with a flavor. The worker again asked if I was sure I didn’t want a flavor, to which my request to the contrary was restated.
A soy latte is about the only coffee drink this writer ever orders away from home, usually because so many coffee shops either don’t make decent brewed coffee, or the espresso is of the West Cost Roast variety which is not a favorite.

When the ordered latte was sampled, it seemed a little obvious to me why “everyone” asked for a flavor, because it certainly seemed like espresso of the WCR variety, which was confirmed when I asked where they got their espresso from. The reply indicated from the same supplier as Starbuck’s. Since Starbuck’s is their own supplier I figured that might mean Sysco, since they supply many grocers with Starbuck’s coffees.

While we have Starbuck’s to thank for awakening this country to Specialty Coffees, and the increase of independent coffee shops across the country, it seems that maybe the monster has gotten to big and we are paying the price.

Saying that simply means that at one time there were enough suppliers to satisfy the demand of such a big roaster. Even more, the personnel who manned their stores were well trained in the art of being a true barista, fully skilled in making the various espresso based drinks from start to finish. Flash forward and today instead of the hand pulled shot the espresso machines have been replaced by “idiot proof” , fully automatics that grind, dose, make the shot, leaving the steaming of the milk to the employee along with any foam, flavorings or froth.

Having the best home espresso machines that has a boiler and simply extricates the espresso with crema, still requires me to grind, dose, tamp and froth. Pretty basic stuff for making an espresso that tastes good. But tasting good is only part of what makes a good espresso, and the preparation alone cannot make up for an espresso blend that has too much robusta or has been roasted too dark, or both.

So what generally happens, and not just at Starbucks, but anywhere the coffee customer has never been educated, is the addition of all the other add-ins to hide what would otherwise leave an unpleasant taste on the back of the tongue.

There has been so much ado about espresso based drinks, that many people really don’t appreciate what really good, freshly roasted, correctly ground just before brewing, a 23 second pull at the right temperature, and consumed within the next 10 minutes or less espresso shot is like. Once an appreciation for the taste of espresso by itself is realized, the additional drinks take on a different taste as well.

And just in case, there are as many blends of espresso as there are blends of 100% Arabica coffee. Well, that may be over the top, but you can rest assured there are a boat load of espresso blends. Blends of Arabica would include coffees like Breakfast Blend, Jamaica Blue Mountain Blend, Kona Blend, an the list goes on. Just to add a little more confusion green coffee beans in reality are blended from the source of origin, meaning of the 580,000 growers in Colombia, there may be 4,000 members of one cooperative who have had there crops mixed together. The good news is the quality control in countries like Colombia is among the strictest in the world, which is what keeps them at the top of the Specialty Coffee producers.

So blends are when beans from two different sources of origin, or when Arabica and Robusta beans are mixed. Only within the last 6 months have huge commercial the likes of Folgers and Maxwell House stopped blending the bitter and sour tasting Robusta beans into some of their newer offerings. This is a fantastic change for coffee lovers in the U.S.

In short, Robusta is why so many of us have always added cream and/or sugar to regular brewed coffee, or made it so weak that it doesn’t even resemble coffee. Brewed coffee made from 100 % Arabica beans that are single origin, freshly roasted and ground just before brewing, will amaze those who have never tasted it before.

And you can be sure of this. There is not a Starbuck’s, Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kreme, or McDonald’s that can boast of a 100%, single origin, Arabica, freshly roasted within the last 48 hours! So if you’re judging what is good coffee by those standards, you’re in for a surprise. Just go to any reputable, independent coffee shop, or any roaster where you can get freshly roasted beans. A great start is a good Colombian Supremo, and right now very affordable.

You’ll pay upwards of $10 at any grocer for 12 ozs. of bagged, pre-ground or whole bean coffee. Even the bulk coffee which sells on the average for around $8 per lb. is not fresh. Most roasters will offer freshly roasted, class A or 18 screen Colombian for around the same price or a little less. This writer can purchase it for under $5 and it’s great.

So, in summary, you can be a follower and do what everyone else does when it comes to espresso-based drinks or brewed coffee, and you’ll get the same results. Or not! Your taste. Your tongue. Your choice.