The thing that I love about coffee is it’s simplicity. All that green, unroasted coffee needs to reveal it’s hidden flavors is heat and airflow. The only thing that roasted coffee needs to become a beverage is hot water. But still, within just a single product exists over a thousand chemical compounds that result in distinct and perceptible flavor profiles. That in and of itself is enough to continuously hold my attention, to keep me excited about drinking plain, black coffee.
I guess I am a purist and likely in the minority of coffee drinkers. Of all the people who drink coffee in a cafe, it is safe to assume that more than half drink their coffee as espresso with milk. Meaning either a cappuccino, or a latte that is either hot, iced, or flavored. Drinks of this style are pretty simple as well, you really only have two or three ingredients. Outside of altering the flavor of the syrups used, the options can be a little limiting. There are only so many ways to make a latte, ya know?
With this in mind, some new trends have begun to emerge in the coffee industry. For large, corporate type cafes, it is now commonplace to ultra-customize your drinks with multiple syrups, drizzles, milks and other things I’m not familiar with (frappe chips and bananas?).
Specialty cafes try to bring some excitement to their coffee menus with seasonal specials. These drinks tend to exist to complement the coffee rather than make it taste like a banana milkshake. Some of these creations have become relatively commonplace, such as the Espresso Tonic, while some have far more advanced recipes, think of the signature drink section of the World Barista Championship.
Some cafe patrons have their own ideas about how to improve or modify their standard coffee experience, sometimes against the advice of the baristas behind the bar. They usually have a caveat like “I saw this on the internet” or “my friend orders this all the time”. And hey, the customer is always right, right?
With all this being said, myself and some other Populace friends decided to make some coffee beverages based on things we’ve seen or drinks customers have ordered at cafes we have worked at over the years. Some were actually pretty standard and enjoyable and some were awful and frightening, the thing of coffee nightmares.
Our test group consisted of myself, my wife Lanae, Populace roaster Bailey, and Bailey’s husband Kirby. With Bailey and I’s coffee experience and Lanae and Kirby’s culinary experience, I thought our team was well equipped with the skills necessary to dissect these coffee experiments.
We started off on a relatively safe bet. Espresso Soda, or ‘Sproda, is not an unheard of coffee drink. I hadn’t had one in years and don’t believe I had ever made one myself, so we gave it a go. I used Faygo brand Club Soda (of course), a double shot of Espresso Clutch, and opted to add about ¾ ounce of simple syrup in an attempt to balance the acidity of the coffee and any metallic-ness from the Club Soda.
I was pleasantly surprised upon my initial sips, although the carbonation expanded the crema into a big head on top of the drink, which I didn’t enjoy. After stirring it all together into a homogenous mixture, I was able to get a more consistent flavor every time I drank it. The group consensus was “yeah, it tastes like an espresso soda!”, in the sense that it tasted like espresso, was bubbly, and slightly sweet. Not bad at all.
An Espresso Tonic is slightly more obscure than an Espresso Soda, but still nothing too outside of the ordinary. I was concerned about the bitterness of the tonic water going into this drink. Typically, we want as little bitterness in our coffee as possible, so putting espresso in a bitter mixer seemed a little counterintuitive.
We made this one shorter, with less tonic water compared to the amount of soda we used in our Espresso Soda. It’s a really simple drink, we filled a rock’s glass with ice and filled it ¾ of the way with tonic water, then added a double shot of espresso and gave it a good stir. The resulting drink was also not bad. With this drink and the Espresso Soda, the body, or lack thereof, is always a little jarring. When you’re anticipating drinking coffee, you subconsciously expect there to be more heaviness on the palate, something neither drink provides.
Once you are able to get past the initial expectations and drink it more objectively, the Espresso Tonic really is a fairly pleasant drink. It’s light and bubbly, the tonic water really accentuates the citric acidity in the coffee, and the bitterness of the quinine mutes any bitterness that may be present in the espresso. It’s a pretty enjoyable way to drink espresso on a hot summer day.
Espresso and Coke:
I made a quick Google search to see if a coffee drink made of Espresso and Coca-Cola had a name. It turns out that a cafe in Korea has a beverage on their menu called the “Fat Americano” that is made with Espresso and Coke. Well isn’t that nice..
I had high hopes for this one. I love Coke and I love espresso, what could go wrong?
The consensus was “it’s fine”. Not really as good as a regular Coke and not as good as a cold brew. It seemed like the complex, yet artificial, flavors of the Coke were competing with the complex flavors of the espresso. Maybe order one if you want a ton of caffeine in one fell swoop, but otherwise, not my cup of tea (or coffee).
Espresso and Matcha or “Dirty” Matcha Latte:
I’m familiar with this one because customers have ordered it in the cafes I’ve worked at in Detroit. I remember the first time it happened I thought they had misspoke, I said “Oh, you mean a Dirty Chai, right?”. They adamantly assured me that they did, in fact, mean “Dirty” Matcha and that, in fact, it was very good. Me, in the height of my barista entitlement, served them a Matcha Latte with the espresso on the side. What happened after that was none of my concern, I told myself.
