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The Cafe Stage
Distinct Drinks: Signatures of the Specialty Cafe
Author: Dismas Smith
Posted: January 8, 2003
Article rating: 9.1
feedback: (0) comments | read | write
Latte Art Example

This article was written by Dismas Smith, who is the current reigning North American Barista Champion. Reprinted with permission from Fresh Cup Magazine, a monthly magazine for specialty coffee and tea professionals. For more information, visit www.freshcup.com.

A truly great barista considers any shot he or she pulls distinctive. He prepares every latte, macchiato or chai with topnotch professionalism and style and maintains the highest standards in quality. Further, he is a proud representative of his espresso bar, and as such, understands that outstanding coffee can only be created by someone who has mastered the equipment, who knows the audience, and who understands the complexity of roast profiles.

But even if a coffeehouse has the best baristi and drinks in town, it could still benefit from creating and serving original, memorable and personal creations—its very own signature drinks. And though corporate coffeehouse chains show no signs of dropping off, consumers are increasingly hungry for personality in their local coffeehouses, places they take ownership of and brag about to visitors from out of town.

Signature drinks should have style and whimsy, they should showcase the coffee rather than dumbing it down with too many frills, and they should in some way reflect a coffeehouse’s local community. Think of a signature drink as a gift from your coffeehouse to your customers. A great one will earn a thank you card in the form of increased sales, loyal customers and heightened interest in the most important thing in that beverage: the coffee.

Down With Supersizing

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An example of latte art served at Zoka Coffee.

Most coffeehouses might assume they already offer a specialty drink of some sort, but their "specialty" often ends up being their ability to go big in size and down in coffee. Many retailers feel compelled to add these extra-sweet, extra-large, blended, iced, flavored drinks to their menus to keep up with the competition—mainly "big green" or whatever chain dominates their area. The need to compete is understandable, but if smaller retailers play by the rules set by corporate competitors, they will undoubtedly lose. In coffee hubs like Seattle, the cafés and espresso bars still going strong have learned this lesson. These independents have figured out that by excelling in quality, rather than simply in quantity, they can thrive.

I would like to challenge American retailers to go small with signature drinks. We can beat the big chains not by copying what they do, but by offering intensely flavored drinks made with high-quality ingredients. It’ll probably require extra effort and time, but it’s guaranteed to pay off in the long run.

No one expects to see the same menu in five-star restaurants as they see in McDonald’s. Similarly, customers shouldn’t expect the same coffee menu in their local café as the one posted at Starbucks. But small retailers that often feel at a loss for a dramatic way to distinguish themselves should seriously consider incorporating signature drinks into their menu. In doing so, they will likely surpass the competition by offering drinks that focus on—rather than mask the flavor of—the coffee. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to concentrate on small, elegant, eye-catching drinks. Many retailers avoid small drinks because they can charge more for larger drinks, and they assume customers won’t want to pay a premium for a small drink.

Let’s face it: Americans tend to think bigger is always better. But if you are committed to sourcing quality ingredients and to making the best-tasting drinks possible, customers will pay for that quality and you will have set yourself apart from the competition. The signature drinks created at the 2001 World Barista Competition in Oslo, Norway, were small in size but giant in taste. My drink entry, "Latin Love," was between two and three ounces, but it was so flavorful that making it larger would have overwhelmed it.

Specialize in Specifics

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Judges at the World Barista Championships (WBC) taste the drinks made by a representative from India.
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The Italian entry in the signature drink category at the WBC in 2002.
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One American entry at the North American Barista Championships in Aneheim.
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Steve Colten, 2002 President of the SCAA, judges drinks at a Barista competition.

Unlike national chains, independent retailers have the flexibility to match signature drinks to their customers. Because they are a physical part of the local community, these smaller coffeehouses have a stronger connection to and understanding of their clientele. What’s more, they are able to organize their menus to include regional specialties, such as blueberries in Bangor, Maine, or fresh sugar cane in Kona, Hawaii.

Where I work, at Seattle’s Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea Company, the process of designing new signature drinks has become a great way to teach baristi about flavor combinations. Through experimentation, they develop new ideas, find blends they might never have thought of, and explore flavors they assumed would work well together but didn’t, or vice versa.

