Jan. 21, 2017

Before 2011, I was just like a large percentage of Americans.  I craved sugar.  I didn't know what espresso was and for the longest time, I thought it was called expresso...just watch the scene from the movie "Swingers" where actor Jon Favreau hits on a girl sitting at the bar and she can't recollect where she knows him from.  Within seconds, she figures it out and says, "That's right, I made you an EXPRESSO."

(Hand drip coffee via CAFÈ EMPOROS -- photograph courtesy of Jonathan Warren Carroll)

I didn't care about coffee.  I didn't care where the beans came from, where they were shipped and roasted.  I just needed a fix and didn't care what coffee shop it came from - a legal drug to keep me going throughout the day. So, millions of Americans really don't crave coffee.  They crave sugar and caffeine -- just like the unfortunate addiction we see today with nicotine and cocaine users.  I used to consume "coffee" at Starbucks, but it wasn't coffee at all.  It was my brain wanting to consume a mix of espresso, whipped cream, mass amounts of sugar and syrup while getting a caffeine and sugar high at the same time -- the thing is that your metabolism catches up with you when you consume foods/liquids that are bad for you (in this case, enough sugar to cause serious damage to your body).  I get it.  I can relate to those that are currently in the shoes I once filled.  If you like "sugary drinks" and don't want to learn and potentially switch to an espresso, black coffee, a latte, a cappuccino, macchiato, a cortado, an americano or more, I respect how you want to enjoy a coffee beverage.  However, I hope to change your mind.  

(Cappuccino via Kream Coffee in Phoenix, Arizona -- photograph courtesy of Jonathan Warren Carroll)

Here's my take on specialty shops -- particularly here in the Phoenix Metro Valley because if I talked about specialty shops in Portland, Seattle, New York or San Francisco, you'd be reading a novel, not an article.  Okay, so here's my definition of what a specialty coffee shop is:  a shop that is designed to intrigue a clientele that is already knowledgable about coffee in general and a crowd that is eager to learn more.  The owners, the staff and roaster (if the shop roasts their own beans) are extremely passionate about all genres of coffee (from where it is cropped, roasted, cupped, and finally used).  Specialty shops are full of insight, love educating their clientele and are constantly offering assistance to those who want to learn as much about coffee as humanly possible. Amazing specialty shops don't judge. They don't care if you go or used to go to Starbucks or any other chains. They care about earning your respect in what they do and offer.  They care about supporting other small businesses to grow the economy. The most important thing a genuine specialty shop cares about?  Their community and growing coffee culture in their area.  So, there you have it -- in a nutshell, a long and detailed term for what a specialty shop is and what they do.

(Interior design/decor of Tucson, Arizona's Exo Roast Co. -- photograph courtesy of Jonathan Warren Carroll)

Now, let me discuss a chain operation so that you can clearly see vast differences.  Local chains don't care about you, your children, your wife or your husband.  Local chains care about money.  They care about how quickly they can make you an awful cappuccino, send it out and place the next order.  They care about getting you in and getting you out.  Their culture is the exact opposite of a small specialty coffee shop.   Where a specialty coffee shop is delicate in handling every single coffee drink order, a chain is about speed.  They could care less about whether a double shot of espresso is pulled in 22-28 seconds (a standard great shot).  Where specialty shops care about how their beans are handled and roasted, a chain could care less and often or not, pay the cheapest for bags of green coffee.  Local chains are great at one thing:  speed and selling sugar to their customer base. Sugar is what makes chains the most money, not the quality of their espresso or where they purchase their beans from -- and they know it and don't care.  I mean, if you were making six figures a year and owned a chain and weren't well educated on coffee, you wouldn't care either. The fact is...plenty of people that are owners and customers do.  Here's the thing though -- you can change and become just like them.  All it takes is your willingness to give it a shot.

(Swan Latte via Songbird Coffee & Tea House in Phoenix, Arizona -- photograph courtesy of Jonathan Warren Carroll)

Now you've read a few paragraphs on the main differences between specialty v. chain.  I'm glad we're on the same page now or at least we're getting there.  Next, I will discuss how you can automatically notice your average non-chain coffee shop from a specialty shop.  Here goes:  A specialty shop has very simple design/decor or it's unique with its menu (no syrup/sugar drinks, has a simple coffee menu, the baristas are friendly, outgoing and full of charm and customer service, they talk about their local roast, can describe exactly how they make each coffee drink and will entice you to try new things).  They'll offer you locally made in-house pastries/sandwiches or purchase them from another local small bakery.  They do what they do because they love what they do.  They'll talk about different brewing methods, why coffee drinks are better in ceramic mugs/demitasse cups v. paper cups and more.  

(Menu via Cartel Coffee Lab in Tempe, Arizona -- photograph courtesy of Jonathan Warren Carroll)

(Coffee Flavor Wheel -- photograph courtesy of Jonathan Warren Carroll)

For local specialty shop baristas -- coffee is their life and they're not afraid to talk about it 24/7.  A specialty shop will NEVER give you an espresso, cappuccino, cortado, macchiato, etc in a paper cup (especially when it's ordered to consume at a local shop).  It's just classless and goes against specialty coffee guidelines. Simply put, it deteriorates the overall taste of espresso when it's in a paper cup (if you have to order a cappuccino to go, you'll realize it'll taste different than being in a demitasse -- a small ceramic cup espresso in which a macchiato, cortado or other small and similar drinks are served in).  These coffee beverages should be consumed in-house.  After all, a double shot is only 2 oz, a macchiato is 3 oz and a standard cappuccino is 6 oz.  If you receive a double espresso shot in a paper cup, you're doomed and you're not in a specialty shop.  An espresso shot should be pulled and served in a 2 oz demitasse ceramic cup on a small saucer with a spoon and small glass of seltzer water.  The seltzer water is used to balance your pallet while enjoying the espresso, but more importantly, it's all about presentation and the art of coffee.

(Espresso Bar with a 1-group Synesso Hydra Espresso Machine, Mazzer Grinder and a Hario V60 Pour Over Station via Kream Coffee in Phoenix, Arizona  -- photograph courtesy of Jonathan Warren Carroll)

Maybe after taking this all in, your mind is blown and I've done my job by intriguing you to expand your mind like I did.  Or you can't imagine your life without consuming boatloads of sugar.  Remember though -- coffee is good for you, sugar...is not.  I'm not here to tell you sugar is bad for you.  I have to assume you already know this.  I'm here to tell you that after you try different single-origin coffees, test out local specialty coffee shops -- asking for a pour over, chemex, aeropress, french press, to name a few brewing methods -- after a while, you'll notice a significant difference in pre-ground coffee v. ground coffee on the spot after it's been ordered, prepared and made for you.  I ran an experiment with my older brother testing out different brewing methods v. an automatic drip machine and his exact words when observing me using each apparatus, measuring out a specific amount of grams used per method and the exact amount of hot water was simply astonishing -- this coming from someone who knows nothing about coffee.  His words, "Holy s**t, this is amazing.  I never knew or cared about coffee, but this is vastly different from what I'm used to."  Just like that, he buys local beans from a local shop, grounds only what he is going to use and uses a french press, using the exact water/coffee ratio I showed him.  That took 10 minutes of his time.   It doesn't take a genius to learn about coffee, specialty coffee and easy brewing techniques -- it just takes someone who cares enough. Do you?

(Lavender Latte via Provision Coffee in Chandler, Arizona -- photograph courtesy of Jonathan Warren Carroll)

Written by Jonathan Warren Carroll