Ordering Coffee: A Field Guide

I know the look. If you work at any kind of fast-food – or coffee, in this case – establishment that requires someone to stand at a counter in front of you, you’ve seen this look too. That glazed-over, slightly confused look as they stare just slightly above your head. Maybe they squint as they do so. Maybe one single syllable will drift out of their partially-opened lips, “ummmmm, ahhhhh…”

We’ve all been there. We look at a menu and it might as well be in Greek. Or Italian, if you’re at a coffee shop. What the heck is miel and why is it in my coffee? Is it ex-presso or ess-presso? Why do they give me a funny look when I say “medium” instead of “grande?”

As someone who’s been on the other side of that counter, looking back at you and watching you have an existential crisis that is choosing what kind of specialty latte you want, I want to help. I don’t even know if this little field guide will help at all, but maybe it’ll make things less scary the next time you walk into a Starbucks or – even scarier – a local, privately-owned shop run by a free-range hipster named Alix who has a tattoo of a hemp leaf on his neck. So let’s jump into it, shall we?

Vocabulary: The first thing you should know is what kind of hip lingo you should use when you walk into a coffee shop. First, I’ll tell you words to avoid:

  • Frappucino: DON’T. JUST. DON’T. Frappucinos were invented by Starbucks to siphon money from an unsuspecting public when it’s just a glorified slushie. If you’re at Starbucks, go ahead. Order a frappucino. But EVERYWHERE ELSE, ask if you could get your drink frozen or blended. They’ll know exactly what you want.
  • Caramel macchiato: Freaking Starbucks ruins everything for people. If you order a caramel macchiato anywhere else, your barista will look at you like you just shot their grandmother. If you want the same experience as a caramel macchiato (which tastes like sadness, if I can be honest here) just ask for an unstirred caramel latte (that’s exactly what Starbucks’ caramel macchiato is.) A traditional espresso macchiato is a tiny cup of espresso with a dollop of milk foam. And that’s what you’ll get when you order a macchiato at any establishment that’s not Starbucks or a chain that’s fallen prey to the dreaded Starbucks Lingo.
  • French vanilla: This is basically just redundant. French vanilla isn’t really a thing – it’s just a fancy way French people make ice cream (trust me, I googled it.) It’s also a weird powder that they put in those gas station machines so you can get a little cup of disappointment when you stop to fill up your tank. Just say “vanilla.”
  • Venti: Yes, this is basically a list of Starbucks terms that you should never use anywhere else. Venti only exists at Starbucks, and Starbucks has conditioned us to speak their language. Thanks, capitalism. (Just say “large” everywhere else.)

The Basics. So you want a cup of coffee. That’s why you’re here, at this metaphorical coffee shop. Unless you’re over 60, you probably don’t go to coffee shops just for a cup of black coffee, unless you’re a hipster who’s into those weird glass contraptions that take five times longer to brew than a normal percolator but apparently bring out different “notes” in the coffee. (Hipsters like the term “woodsy” and “nutty.” Most other people just taste “coffee” because we don’t have a “sophisticated palate.” Apparently palates can be “sophisticated” – like did they go to Harvard or something? What am I missing here?)

First, it might be pertinent to talk about what kinds of drinks are available for your enjoyment – because after awhile, all those Italian names start to sound the same, which makes perfect fodder for old people complaining about younger generations (“those darn kids sipping their mochachino macchiatto grumble grumble.”) So I present to you a very short dictionary of coffee terms and beverages:

  • Espresso: [ess-PRESS-oh] It’s a tiny cup of coffee (if you want to get fancy, it’s a demi-tasse, which is French for “teeny tiny cup that makes your hands look gigantic, even if you’re the president” (exact translation)) It may be small, but don’t be fooled – espresso is one tough cookie. If you’re not a fan of strong coffee, don’t order straight espresso or extra shots of it in your drink. Most of the fancy drinks on the menu will involve espresso. If you’re not a coffee fan, you can probably order any of these without espresso – just ask for a “steamer.” However, in most coffee shops, you can get your espresso served in a fancy way, like an espresso macchiato (see above) or an espresso con panna (that’s espresso topped with whipped cream, and yes, it’s delicious.)
  • Latte: [LAH-tay] The oldest coffee trick in the book – pull some fresh shots of espresso and pour some warm, frothy milk over top. Add flavor if desired. Typical lattes come with two shots of espresso, but you can specify how many you want (single, double, triple…I’d probably stop at three. Like I said, espresso packs a punch.)
  • Cappuccino: [cap-uh-CHEEN-oh] Lattes and cappuccinos are not created equally. Gas stations may have fooled you into believing a cappuccino is a cup of overly-sweet disappointment – it’s not. A cappucino is like a latte, but fluffier. When you pick up a cappuccino, it will almost feel like you’re holding an empty cup, because all of that frothy milk has been turned into foam – there’s a deep “cap” of it on top of your espresso. You can order it “dry,” which means you want all foam and no frothy milk. Order a cappuccino and you’ll be instantly classy.
  • Americano: [ah-mair-ick-KAHN-oh] Europeans think we’re weak and can’t handle espresso – therefore, they named a drink after us. An Americano is espresso that’s been diluted in hot water. No milk is involved unless you decide to add cream. If you like a good swift kick in the pants and the mouth, then Americanos are for you.
  • Mocha: [MOE-ka] Think of this as a grown-up hot chocolate. It’s a latte with extra fun – dark chocolate. Basically perfection in a cup. Usually it comes with whipped cream. If you’re a decent human being, you’ll keep it that way.
  • Red eye (also called shot in the dark): A cup of black coffee with a shot of espresso (or two or three, depending on your level of exhaustion.) Not for the weak. Pack a defibrillator.
  • Cafe con miel: A latte with honey and cinnamon to sweeten it. If Jesus were a drink, he would be this one.
  • Cold brew: Different than iced coffee. No espresso is involved. This kind of coffee is brewed cold over 12ish hours, bringing out a different taste than hot-brewed coffee. Iced coffee is usually just hot-brewed coffee that’s been poured over ice.

