Remember the 1980s when the cappuccino was king? Or the 1990s, when Ally McBeal taught a generation how to make love to their latte? Or how about more recently, when we all started knocking back those celebrity-loved Starbucks cocktails. Well, all of that is over now. Say goodbye to your grande, tall, non-fat, extra-sugar, sugar-free, dry, wet mochachappafrappas. Say adios to your triple-foam latte, your stock cappuccino. There's a new drink in town for the upwardly mobile and it's so straightforward that it's even cheap. This is espresso for the New World, my friends. It's called the americano.
An americano is so simple it hurts-two shots of espresso and steaming water. This isn't just some watered-down espresso, though. (I know, I know, that would be a stumbling point for some of you.) The americano is a bolder cup of coffee. It's a subtle difference, but one that may explain why more and more coffee drinkers are ordering americano.
"If you drink americanos you start to see anyone who loves a latte as something of a bed-wetter," says Emily Smart, who has manned coffee bars from Halifax to London, Ontario. "Or at least someone who prefers white bread, iceberg lettuce and McNuggets."
Americano drinkers have many faces: they're men, women, old and young. Some of them are new converts, some of them are obviously lifers. But who are these people? Where did they come from? And why suddenly an americano and not a quail's-egg-sized espresso?
"The americano drinker is the new breed of coffee drinker," explains Sarah Kilpack, a barista at Toronto's Cherry Bomb. "They're not yuppies, they're those 'artsy' people. I don't know what the fuck they are. They're the gentrifiers," she muses. With coffee shops all over Toronto now ranking the americano as one of their most popular drinks (second to, or tied with, the latte), what is really behind the americano renaissance?
Truth By The Cup
An americano fits the North American idea of a cup of coffee. While a little sip of espresso is hardly a morning drink, two shots of fresh (albeit watered-down) espresso is miles closer to that extra-large cuppa cuppa from Coffee Time. "People don't order straight-up espresso unless they really want it," explains Kilpack. It's even rumoured the americano-which was among Starbucks' original product line-up when it opened in the 1980s-was invented as a response to the childlike palates of North Americans who couldn't handle the punch of a traditional espresso shot. And at around $1.50, it's usually about half the price of a regular latte.
A Hobbesian Grind
Does the americano go hand in hand with a refinement of taste? Should we be embarrassed that the latte is the most popular Starbucks drink in North America? The cruel truth is that coffee-drinking now has a mysterious social order of its own.
While long line-ups for the perfect brew can certainly feel like a war of "all against all," it doesn't seem a stretch to suggest that there's a hierarchy at work in the coffee world. Will the latte forever rule the americano? Is the macchiato aristocratic? Are lattes really for bed-wetters? It sounds ridiculous, but remember, your loyalty to a particular type of brew, roast or even sweetener can play on one of your worst sins-pride.
Listen to Kilpack prove my point (with her apologies in advance to chai lovers): "Chai lattes are weak ... chai is steamed milk." The implication-steamed milk is something children need before sleep, not a drink to propel you through the morning.
THE DICTATORSHIP OF TASTE
"It's all about the amount of control," says a server at Toronto's Drake Hotel, an establishment where the coffee is so cool it's called Drake Juice. "You control how [an americano] is made and what you put in it."
Andrew Bricker, barista at both the Cherry Bomb and Orange Alert, elaborates: "There is more specificity to an americano. You can adjust the flavour with shorter or longer espresso shot."
"People are realizing it's a different way to brew coffee," adds another Toronto coffee shop owner. "You get that fresh extraction of the beans every time." In other words, you can be sure your americano doesn't come from a pot of coffee that was made four hours ago.
"Crappy baristas can hide behind the latte or the mochaccino because the milk can conceal a less-than-wonderful shot of espresso," adds Smart. "The Americano has no cover. It's exposed and it's really obvious if it's a bad one."
THE AMERICANO DREAM
The truth is that there is no easy explanation behind our new taste for the americano-coffee drinkers will have their way. "You just never know with people," says a barista at Ideal Coffee in Toronto's Kensington Market. "There are days when everyone orders a mochaccino." It's probably just a trend-like Ugg boots, only less impractical for city dwelling and, of course, more delicious.