How to make coffeeshop drinks: Cutting corners

Jun 01

Okay, so. I’ve written several blog entries so far describing how, in general, to make your favorite drinks at home. And through the power of the internets I can feel some of you looking at all these words words words and thinking “Are you crazy? That is way too much effort.”

You know what? It may very well be.

Hear me out here. A quick Google search will turn up page after page and video after video explaining to you how to make the perfect coffee/tea/latte/hot chocolate or whatever your drink preference is. Roast your own coffee beans, grind them with an expensive grinder and then brew them in a Chemex! Buy a specific brand of chocolate and carefully shave it into milk that’s been steamed to an exact temperature! Put your tea into water that is precisely 180 degrees and not boiling! I’ve seen everything down to instructions on precisely regulating the water temperature in your espresso machine and the grind in your grinder.

Will all of that painstaking attention to detail make a better-tasting beverage? Probably, yes.

Will it make a difference that matters to you? It might not. That’s something that varies from person to person.

I look at it this way. I make myself a latte every morning with my espresso machine. And I know a couple of things — I usually put flavored sweetener in it (currently hazelnut syrup), and I hate cleaning up coffee grinders. Because I’m drinking my espresso with milk and sweetener, I don’t care that my beans aren’t freshly-ground, or even if they were ground in the last month. What I care is that I can brew some shots with it to put in my drink, and that those shots have caffeine. So I have my beans ground when I buy them and I don’t use them all up right away.

In some circles that’s a cardinal sin. But you know what? The difference between fresh-ground beans and month-old ground beans is not something I can detect in a hazelnut latte.

What I do care about is freshly steamed milk and a decent-quality flavored syrup. So instead of microwaving the milk or using flavored non-dairy creamer or something, I pour some hazelnut into my mug and fire up the steam wand on my machine, even though those take extra time and cleaning (especially that steam wand!). That’s what matters to me, so that’s what I spend extra time on. It’s not a perfect latte, but it’s a latte I enjoy drinking as I read my morning work emails.

I’ve tried to give a general idea of what to do to recreate your favorite drinks at home, but I’ve also tried to refrain from any value judgments on shortcuts. You don’t necessarily need the most expensive ingredients or the most complicated brewing process to make a drink you enjoy. You can give them a try, especially if you have a coffeeshop or tea room nearby that will do it for you — that way you can sample a Chemex or a carefully temperature-controlled latte or perfectly-brewed loose-leaf tea without making any special investments — but if you’re content drinking something that’s easier for you to make, there’s no particular need for you to do anything else.

I can taste the difference between a carefully-crafted latte at Intelligentsia and my lazy morning latte, sure. But when I’ve just gotten out of bed and the baby needs feeding and my work emails are starting to pile up, the lazy latte is all I need.

So if there’s only one lesson you take away from all my blathering, it’s this: try things until you find what you like, not what you “should” like.