Given the rise of new roasting techniques, fussy techniques, and revival drinks, the coffee shop is a place with often odd, shifting rules and behavior expectations. In truth, while it can all feel a bit like an artisanal spin on Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, but these rules, or strongly suggested ordering guidelines, are not without purpose. These are the reasons why specialty coffee shops are called specialty: They know what they’re doing, even if you don’t think they do.
It’s that mentality that has lead specialty chains like the Chicago-based Intelligentsia, which roasts it own coffee, to opt for a kind of compromise when it comes to service, often making drinks to the company’s standards and then, if the customer doesn’t like it, remaking it to his or her exact specifications. As Intelligentsia’s retail educator Marty Sweeney put it in an email: “We want all customers to feel welcomed in our coffee bars. We try to be as accommodating as we can, within reason.” We asked Sweeney about a few of the not-so-preferred things customers requested, and he told us how Intelligentsia responds. Just a warning: If you’re looking for a “No coffee for you!” attitude, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
- 1. Don’t Espresso to go
First, the problem with ordering espresso or macchiatos to go: the demitasse-sized paper cups will have your espresso going cold quickly, and with the vague taste of paper to boot. Intelligentsia baristas encourage customers to have it in ceramic, often while holding a demitasse in demonstration. “One of the worst feelings is having a barista size you up, decide you probably don't know what you want, and say, ‘Our macchiatos are this size,’’ Sweeney says.
- Don’t Dictate Temperature
“Intelligentsia baristas are very precise with their milk-temperatures, we like to shoot for around 140 degrees for lattes, as that tends to be where our drinks taste the sweetest,” Sweeney says. Sometimes, on a day that might feature something like a Polar Vortex, customers will want a latte with boiling milk, which doesn’t really work because milk tends to cook and curdle. Your best bet is to ask the barista to preheat the cup with hot water before making your drink in it, because even nice the guy baristas at Intelligentsia will only make your drink “slightly hotter.”
- Skip the “Foam"
You may have noticed that “foam” is absent in the world of specialty coffee, mostly because of the fact that it doesn’t integrate well with espresso and creates drinks more about dichotomy than homogeny. (This was, coincidentally, part of the impetus for the creation of the flat white) Sweeney says they’ll aerate the milk and scoop foam onto drinks for customers if they demand it, but adds, in a rare bit of candor, “It’s not a drink many of our baristas would order.”
- …As Well as the Iced cappuccinos
Also absent at most specialty shops are iced cappuccinos, or anything that involves icing hot drinks. Sweeney has an easy out with this one, and that’s that health code is very tricky when it comes to this kind of thing. Also, it’s not suggested because icing hot drinks, no matter the ratio of liquid to ice, will make for a watered down beverage.
- 5. Keep It Under 12 oz.
If you go to a shop that has a 12 oz latte as the large size, it’s generally pretty unwise — if not impossible — to try to order a 16 oz drink, and it’s generally safe to just stick to what the shop offers on its menu. “We let them know that our 12 oz drinks and our 16 oz drinks have the same amount of espresso, the bigger drink just has more milk. As a result, the 16 oz can taste a little weak.” Sweeney says.
- ”Iced" espressos Don’t Come With Ice
Iced espresso is generally going to be pulled onto a small amount of cold water and served to stay in a small cup. The cold water is to prevent an espresso from being shocked into bitterness by ice, and the small cup to stay is to prevent a customer from adding enough milk to give themselves an iced latte for the price of an espresso, which a lot of people see as frugal or clever, but what is really, in a small way, cheating a coffee shop.
If there’s one thing we’ve all learned in the past ten years of the coffee explosion, it’s that the drink is versatile, and people like to exploit that versatility. But specialty shops aren’t here to showcase how coffee tastes with caramel and froth, and their offerings are what they are for a reason: to highlight the coffee. A lot of shops aren’t as friendly as Intelligentsia, but that’s because they’re a nationwide chain and supplier. At any rate, here’s a tip: Kindly explain to your barista exactly what it is that you want. And then, let them take that information and make your drink. It’ll be good, even if he’s grumpy.