Allow me to paint a familiar scene. You walk into a coffee shop (or stumble, based on your level of alertness in the morning) and gaze at the whimsical names of beverages expertly scrawled across a blackboard menu. You recognize a few of the items, but words like “nitro” and “cold brew” make you question if you’re even in the right place. Mumbling to yourself that you just wanted a coffee and it’s far too early for riddles, you watch the customers before you place orders with practiced precision. As the friendly barista waves you up to the counter, a brief moment of panic sweeps through your body. Sure, you could just blurt out, “coffee…with cream” and hope for the best, but what if your perfect cup was just beyond the haze of steamed milk?
Coffee doesn’t have to be confusing. You can order the perfect cup of Joe with caffeinated confidence – all it takes is a little espresso education. To help our readers, we called in coffee expert and owner of Caffe Tosi, Anne Reitz to demystify the menu and provide a perk primer. Caffe Tosi is a quaint Italian eatery just steps from Lake Michigan and a local favorite for freshly-made beverages like espresso, latte, and Borgia.
The Basics: Coffee vs. Espresso
The first question is the obvious one – what is the difference between coffee and espresso? While they are not different things, they are prepared differently. Espresso is a type of coffee, more precisely, a method of brewing coffee using high water pressure and finely ground coffee beans to make a small, concentrated shot. Coffee, on the other hand, uses coarsely ground beans to produce a less concentrated liquid with a thinner consistency. The vast majority of specialty coffee drinks start with espresso as the base and add steamed milk, foam, or water in different amounts to produce different results.
- Americano = one part espresso, two parts water
- Latte = one part espresso, two parts steamed milk, topped with foam
- Cappuccino = equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foam
Since it provides the foundation, the quality of the espresso is of the utmost importance to coffee houses and their guests. At Caffe Tosi, they use Illy brand espresso imported directly from Italy using the highest quality Arabica beans on the market. According to Anne, “Ernesto Illy was a chemist who studied the effects of caffeine on the body. He invented the modern espresso machine and introduced the pressurization method of preserving coffee. We honor his traditional methods of preparing espresso beverages in our Caffe.”
Where to Begin?
Now that you know the base ingredient of most specialty coffee drinks, where do you go from there? According to Anne, if a new customer walks in looking to try a specialty coffee, a skilled barista will ask multiple questions before making any recommendations. Do they enjoy a stronger or lighter coffee flavor? What kind of milk? How about a special flavor – sweet, nutty, or fruity? Let’s say the customer replies that they prefer a coffee taste with a sweet flavor and coconut milk. In this case, a barista might recommend a caramel cappuccino with coconut milk!
In looking for your perfect coffee order, it’s all about finding the right combination to fit your tastes. Knowing how you’d answer those three questions provides a great start. Communication is key with your barista, trust them to walk you through the process. As Anne says, “Baristas are a valuable part of every coffee order. They are in charge of warmly and enthusiastically greeting the customer upon entering the café, then they listen intently to the customer’s order and prepare their drink to perfection. Typically, the barista is their first interaction outside of their family for the day, so they set the tone for the customer to have a great day!”
Choose Your Roast Level: Light or Dark
Perhaps specialty coffees aren’t the right fit for you, and you prefer a brewed cup of coffee instead. Let’s pause here to investigate a common misconception. If you’re a coffee novice, you might assume that the darker the roast, the higher the caffeine. But, the opposite is actually true – as beans roast darker, both the caffeine content and flavors of the bean roast out. According to experts, “Darker roasts are kept in the oven until dark brown, and the outsides of the beans are oily. That’s why the flavor of dark roasts depends more on the roast than the type of bean; you taste the notes from the roasting process, not the bean itself.”
Regardless of the roast level, Anne Reitz says making a perfect cup of coffee is more of an art than a science. “To make a perfect cup of coffee, you must first have love and passion for your craft. Then, technical capabilities and experience combine to prepare a drink with a high degree of quality.”
Skip the Steam: Cold Brew vs. Iced Coffee
Hot coffee or a steamy latte sound great on a chilly spring morning, but as warmer weather approaches, you might want a cooler version of caffeine to sip. So, what’s up with this cold brew craze and how is it different from iced coffee? Let’s start with the faster (and often cheaper) option of iced coffee. Brewed as hot coffee (in minutes) and then poured over ice, this drink might be a touch more bitter and acidic but offers a full-bodied flavor and aromatic taste. By comparison, cold brew takes 12-24 hours to brew with cold or room temperature water. This process gives it less acidity and bitterness and a smoother, sweeter taste. If you’re looking for more caffeine, cold brew is the ticket.
But wait, there’s more. To kick it up a notch, some coffee houses, including Caffe Tosi, also offer nitro cold brew. Although the name sounds intriguing (and a little bit dangerous), it starts out the same way as cold brew but is then infused with nitrogen when poured through a tap. This process creates a natural foam on top and an even richer, creamier taste. And because it’s generally served without ice, you get even more coffee and caffeine in every cup.
Try Something New
Every coffee house is a little different, and whether it’s a unique speciality drink or distinctive environment, each offers something that sets them apart. One specialty coffee made exclusively at Caffe Tosi is a Borgia – made with espresso, chocolate, milk, foam, and orange zest. A fan favorite, the Borgia is a regular drink order for many in Southwest Michigan who stop in to the caffe before a day of work or play.
Coffee doesn’t have to be confusing, and the secret to finding your perfect cup is to experiment and have fun in the process. Talk with the experienced barista behind the counter, communicate your preferences, and soon you’ll be ordering like an expert. Who knows, you might even find you like a lavender, peppermint chai with almond milk! (Okay, maybe not, but it’s the most unique order Anne’s ever made for a customer.) And at the end of your tasting adventure, you may end up sticking with a regular old brewed coffee with a little cream – you can’t go wrong with a classic.
Regardless of your order, consider placing it at a local coffee shop. According to Anne, “We’ve all been to places we love, and sometimes we take for granted that they will be there forever. But as we’ve most recently experienced with the pandemic, many local shops were forced to close due to lack of support. Supporting local businesses is vital to the success of our local economy and always a good idea. Some customers visit every day, some visit once a month, but all ensure that our merchants will continue to survive for a long time.”
This article – and your next cup of coffee – are brought to you by Caffe Tosi, in downtown St. Joseph. Caffe Tosi offers “The tastes of Italy in the heart of Michigan.” Serving delectable breakfasts plus lunch, dinner, and a host of beverages and treats. Stop in today!
About the Writer: Stacey Martin is a local author and freelance writer with a passion for promoting Southwest Michigan. Take writing off your to-do list and inquire about content creation for your business at staceymartinwrites.com. She is the author of We Grow Kids Here and New Girl at Church, and the creator and host of “The Folks Back Home” podcast.