28 January 2008

The Undercover Caffeinist

Tim Harford could very easily have named his penultimate popular economics book The Undercover Coffee-Drinker instead of The Undercover Economist. In fact, it was Harford's cappuccinophilia that persuaded me to make this my second popecon purchase (the first being, of course, Freakonomics): I had heard that the first was about the economics of coffee stands at train stations and couldn't resist (even though many of the AMT stands about which Harford writes have now been replaced by Caffè Nero; at Oxford and at King's Cross, anyway).

After singing the praises of my Caffè Nero barista (baristrix?) last week, I lost the lottery earlier today. You know it's a bad sign when, as the barista finishes pouring the milk and foam into the cup, he asks, "You were having a latte, no?"

"No, a cappuccino," I say. I don't mind that he didn't listen to my order; I do mind that he didn't listen because he was flirting with the foxy Cambridge student in front of me in the queue.

"Oh yes, yes, yes. With semi-skimmed milk?"

"Skimmed." I see that he has already used semi-skipped but given that I mainly ask for skimmed milk because it froths better and my chance of me getting any froth at all was already slim, I decided not to challenge this. "No chocolate," I add quickly, seeing him pounce for the chocolate shaker.

"Where's your sense of fun?" he asks, as Foxy Student has now moved on.

"I don't mix chocolate and coffee," I reply, not in the mood for banter. He hands me my drink which doesn't even contain enough foam to qualify as a latte and which is so hot, I have to juggle it between my bare hands as I walk back to work.

This whole exchange reminded me of the many times when I would play test-the-barista, as The Ex and I would order a cappuccino each, one with skimmed milk, one with semi-skimmed (the standard). I didn't keep a tally but the number of times the barista would just plonk both cups down on the counter, only for the barista to say, "err...that one, I think," when quizzed which was the skimmed cap, must have far outstripped those times when s/he got the order right. Once, they even managed to get the skinny cap right but present The Ex with a soya latte, try to make him drink that instead and charge him 30p extra for the privilege! Not impressive.

Bad coffee always makes me want to play Undercover Caffeinist or Mystery Coffee-Drinker. All I need to do, is to go into each of the coffee shops in Nowheresville and, when it isn't busy (as I know how annoying an overly inquisitive customer is when she is ahead of you in a long queue), ask the barista what the difference between a cappuccino and a latte is. Hardly anyone seems to know. No one told me when I first started at the Sandwich Shop of Dreams and it was only when Oxford Mathmo caught me serving a latte to a customer who had ordered a latte; he then explained the difference (although, to be fair, most customers probably don't have a clue) and ever since, I have been as pedantic about coffee as I am about other things.

The goal of this would be not to humiliate the barista but to inform - no, just because it's got half an inch of foam on top, it doesn't mean it's a cappuccino - and eventually, I may even have trained up the whole town. If they insist on maintaining their incorrect concepts of cap and latte, then new words have to be introduced so that the distinction is not lost; the American for I would like a cappuccino, please is actually "get me a dry cap," for example. Even then, at best you usually get a latteccino (which, incidentally, I have seen on menus before...).

Sometimes, of course, a poor barista is right to blame his tools. Some steam wands on coffee machines just aren't very good and it can be hard to make enough foam for a cappuccino (pro-tip, baristas: skimmed milk makes it easier), especially if some dude has ordered four large caps. If experience has shown this to be the case for a particular coffee shop, then I will usually renounce the idea of a cappuccino altogether and aim for the more realistic target of a macchiato.

Baristas beware: Bex may soon be visiting a coffee shop near you. Her mission? Preserving the golden ratio of that most sacred of beverages, the skinny cappuccino ("dry," "warm" and with no chocolate on top).

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