Your head might be spinning right now. “Audrey, there’s so many options and I don’t know what I want! I’m standing, helpless in front of a counter facing this stranger who is probably judging me! You’ve just made this more confusing!”

Unfortunately, I can’t help you here. Coffee people, especially baristas, have gotten a bad reputation of being overly judgy. And…that reputation kind of hits home. So I’ll just give you some advice depending on what kind of coffee shop you’re at.

  • A chain coffee shop (ie, Starbucks, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf for you West-coasters, or Dunkin Donuts for every American who drives long distances): Don’t worry! They’re not judging you. They deal with coffee laymen most of the time. Just order with confidence, exchange a joke or a little small talk with the cashier, and give them a nice tip. These people are on your side, and they appreciate you and your business. Their jobs are hard enough as it is, and they deal with difficult people all day, so a chipper and good-intentioned customer like you will brighten their day.
  • A local, privately-owned coffee shop (ie something with a weird name like the Brown Crepe or Ground Up Ideas…wait…): Sorry, but these people are probably hardcore judging you. They journeyed to the deep caverns of the Himalayas in order to learn how to master the perfect pour over. They wake up at 3:30am every morning to milk a cow in order to make your latte later. They personally grind the espresso beans between their teeth to give it a more natural flavor. Of course they’re judging you when you order a caramel macchiato. And they’re definitely going to spell your name wrong on the tiny ceramic cup, because they have names like Leif and Alt-Z.

I hope this brief field guide helped you, or maybe I deeply offended some of you. If you have any further questions about coffee and how it can be served, drop a line in the comments and I’ll address it when I write an entire book based on this post (just kidding, never gonna happen.)

No matter who is standing behind the counter facing you, waiting for you to “just order already,” remember that it’s okay to ask questions. I’ve given you a brief skeleton of the kind of things you’ll encounter at a cafe, but chances are you’ll come nose-to-nose with something I didn’t outline here. Ask questions boldly. The worst thing the barista can do is answer you with a slight note of disdain in their voice.

In the meantime, friends, may your drinks always be caffeinated and your milk frothy. That’s kind of an awkward sign-off, but I’m going to leave it at that. 1237519_10204006906851497_6422427241302713823_n



How to Be A Frugal College Student: A Sort-Of Practical Guide

We’ve all been there. That boring 11am class and you’re struggling to keep your eyes open. You resort to internet shopping. And there it is – that one perfect, beautiful thing that will make your life complete…that you absolutely don’t need at all. But it’s right there! And it’s on sale! And you just got paid!

A week later, you have $5 in your bank account. How did that happen?! All you did was buy that one thing on Amazon…and then a subscription to a magazine you won’t read…and then groceries, which also involved buying a pair of shoes (and jewelry was buy one, get one!) and then grabbing appetizers with friends at 11:30pm, because that’s college.

TL;DR version: little things like that add up.

How do you stop the madness? Do a total spending freeze and not buy anything? Well, that’s a little extreme, but if you think you need that, go for it. Other than good old-fashioned resisting temptation, there are a couple other things you could do to curb your spending. I’ll walk you through each one, based on category.

1. Internet Shopping. Just don’t. That’s really all the advice I have for you. HOWEVER. I know that sometimes you find a deal that you just can’t pass up. So if you do fall into the online shopping rabbit hole, WRITE DOWN HOW MUCH YOU SPENT. Whether you’re able to log it onto a banking app on your phone or actually have a paper transaction record, write it down so you physically see how much you spent and where that money you thought you had went.

2. Grocery Shopping. Two words: Store. Brand. Buy store brand everything. I worked in a grocery store for a summer, and they let me in on a little secret – most store-brand products are the exact same as name brands – they are made in the same factory but labeled differently. So seriously. When you get store-brand stuff, you’re not getting lesser quality. You’re just not paying for the name. However, some products (like Coke and Oreo – c’mon, we all know that the store brands for those are crap) have trademarked recipes so they’re not the same. I still buy name-brand Coke because I don’t want the sTRAIGHT SUGAR EXPLOSION taste of the store brand. (“We don’t have the recipe…let’s just throw MORE SUGAR in there.”)

