Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In defense of froth

Dear Mr. 'I Take It Black,'

Don't you just hate it when you're on line at the local espresso joint, and the person in front of you has the nerve to order one of those complicated espresso drinks, something like a half-decaf, half-vanilla, half-half-and-half whoseawhatsit? Of course you do. Because you, of course, take your coffee black.

This says so much about your character, ITIB. Perhaps you're a simple guy, not simple in the sense of slow-witted, but an honest sort, salt-of-the-earth, and you just want your cuppa joe. Or maybe it's that you're of a more intellectual bent. Is that a black turtleneck I see? Your coffee matches it so well. Let me guess: if you drink, no apple martinis for you, and if you smoke cigarettes, there's some hand-rolling involved. The girl in leggings and Uggs in front of you just ordered a soy latte. You so saw this coming.

And I feel your pain, ITIB. More than 90% of the time I too take my coffee in its most basic form, and I appreciate this one coffee shop near campus that allows the non-espresso-drink folks to get and pay for their coffee without waiting in the frou-frou-drinks line. But because of this vast experience with black coffee, I know that you, unlike your mochafrappacounterparts, have options. You don't need to get your coffee at quirky indie coffee shops. Delis, diners, your office, you name it, it's there. Or if it's really just the one Starbucks, here's a thought: buy coffee beans at the Starbucks (or whichever other coffee shop) and make coffee at home, either to drink at home or to put in a thermos. You, unlike someone with a hankering for a mocha, can inexpensively produce a better version of your preferred beverage than you're likely to get on the outside.

What's that, ITIB? You prefer coffee bars because you plan on spending the day there with your laptop? Then you have the minutes to spare while that milk gets foamed.

*Inspired by, among other instances, this article, via.


Anonymous said...

I'm an ITIB guy, but I can't figure out what anyone of that persuasion would order it at Starbucks. You need all that frapumochavanillabeanccino crap to cover up how bad their unadorned coffee tastes.

Phoebe said...

Their black coffee really varies. I've found it to be above-average and undrinkable on different occasions. But it was only with a Starbucks mocha made with not-so-fresh milk that the chain once made me queasy, so that's an argument for going the ITIB route when there.

Also, I feel like there's a difference between drinking black coffee and being an ITIB. It has to be that the black coffee is about more than a preference for coffee without milk, but part of your fundamental self-definition.

Matt said...

I used to mostly drink black coffee, but decided I needed to cut the acidity a bit so started using a bit of cream. Someone told me that it actually helps bring out the flavor of coffee and that might actually be right. I still usually just get coffee (rather than an espresso drink), but that's mostly because of price. (I might otherwise get a cappuccino or a breve, fattening though those are.) But, I put cream (heavy cream!) in them when I can. I only drink black coffee when I make it myself at my office because I can never remember to keep cream there myself on a regular basis. But a person who gets pretentious about drinking black coffee? A terrible poser if there ever was one.

Phoebe said...


Alas, ITIB-like pretension can also surround your coffee beverage of choice, more in the 'just a regular guy' vein than in the black-turtlenecked one. But I find you not guilty on account of you'd consider the other drinks if they didn't cost so much. I'm with you - if cappuccino didn't hover around $3.50, these would happen far more often. Mochas I get when I'm up for one, which adds up to every few months.

Petey said...

Then you have the minutes to spare while that milk gets foamed.

You most definitely do. The best way to spend those minutes is by observing the cattle in front of you ordering their Starbucks milkshakes with the same curiosity one would have at a zoo.

All the uncivilized people. Where do they all come from? All the uncivilized people. Where do they all belong?


Of course, I actually have no idea what you're talking about here.

When I order brewed coffee at Starbucks, I get my brewed coffee at the counter, without having to wait in the Starbucks milkshakes line.

And when I order espresso at Starbucks, the baristas usually tend to do the civilized thing and hand me my espresso immediately, ahead of the folks waiting on the Starbucks milkshakes line who ordered before me. The Starbucks staff doesn't like the Starbucks milkshake cattle clientele, and really, who can blame them.

Phoebe said...


Now that you mention it, that's true about the line procedure Starbucks, at least some locations. They're usually better-staffed than the places going for offbeat, so someone's working on the quick drinks while someone else is blending a cheesecake into something that will be labeled 'creme.' (Actual milkshakes, meanwhile, can be delicious and people who consume them need not be defamed.) My last few Starbucks experiences have been relatively line-free, so I guess I'd forgotten, whereas campus-area coffee shops usually involve a good amount of line-time, such that I've been known to hope those ahead of me are ordering simple drinks, even when I myself plan on doing otherwise.

Britta said...

When I am buying coffee, I get impatient about anyone in front of me, but that is only because I usually get my coffee 4 minutes before class :) Luckily, at that time people are either together enough to already have arranged their beverage, or not together enough to make it to the coffee shop beforehand, so I almost never have to wait.