Time is a flat circle they say, so here I was again face to face with a “Dirty” Matcha, this time a monster of my own creation. Matcha is a vibrant green powder that is made up of finely ground green tea leaves. These leaves are dissolved into water to make what is essentially a short, very concentrated green tea. Matcha is awesome, it has deep earthy and grassy flavors that taste wonderful when paired with steamed milk. It has a modest amount of caffeine and that magic amino acid L-Theanine, which promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety.
A “Dirty” Matcha Latte is Matcha, espresso, and steamed milk. A combination that is as visually unappealing as it is antithetical. The culinary member of our test group, Kirby, described the beverage eloquently: “The grassiness of the Matcha and the earthiness of the espresso is reminiscent of when I was a child and would eat fish food flakes”. This observation was right on the money. It did not taste like dirt, which I had anticipated considering the color, but like seaweed. Seaweed and Oat Milk. All things considered, not as bad as we were expecting, but still not something I would encourage someone to order. Not someone without gills anyway.
“Dirty” Golden Milk or Tumeric Latte:
Golden Milk has become a pretty popular drink in the last few years, rightfully so. The combination of turmeric, honey, cayenne, and steamed milk is a perfectly pleasant, simple drink. The bitterness of the turmeric is balanced by the sweetness of the honey and the steamed milk, and the cayenne is a nice little pop of spice. Turmeric has great anti-inflammatory properties and Golden Milk is a great drink to relax and do some good for your insides.
Whereas a “Dirty” Golden Milk is a Golden Milk with a shot of espresso added to it. With espresso added, the Golden Milk becomes very savory. It starts to taste like coconut curry with sharp, bitter metallic notes. Despite the contradictory purpose of a drink like Golden Milk and espresso, the combination just does not taste good. The espresso and turmeric do not get along at all. “Dirty” Golden Milk is not something I would recommend a customer to order.
Coffee with Butter:
For the finale, we opted for what turned out to be the most truly cursed coffee drink any of us had ever had, coffee with butter. This drink has a trademarked name. I believe the company sells coffee and some oils that you add your own butter to when you make it at home. For this purpose, we will just refer to it as coffee with butter.
In my Detroit barista tenure, one of the cafes I worked at used to have a handful of regular customers who would bring in big reusable coffee cups with big globs of butter at the bottom. The first time this happened, I was completely unaware of the coffee and butter trend, so I was very confused when I was handed a customer’s coffee cup to fill it with some batch brew and noticed heaping quantities of butter at the bottom. I looked at the customer and said “Hey man, I think you’ve got something in the bottom of your cup?” and he replied, “Yeah, it's butter! You’ve never heard of ‘(name redacted) Coffee’?”
From that day on, it became a fairly regular occurrence. Customers would either ask for butter in their coffee, which we would not be able to accommodate, or bring in their own butter to add to their coffee. The whole thing was super odd to me and has incubated a special place in my brain that I’m now referring to as the annals of “Cursed Coffee Drinks”.
Now years later, in a group of past or present coffee professionals, we finally had to try it for ourselves. To be completely transparent, we didn’t make ours quite to the same specifications as (name redacted) Coffee. We made an Americano in place of regular brewed coffee, used Avocado Oil plant-based butter instead of cow butter, and didn’t use any special oils.
We prepared our Americano and our hefty glob of plant butter, 1 tbsp to be exact, was ready to take its faithful plunge. We dropped it into the coffee and waited, but it didn’t want to dissolve much on it’s own so we mixed it up. Then it looked as if it was beginning to curdle. It began to disintegrate in chunky, oily streaks. Appetizing! Lanae took the first sip and almost gagged. Unless it was stirred constantly, the butter would settle back on the surface like a butter oil slick. The texture was viscous and a tad slimy and the butter was salty. That’s when I realized “Hey guys, I’m almost positive we were supposed to use unsalted butter..”. Everyone took a few sips and cringed and really, that was the end of it.
Our counterfeit (name redacted) Coffee with butter was the absolute worst thing I have drank in a very long time. I’m not entirely sure how accurate our version was to the original, but I am very confident using salted plant butter was a big misstep on our part.
The last thing our group did was rank each creation on a scale from blessed to cursed. Blessed being the best and most enjoyable and cursed being the last way we’d ever want to drink our coffee. I’m not sure if we subconsciously made each drink in the order that we would most likely want to drink them, or if our palates were just overstimulated by the end, but we ended up ranking our drinks in the order that we drank them. Espresso Soda being the most enjoyable of the bunch and our butter monstrosity being the last.
If there is a lesson here, it is probably to trust the baristas and coffee professionals who have trained palates to make suggestions for you, be hesitant to accept what you’ve read on the internet, and to not put salted butter in your coffee!