Don't worry baristas, this isn't about making your overly acidic, unbalanced single origin Kenyan espresso go away.
Rather, this post is about simple practicality for the 95% of shops who have no idea what that first sentence means.
A few days ago I'm driving across Pennsylvania wondering why the top end specialty coffee cafes aren't as much fun as all the new bars out there serving 21st century twists on pre-Prohibition cocktails. Of course the lack of booze would be part of that. But another part of that is that those bartenders are generally much more fun to talk to than the typical barista.
As the top end of the industry that gets the most press, we're oh so serious. Even when we're trying our hardest to not be pretentious asswipes, we're still way too serious for all but a small masochistic sliver of the coffee-drinking public.
It's not just baristas. I wish I had an unlimited travel budget a la Jay & Silent Bob to go around and punch every roaster who's said something on their website to the effect of "we select the best beans then roast them to perfection". Fuck off. Really. There is no perfection. All there is is interpretation. Some roasters are damned good at interpreting. But give two exceptional roasters the same exact green coffee, you'll end up with two interpretations every single time. And both will probably be delicious. But they both can't be perfect now can they?
But that's the current state of the very top end of specialty coffee cafe retailing. The most perfect coffee possible at this given time, served as pristinely as possible. To be worshiped as much as enjoyed.
And no customization, please.
All of which is laudable because it really does take a good deal of skill from procuring the green to roasting it to brewing and serving it to ensure that cafe's interpretation of perfection is nailed consistently.
But is that really the ideal cafe? Or the ideal customer service experience?
At the very top level of the specialty coffee cafe business, the thought of flavor syrups is anethema. Although barista competitions wouldn't exist without sponsor monies from the flavored syrup companies, those companies receive little or no respect amongst the elite of the elite in coffeedom.
However, in thinking about the resurgence of craft cocktails, along with the fact that we still have signature drinks as part of barista competitions, it's an easy leap to make the point that maybe the current vision of an ideal cafe is not one where a particular seasonal coffee is the star, but rather one where the espresso is simply one set of flavor notes in a coffee "cocktail".
If we were serious about customer service and education, why wouldn't syrups and flavorings be part of that? Let's call coffee our booze. There's booze that goes with lemon, with orange, with grenadine, with chocolate, with tomato, and so on. And there's coffee that goes with all those flavors as well. We know this because it's rammed into our conciousness with every single barista competition we watch.
So why not have a whole bunch of espressos at the ready and depending what flavors the customer wants in their drink, the educated, sophisticated and skilled barista selects the specific espresso that's just right for that flavor profile.
That should make the customer happy as they get what they want. And it should be tolerable for baristas as they still get to show their chops and be more creative, even if not as gods of the God Shot.
Of course that's impractical. Many epressos means many grinders. Means having a small army of expertly trained baristas. Means much more quality control. Means more waste in all likelihood. Lower margins.
So let's turn that idea on its side and view another possibility.
We all know (or think we know) that the customer who's looking for flavored lattes (or God forbid cappuccino) doesn't really care that much about whether the espresso goes with the flavor or not. They just want caffeine in something sweet that doesn't taste all that much like coffee.
That describes the typical customer of 95% of all coffeehouses in the US.
And here's the thing - there isn't a single coffeehouse that serves 16z and 20z flavored lattes that would go out of business if it stopped serving shots of espresso straight up. Typically when you have a menu that features flavored lattes, straight espresso is around 1% of total coffee revenues, give or take a half percent. Those cafes probably don't do a booming business in 6oz cappuccinos or cortados for that matter.
So why bother with making espresso from scratch at all?
Instead of highlighting an espresso with specific high notes, you want an espresso with nothing particularly memorable, at least nothing that would compete with whatever flavor the customer chooses. Sure you might have hints of chocolate, caramel, toffee. But nothing overpowering. And it's got to be consistent.
When you look at it that way, the expense of owning and maintaining an espresso machine and training baristas appears superfluous to your profit goals. You're never going to get a God Shot from the espresso being used at such an enterprise. So why deal with complicated equipment and personnel? All they can do is break down and get in the way of delivering an ISO9000 standard service.
Get rid of it all. Just make (or buy) batches of espresso concentrate as a mix-in with the flavors. Steam some milk, voila, No muss, no fuss. The customer gets their flavored drink, you get to operate with a lot less overhead.
Customers won't care. They're already so deep into Keurig pods and Nespresso capsules, they're already way ahead of cafe owners when it comes to dumbing things down.
I'm meeting with a guy next Thursday who already sells such a product. I want to learn more.