Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.
When I was in high school, I once made the mistake of ordering an "expresso." The barista behind the counter sarcastically remarked to his co-worker, "Ex-presso? He must mean espresso."
Over the weekend, I remembered this encounter and decided this self-satisfied barista's comment might be salvageable. I propose we rescue this common mispronunciation to define a significant part of contemporary coffee culture: faux-espresso drinks.
Like Bizarro Superman and Superman, expresso wouldn't necessarily be espresso's nemesis so much as a confused doppelgänger. Think about all those drinks claiming to have some kind of coffee or espresso buried under all that whipped cream, chocolate, milk and sugar. From where I stand, these drinks are more like desserts than coffee. And that's OK. I'm not bemoaning the collapse of finer tastes (black coffee
, obviously ) to vulgarly over-sugared drinks (not in this post anyway).
But if that's the case, let's end the farce and properly identify these phantom coffee drinks.
One of the reasons we need this definition is that some people (to belabor the Superman metaphor) live in a Bizarro-coffee world,
confusing faux-coffee with the real McCoy. Think of your co-worker who
mixes five sugar packets with heaping scoops of non-dairy creamer and a
splash of coffee. Sound more like caffeinated milk to me. How about a
friend of mine that said she loved cappuccinos until she ordered one in
a café and discovered that she had mistakenly been enjoying gas-station
"cappuccinos" all along.
Expresso could be the way to let people
continue enjoying what they drink, clearly marking the difference
between real coffee and bizarro-coffee.
It might be a trite play on the mispronunciation, but I think the "express" in expresso speaks to the fast-food leaning of these faux-espresso drinks. True, Starbucks makes them to order -- but there's always the understanding that you will take it to go.
(Have you ever seen a Frappuccino in a mug?)
Taking the fast-food connection further is the gas station faux-espresso "cappuccino" I mentioned earlier. A combination of sugar, milk and amaretto or chocolate or whatever your favorite flavor is, these drinks are closer to something you'd get out of an ice-rink vending machine than coffee. And while a molten sweet drink that invariably scalds the top of my mouth might be a pleasant memory from my youth, it's not what I'm looking for in a good cup of coffee.
There's nothing "express" about having a barista pull a shot of espresso for you and then sitting down to enjoy it. Sure, there are always those little paper cups to get an espresso to go, but I rarely see people walking around with them. In fact, the small size of an espresso shot functions as a natural defense against fast-food commidification.
You don't need to look at the rising rates of diabetes and obesity to know that Americans love sugar. And I have to admit that sweet expresso drinks have introduced people to coffee that would otherwise never try it. But I say we need to distinguish between the originals and the imposters and expresso is just the way to do it. Who would've thought that pretentious barista was actually on to something?