3. Coffee. This is very important to me. (In case you were wondering whether or not coffee was important to me, look at the header on top of this page.) I do not go cheap on coffee. People often judge me for my coffee budget, but I glare at them over the rim of my iced red-eye extra ice with mocha (yes this is something I order – I GET POINTS ON MY LOYALTY CARD, OKAY?!). Let’s face it – coffee is expensive. Unless you get Maxwell House. And I am NOT TELLING you to get Maxwell House. Or the f-word (Folger’s). Here’s what I would recommend though: store brand coffee is actually pretty good. Plus, they often has a wholebean station where you can grind it up fresh (fresh is always good). A bag of (good) coffee at the store will usually cost you about 8-12 dollars. You could buy in bulk, which will save you a little bit of money.

I DO NOT recommend this: A Keurig. If you drink a lot of coffee (I average three cups a day), then do not get a Keurig. A box of K-cups will cost you 8-12 dollars as well, but you go through them a lot faster than a bag of coffee. One of those boxes would usually last me a week…that’s $8 a week. A decent-sized bag of coffee lasts me two or more…and makes multiple cups, which is helpful if you have roommates. So don’t get a Keurig. Get yourself a nice coffeemaker (you can get single-serve ones that aren’t Keurigs which you can fill with coffee of your choice!) that doesn’t use plastic cups. Your coffee will be cheaper and taste fresher.

If you’re craving a fancy latte, I also have some cheap recommendations in the form of DINING HALL HACKS. If you’re a veteran college student, this is not news to you. When I want more than just black coffee, I stop in for lunch at the dining hall, fill my cup up with coffee (I know, dining hall coffee isn’t always great, but bear with me) and then go over to the ice cream station (because every college worth going to has self-serve soft-serve ice cream) and put some flavored syrup in your cup. It masks the grossness of cafeteria coffee and makes you feel frou-frou because it kind of tastes like a latte. And it tastes waaaay better than whatever they put in the cappucino machine. (Sand and water. That’s what they put in there. Sand and water.)

4. Budgeting. You should probably have a budget. Even if you don’t have a steady income yet (ESPECIALLY if you don’t have a steady income). I am a student worker and I usually work about eight hours a week, so I get a small check every two weeks. That doesn’t give me a lot of spending wiggle room, unless I dip into my savings (which you DO NOT WANT TO DO). Speaking of, the first thing you want to do in order to budget is have savings of some sort that you do not touch unless you absolutely need it (and by absolutely need, I don’t mean shopping spree at Target. I mean broken leg or student loans.) I’m not going to go full-blown Dave Ramsey on you, but you should have some sort of savings. Even if it’s just $20 in your mattress. But I would recommend a little more than that.

There’s also some budgeting apps for your phone (gasp! An app?) I use Mint, mostly because it’s free and it syncs with my bank account. It shows me where my money is going using this cute little colorful pie chart and sends me alerts when something’s up (Example: “You spent $500 in candy this week. This is $400 more than you usually spend.” Stuff like that. I cannot confirm or deny that this happened.)

So, there you go. There’s my budgeting crash course. Frugality 101. Not even 101, it’s like pre-101. Just Frugality. So go forth and be frugal. Save those dollas and change the world.

She Drank A Cup of Coffee. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!

Yes, that was clickbait. No, I’m not ashamed. I’m not ashamed because I did not just shamelessly lead you to a website that features articles like “10 Celebrities Who Secretly Have Lizard Tails” alongside 50 ads for how to get clearer skin using mango peels (someone try it; it might actually work – I mean, coconut oil is a thing, right?) Nope. That clickbait led you here, which might be worse than the aforementioned website.

However, I’m also not lying. I drank a cup of coffee. I’m currently drinking another. And since it’s Keurig coffee, there’s nothing incredibly inspiring about it. Except for the fact that it contains caffeine, which always inspires me. That’s why I don’t judge people who drink Folger’s instant. It’s caffeine, and they probably need it. I don’t judge where your caffeine comes from. Unless you get it from an energy drink. Then I judge you. Hard.

I just listened to part of Hamilton the musical, so I’m in a creative mood and I want to inspire people. But I don’t know what about. This is one blog amongst a million blogs. I’m probably not going to tell you anything you haven’t heard before. In fact, I’m probably going to tell you things that you’ve heard a million times. Think of this as the Slowpoke meme of blogs. If you’re extremely behind on the way everyone else is thinking, come and join me. Together, we can be the ignorant corner of the Internet. Which is the entire Internet.

I’m hoping to actually sit down and personalize this website pretty soon. 9-year-old me would have seen “personalized” and immediately reached for the construction paper, stickers, and Comic Sans font (I loved Comic Sans when I was 9. I have no idea why. I am still repenting to this day.) In the near future, I also hope to narrow the scope of this blog somewhat. Right now, it’s sort of experimental (and not in the artsy, absurdist way. More in the annoying, 7th-grade-science way.) I’ll probably, hopefully, eventually crack down on things that I love doing and start talking about that more.

Or it will just turn into a corner of the Internet reserved for a quiet, slightly miffed 20-something.

In any case, we’ll see, won’t we?