Customers also enjoy participating in the process. At Zoka, we invite them to taste and comment on our latest concoctions, which not only helps us create a better drink, but gives customers a sense of pride and ownership in the end result. In fact, because so many customers were involved in testing the drink with which I won at the 2001 North American Barista Competition, we’ve added it to our menu.

Baristi may also opt to design signature drinks around events or as tributes to specific people or places. For his entry in the 2001 World Barista Competition, Jeroen Veldkamp of the Grand Café in Holland dedicated his signature drink to honoring the 400-year anniversary of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), the United East India Company. His drink was intended to represent the history of the VOC, an organization that was originally comprised of coffee, sugar and spice importers to Europe. Veldkamp used some of those same spices to create a syrup for his drink, making it a great example of a drink with local flavor.

Inspired by Experience and Quality

Dreaming up a specialty drink isn’t as tough as it sounds. Not only will you learn by trial and error, but also by the different nuances high-quality ingredients can lend to your creations. Try using classic, simple flavors like vanilla or even an all-natural syrup. Many specialty coffee customers prefer natural flavors and are moving away from artificially enhanced products. And look to your local community and its ethnic breakdown for inspiration.

Most cultures have a traditional coffee drink. My signature drink was inspired by a childhood experience. When I was growing up, my mom would make hot chocolate using Mexican spiced chocolate. Later, in college, I gravitated to a coffeehouse that made Mexican chocolate mochas because they reminded me of home. So when I began my signature drink research, I looked into traditional Mexican coffee drinks. Browsing through your local bookstore or library may be the perfect way to get ideas for exciting signature drinks.

Embrace the Science Experiment

When I was developing my signature drink, I mixed Mexican chocolate with condensed, sweetened milk, put about a tablespoon of it into a cocktail shaker, poured the espresso right on top, stirred, added ice, and shook. I was surprised by how good it tasted. The espresso and chocolate complemented each other perfectly, and the flavor was deep and powerful. At first, I wondered whether the drink would be too small to sell in the store, especially considering the expense of the ingredients. But throughout my experimentation, I looked to customers for comments and advice, and most insisted that they would pay a higher price for it. In fact, many said they would be surprised if we didn’t charge more.

The best drinks often come from improving upon existing recipes. Do this by making your own custom syrups, or by experimenting with temperature and spice variations. Several of the 2001 WBC competitors did just that. The most important thing to remember when creating a drink is to get as many opinions and suggestions about your experiments as possible.

Looks Matter

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Variation on the Latin Love drink

No matter how good a drink tastes, no one will give it a chance unless it looks appealing. My "Latin Love" drink is topped with Mexican chocolate-infused whipped cream, white chocolate shavings and a cinnamon stick. Served in a sherry glass, it looks elegant and whimsical. One of my co-workers adds a slice of orange to his signature orange mocha, and another uses lime to garnish his distinct drink. It’s amazing what a difference these kinds of details make to customers. That’s why so much attention is also paid to the vessel in which the drink is served.

Think of the cup or glass as a costume. It should hint at the character or culture of a signature drink. It can even effect the way a drink tastes. While developing my drink, I used a glass with a slight bubble shape and a tapered top. That shape forced the drink to come out from underneath the whipped cream, which left some of my taste-testers with a bitter mouthfeel. Some suggested I use a glass with a wider top. Any wine enthusiast will agree that the shape of the glass is very important, as different vessels accentuate the flavors of different wines. When I switched glasses, the result was amazing. With a wider opening, the drink flowed into consumers’ mouths altogether, and the richness of the coffee was perfectly complemented by the smooth cream and brisk chocolate.

I have seen drinks served in martini glasses, wine glasses, even in hollowed-out coconuts. The point is to underscore what’s inside the cup. Similarly, latte art can be an excellent introduction for your drink, showcasing your technique and passion before a customer even tastes the drink. Take the time to train your baristi in proper latte art technique, and remember that while it can certainly be mastered with practice, it’s not as easy as it may look.

