Pick your coffee bean scene

It’s tall, dark, skinny and a hot date: it’s a type of espresso drink from a coffee shop.

More than 100 million Americans drink about 350 million cups of coffee each day, according to the National Coffee Association.

“Going out for coffee has grown as an alternative for people who don’t go to bars,” said Erec Reichardt, owner of Lookout Joe’s coffee shop in Mt. Lookout, Ohio. “There isn’t a smokey atmosphere and you’re not being accosted by drunk people.”

Though millions of people now buy coffee daily from coffee shops, some people still don’t understand what the buzz is all about or don’t know where to start to find their perfect cup.

Finding your cup has more to do with how it tastes. A perfect cup combines history, atmosphere and personal preference.

First, you have to know what you’re buying into.

Know the history

You can’t pick your drink without knowing the basics.

“Historically, it’s always been this way in Europe, where coffee shops started. In Italy, coffee shops were on every corner,” Reichardt said. “Sound familiar?”

The popularity of coffee shops came across the pond to the United States about 25 years ago with the introduction of Starbucks Coffee Co.

“I think coffee has gone around like all things gourmet,” Reichardt said about its popularity. “You can’t really serve a great cup of coffee for 50 cents like in the diners in the 1940s.”

Though Starbucks wasn’t the first of its kind to sell gourmet coffee, it was, however, the first to bring it to the masses.

“It just introduced people to a good cup of coffee,” said Jodi Ferner, a Northern Kentucky University professor who taught a “World of Coffee” class to honors students during spring 2006 and traveled with them to a coffee farm in the Dominican Republic.

“A good cup of coffee allows for face-to-face contact with connections between people,” she said.

Find your shop

Finding your perfect cup of joe can be difficult, but finding the place where you want to purchase it from – well, that’s a task in and of itself.

“The coffee shop is the perfect place for people who need to be alone, but need the company of others to do it,” said B.J. Harpe, one of the NKU students who completed the “World of Coffee” class.

Most coffee shops have multiple sub-cultures within them. These vary by the location of the coffee shop and are usually based on atmosphere. According to Reichardt, smaller coffee shops can have a more intimate, cozy atmosphere and larger shops tend to focus more on technology than personal relationships with customers.

Also, the type of cup a person carries may mark their affluence in society.

“Carrying a cup of Starbucks shows a person has reached a certain level of making money that they can afford to spend $4 a day on a cup of coffee,” Reichardt said.

Carrying a Starbucks cup has become more of a fashion symbol than someone actually wanting a cup of coffee.

For people who don’t want to be part of “Starbucksization,” the independent shops offer refuge for those who prefer a good cup of coffee over an accessory.

Defending the Starbucks drinker, Ferner said most people prefer that company because it offers a sense of sameness, no matter where a person travels.

“Your latte will still be your latte, no matter where you go in the world if you order at Starbucks,” Ferner said.

But, if you want to find a coffee shop to fit you, shop around.

“If you’re looking to pick a coffee shop, go to lots of different ones to see which one fits your lifestyle,” Reichardt said.

The benefit of finding a coffee shop, if you’re looking outside the realms of Starbucks, will be the local angle it brings – from local artists’ artwork on the walls to even selling pastries and food from other area independent businesses.

But for the virgin coffee shop visitor, walking into a shop can be intimidating.

“It’s like going to a party where no one knows you,” Ferner said.

Regulars can walk up to a counter and the barista already knows their orders. People talk with one another and know all about the coffees offered on the menu and how to order them.

“Every coffee shop strives for a good relationship with regulars, where they are more than just customers,” Reichardt said. “Most people prefer to be regulars than just customers.”

Jada Windham, also an NKU student who completed the coffee class, said her first time in a coffee shop was “kind of scary.”

She said she stood in line, listening to other people order their drinks and waited until she was comfortable enough to order her own.

“A tall, skinny, double something or other,” Reichardt said. “Some coffee shops you have to learn the lingo, but hopefully it would be opening and inviting from the beginning.

