What’s in a (coffee) Name? | Seattle Cafe Culture

Menu from Ghost Note Coffee in Seattle, WA.

A menu from Ghost Note Coffee in Seattle, WA.

Remember how cool it was to call a shot ristretto? As both a customer and barista, I love to evoke the romantic history of espresso’s Italian origins. Illy, Gaggia, Faema; some of the biggest names in the game come straight from Italy, and who am I to say that isn’t a good thing?

So I’ll say it: using ristretto and lungo is a good thing; but it might not be in every situation. Sometimes it can be dangerous to use ristretto and lungo. In short, they have the ability to preclude the nuance and flexibility for a coffee to express itself. Let me explain.

I just came back from Empire Espresso here in Seattle, WA. I was excited for their single origin Ethiopia pulled as an espresso (don’t ask the varietal specifics, I can’t recall). What I received was thick and sharp, and barely two sips’ worth. My tongue yearned for more. When I inquired about the (seemingly lack of) volume, I was told they only make ristrettos, and that was that.

I wanted the shot to explain what I might expect from its whole bean brothers. Beyond the disappointment of leaving empty-handed, I felt disappointed that the coffee was barred from showing its full potential.

When we use words like ristretto, we inadvertently placate the coffee origin itself from taking center stage in the customer’s mind. If the term is used across all offerings, it, not the origin, is what customers expect. And if it doesn’t fully accentuate what a coffee has to offer, it may turn into what I feel is a label that encourages cafes to settle in their operations.

This settling is dangerous not for the café, but for the customers. Regardless of preference or experience in coffee, customers should be encouraged to order what they like. They shouldn’t have to wade through descriptors in the espresso volume to gauge their preference.

It is the responsibility of the coffee professional to pull out the best in the bean, using as many or as few tools as they deem fit for the task. They owe it to their guests (and their producers!) to describe the experience not by an Italian descriptor of liquid volume, but by the very best flavors and nuance they skillfully unlocked from the coffee. In doing so, they invite a conversation, a dialogue of subjective preference, and a pride in the art of coffee.

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