Are you a Starbucks or Peet’s devotee who’s curious about the other side of the coffee industry? Ever been afraid of saying or asking for the wrong thing in a place infamous for its perceived pretentiousness? Fear not! Presented for your perusal is this handy list of five things to remember about independent coffee shops, so you can get the maximum experience out of your trip to the other side.
1. The most important thing to remember is that independent coffee shops and chain shops emphasize two very different coffee cultures. Places like Starbucks and Peet’s are more of an ‘American’ coffee culture, with emphasis on speed, variety, and generous proportions, whereas independent shops are more ‘Italian,’ with emphasis on quality, tradition, and enjoyment. They don’t expect you to run out the door with a latte, nor should you expect to get it in three minutes or less – they expect you to sit down and enjoy it, which is strongly encouraged.
2. Drinks do not come in sizes. Ever. If you’re hankering for a large cappuccino, you’re flat out of luck, because cappuccino and latte only come in a single size, and not a very big one at that.
Independent coffee shops are of the Italian opinion that when it comes to coffee, enjoyment usurps function, whereas the American opinion is that coffee’s primary function is to deliver caffeine. So if you want something that’ll blitz your nerves into next week, it’s best to stick to regular brewed coffee – maybe with a shot or two of espresso for kick.
3. Blended coffee drinks are few and far between. Made popular by the Starbucks Frappuccino, most independent cafes don’t serve and aren’t even equipped to make blended coffee drinks, because they’re believed to be detrimental to the flavor of the coffee. You’ll get the occasional shop who recognizes the profits to be had in serving blended drinks, but don’t expect it – be ready to get your vanilla latte on the rocks instead.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Most baristas in independent shops are extremely knowledgeable about their product (not just because they have to be), and are more than happy to explain the difference between regions, the process of espresso pulling, the art of latte art, and the best brewing methods to get the most out of your beans at home. Asking questions gets you the information you need to make the best decisions – a lesson for life, and it’s information you can take home to your own coffee-maker, which you might consider trading in for a presspot.
5. Get out of your comfort zone! You’ve already made that first step into taking coffee as something to be enjoyed rather than something used, so why not take it a little further and try something you’ve never tried before? Worried that a shot of espresso will assault your tongue with its reputable bitterness? Well, it probably will, but do it anyway! Taste espresso like you’d taste a fine wine – take note of the mouth-feel, look for nuances in flavor and finish. And if you’ve never done a formal coffee tasting, ask for a pour-over!
Most baristas will be happy to recommend something based on your preferred palate, or maybe something bold and adventurous. Again, look for mouth-feel, flavor notes, aroma, and finish, and you’ll be coffee-tasting like the best of them in no time. You may just walk away with a pound of your new favorite morning coffee.