“I never had that awkwardness,” Harpe said. “My friends used to take me to coffee shops before I even liked to drink coffee.”

Windham and Harpe said after taking the coffee class, they feel like coffee snobs-since they know so much about the culture, history and types of coffee.

“I really feel comfortable going to any shop now,” Windham said.

Learn the bean

So, you think you’ve found your shop based on atmosphere and how comfortable you are while in it? Wrong.

“In layman’s terms, you want to find someplace that serves a high quality bean,” Reichardt said.

Didn’t know that not all beans are good to the last drop?

Coffee beans can be compared to wine grades, where there are different levels of quality, usually sorted by price – the more expensive, the higher quality.

This being said, there are two types of beans: arabicas, or cheap, inexpensive beans like those used in Maxwell House and Folgers coffee and robustas, or high quality beans used in most coffee shops.

Quality isn’t the only difference though. Robusta beans contain about 45 percent more caffeine than arabicas, according to Pendergrast.

Other factors, such as how they are grown and processed, also affect the quality of the beans.

For the person who isn’t familiar with processing, Reichardt listed a few tastes to avoid when trying to find a good cup of coffee: “There shouldn’t be any sour or grassy notes to the flavor. It should be intense and smooth, but not too bitter.”

He said everyone will have a different taste of what’s good and what’s not, but if your coffee tastes burnt, then your cup is no good.

The roast, its origin and if it’s blended – or mixed with other types of beans – greatly change the taste of coffee.

“Roast is like a steak – how well done do you want your bean?” Reichardt said.

A lighter roast has a smooth, mellow taste with more caffeine, whereas a darker roast has a bittersweet taste, he said.

“If you get something you don’t like, the best thing to do is sample,” he said. “Ask a barista. They’ll help you.”

Coffee also tastes different depending on where it is grown, therefore when different roasts or origins are blended together, the product yields an entirely different taste than the original.

Are you froofy?

Froofy, fru-fru, girly or poser drinks – whatever name people give them, the espresso drinks at a coffee shop are sweet.

If you walk into a coffee shop for the first time, you’ll see a list on a board of espresso drinks – most with steamed milk combined with syrups such as chocolate and caramel as sweeteners – these are the froofy drinks.

“Most people can tell you if they prefer their coffee black or not,” Reichardt said. “If they want it with lots of cream and sugar, they might want a froofy drink.”

He said, in general, women lean more toward the sweetened milk-based drinks, whereas men tend to prefer intense, black coffee or straight shots of espresso, which is made by qu
ickly forcing very hot water through finely-ground coffee and has a much stronger taste and more caffeine than regular coffee.

After beginning to drink coffee at 23, Harpe said, “I found that I like my coffee like I like my men: tall, strong and black.”

Unlike Harpe, about 62 percent of coffee drinkers enhance the taste, texture and color with additives such as sweeteners, according to the National Coffee Association.

Reichardt said younger coffee drinkers usually choose the espresso drinks because that’s what they’ve learned to drink, while people who are in their 30s and above tend to drink black coffee because that’s what they’ve grown up with.

“They just aren’t used to a latte,” he said. “Espresso has only really been popular the last 25 years or so.”

In those last 25 years, Starbucks has invented and perfected more than 19,000 different ways to serve a cup of coffee, according to the company’s Web site.

“When I go to a coffee shop, I tell them I want ‘real coffee’ and they usually just look at me,” Harpe said. “I only drink black coffee.”

Regardless of opinions on froofy vs. black or small shop vs. Starbucks, one fact about the coffee world remains: it’s growing.

With the Starbucksization of the United States leveling off, the company is percolating into other countries such as Japan, France and Britain, where it opened more than 500 coffee shops by 2003, according to Pendergrast.

“What we see here is coffee shop as communal place,” Reichardt said. “A place where people talk, read paper and drink a good cup of coffee. I don’t think that’s going anywhere.”