Generally I get regular coffee (and add milk for the same reason Matt does), mainly for speed and price, because I generally buy coffee only when I wake up too late to make it myself (which is most mornings, actually). If I am going out to coffee with a friend and I know the staff are not incompetent 18 year olds, I will get a latte, though not flavored.

Phoebe said...


Where are the staff not incompetent 18-year-olds (or 30-year-olds who fancy themselves 18)? Classics Café (circa 2004 at least) comes to mind, but I can't think of too many other places.

I've been so, so good about making coffee at home, but then I go out and want more coffee, and then it all falls apart.

Petey said...

here's a thought: buy coffee beans at the Starbucks (or whichever other coffee shop) and make coffee at home, either to drink at home or to put in a thermos.

OK. A gratuitous insult to cafe society.


You're Francophile credentials are hereby officially revoked by order of the Ministry of Cafe Culture. Please turn in your laminated Francophile badge to any French consulate within 72 hours.

Your name and photo have been circulated at all NYC area cinemas that show French movies, and you will be denied admission to these cinemas in the future.

Blogger has been contacted, and if you mention Bernard-Henri Lévy in any future posts, your entire blog will be flagged as a spam blog.

We're sorry that things have come to such a pass, but we find it necessary to defend our culture against Anglo attempts to dilute and defame it through any means necessary. There are lines which must not be crossed, and this is one of those lines.

Phoebe said...


So what you're saying is, pro-Starbucks is the appropriate Francophile position?

Paul Gowder said...

The real objection to froth is that places that pull bad shots fill the cappuccino cup with them to cover the fact that their espresso tastes foul. The correlation between a cup full of foam and bad cappuccino/a cup with little foam and good cappuccino is pretty close to 1.

Also -- and this is in my official capacity as el coffee snob supremeo who drinks both drip (black and unblack) and espresso drinks and just about anything else with caffeine in it -- Starbucks drip is inutterably foul. Their espresso drinks actually ain't bad. But the drip is undrinkable. Why? Because they let the beans go stale -- they keep them on hand forever.

One of my favorite moments was when Starbucks rolled out their instant coffee and held taste tests in store (with the prize being a cup of the drip) to prove to their customers that the taste was indistinguishable. Little did they realize what they were revealing about their drip. (Even though the taste was in fact indistinguishable, I still won the contest by noticing that the water in the instant cup was visibly microwaved. I refused the prize.)

God, this may be the most snottily pretentious blog comment I've ever written.

Phoebe said...

Paul Gowder,

Do you really think the typical barista (or even owner) puts that much thought into how good the espresso is and therefore how much foam it requires, and thinks, huh, we're serving crap, let's mask that? My guess is that what you're noticing is that places that pride themselves in top-notch espresso also make a point in using the proper amount of foam in each drink.

(The place near campus I keep referring to, the one with the two lines - Think, if anyone in NY is interested, which seems to have become a chain - has a sign up about how theirs is a 'real' cappuccino, which is why it's not huge ala Starbucks and why it must come in a to-stay ceramic cup. I usually get their iced coffee, which is excellent, but it's good to know the cappuccino-drinkers aren't being short-changed.)

Re: Starbucks, perhaps the reason I find their drip coffee not uniformly bad is that I've been lucky enough to show up on the rare occasions their beans are fresh. I should also note that it has that classic fast-food virtue of being reliable when there's nothing else. In Cologne, for example, it was seriously the only coffee that was drinkable.

Britta said...

I have to say, in my experience Ex Libris and Uncle Joe's are the worst offenders for college students making bad coffee. Of course, I can only comment on competency to make drip coffee, because I haven't tried espresso drinks from there.

The Ex Libris coffee is basically black battery acid, it's so sour and acidic to practically give you a stomach ulcer on the first sip. Since it's the same brand as elsewhere, I have my doubts as to whether or not they wash the coffee urns between use.

I may be generalizing, but at Uncle Joe's I once took a sip from my coffee and got a mouth full of grounds. I poured out the coffee to find about half an inch of grounds at the bottom of the cup. The guy working there (who possibly made the coffee) was about 18, asked me to pay twice (he forgot I'd paid the first time, even though it was 30 seconds ago) and then forgot to give me the cup, so I have doubts about his competency towards life in general. I've had better coffee from there, but recently I've been disappointed.

I've found the best coffee is at the Div School, and usually go there. I've never actually gotten coffee from Cobb, and haven't been all that impressed with the Classics cafe.

So, as a misanthropic grad student, that is my take on the U Chicago coffee scene.

Petey said...

So what you're saying is, pro-Starbucks is the appropriate Francophile position?


(Points aside, Starbucks really is a nice thing. Neighborhood coffee shops are always nicer, even when they involve dealing with various inconveniences, but Starbucks ensures you can get competent coffee even when you aren't in range of a neighborhood coffee shop.)