"You cannot learn to pour latte art in an afternoon. You can be shown how, but the practice and perfection of it takes some doing," Vancouver, B.C.-based roaster Aaron De Lazzer writes on Coffeegeek.com. "Blindly feeling my way through things, it took me months of late nights, burning through liters of two percent milk and pounds of espresso.  I’ve in turn shown many of my staff how to do it, and it has taken them a long time to nail it down. Even then the consistency isn’t always there. If there is a shortcut to latte art expertise, I haven’t found it. Fortunately, like riding a bike, once you’ve got latte art down pat, you’ve got it for good."

From selecting a vessel that perfectly complements your drink to mastering latte art, presentation is what will impress or disappoint customers first. If it looks good, they will probably not only purchase your signature drink, but they’ll keep coming back for more.

Be Playful

Signature drink trends are bold, brave and no holds barred. Barista competition judges may be much more discerning than the average consumer, but if your regulars are drinking specialty coffee at all, they’re more likely to seek out daring drinks. While hosting the Western Regional Barista Championship at the NASCORE trade show in Portland, Ore., recently, Danny Johns of WholeCup Coffee Consulting regaled the audience with stories about some of the wackiest drinks he had ever been served. He recalled a drink that included kangaroo meat at the bottom of the cup.

I shudder to think how the drink tasted, but Johns’ story illustrates how a drink’s audacity can make it unforgettable and, hopefully, tempting.  Any barista worth his tamp knows that a truly distinct drink should make a strong impression, and he will let topnotch ingredients, stylish presentation and a lot of imagination work together in the creation of his signature.


The Creative Cup: Mastering the Craft of Latte Art

It’s called art for a reason. A highly technical, practiced and stylish method of serving espresso, latte art wins consumers’ hearts not simply because it’s visually appealing, but because it’s a sign of a superb barista, one who knows how to manage her milk and treat it with the respect the coffee deserves.

There are two musts in producing high-quality latte art: a superb espresso shot and the perfect milk froth. “Espresso is very unforgiving,” writes Vancouver, B.C.-based roaster Aaron De Lazzer on the Website, Coffeegeek.com. “Most places do it poorly and have no hope of building up the deep, rich crema texture and color required to build the artwork. Milk is equally unforgiving. When it is expertly handled, milk morphs into a liquid that has a quicksilver sheen with an unbeatable texture on the palate.  Most places don’t do this kind of milk—instead you get scalded liquid with big bubbles on top, or dry, dead stuff that you can build mountains from.”

Increasingly, well-executed latte art is not simply appreciated, but also expected at independent coffeehouses and espresso bars. More and more customers are actively seeking the expert presentation of a heart or a rosetta latte. But with practice and instruction, just about anyone can master this steaming and pouring technique. Here are a few pointers to help get you started on creating a rosetta.

  1. Start with cold milk and a cold pitcher. The ideal pitcher has straight walls with a spout that focuses the milk in order to draw in the crema. Fill the pitcher one-third full.

  2. Flush the steam wand to remove unwanted water build-up in the wand.

  3. Submerge the wand tip in the milk before turning on the steam. Turn on the steam pressure and keep the wand tip just below the surface of the milk to inject air. Hold it at an angle to create a whirlpool motion in the milk.

  4. About the time the pitcher stops being cool to the touch (when the milk reaches approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit), stop injecting air and begin to roll the milk in order to texture it.

  5. When the temperature reaches about 145 degrees Fahrenheit, turn off the steam without removing the steam wand from the milk.

  6. Once the steam pressure is off, remove the steam wand from the milk and begin to swirl the milk in the pitcher by hand until your espresso is done pouring. Your milk should have no visible bubbles and a smooth, shiny appearance.

  7. Slowly pour milk down the back edge of the glass and gradually pour faster and move the pitcher forward, keeping your wrist loose.

  8. When you start to see milk beneath the crema, wiggle your wrist left and right while pulling back toward you to create the design. Just before you reach the end of the glass, quickly pour back through the pattern to create the stem.

Dismas Smith is the reigning North American Barista Champion. He is a barista, roaster and retail manager for Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea Company in Seattle, and can be reached at 206/545-4277. Reprinted with
permission from Fresh Cup Magazine, a monthly magazine for specialty coffee
and tea professionals. For more information, visit www.freshcup.com.

Article rating: 9.1
Author: Dismas Smith
Posted: January 8, 2003
feedback: (0) comments | read | write
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