Coffee in the Hinterlands: How (not) to Order Lattes in the South

by S. J. Stowell

Latte lovers all know that we are spoiled here in Seattle, with Starbucks for the basic reliable, and any number of fine local roasters and baristas for gourmet brews prepared with the personal touch. However we also realize that Seattle does not have a monopoly on good espresso coffee. After all, we are sophisticated enough to understand that the world does not exactly revolve around Seattle, San Francisco was there before us, and anyway there are Starbucks cafes at every Barnes and Noble Bookstore, níest ce pas?

With these thoughts in mind, I bravely set out on my annual Christmas trek to the deep South (Alabama, Georgia, and Florida). I armed myself for the occasion, of course. I took my gold drip coffee filter and a mini six-pack of Starbucks coffees contributed by thoughtful party guest. This would cover such emergencies as a two night stay in an Alabama state park cabin, and a week in a beach house in Florida. Surely the newfound popularity of espresso coffee would carry me through airports, day long car trips, and dining out in a few towns where family members reside.

Indeed, there is espresso out there. There is espresso in towns where no espresso has been before. There is espresso to be found in towns where no espresso was found only six weeks before, in fact. Most of this espresso is even quite good, and all of it is made with friendly willingness and an eagerness to please.

The real espresso excitement lies in varying from the straight and narrow; the straight shot that is. While the straight shot is rarely ordered in the South, it has the undeniable benefit of being simple and understandable. Once you convince the local barista (donít call them that to their face, of course) that you do want just a shot of espresso (or perhaps a double), the odds are good that there will be few surprises. The primary surprise here seems to be that those places which do serve espresso seem to take the trouble to do it reasonably well, and with fresh coffee. The same is hardly true here in Seattle, where espresso is so ubiquitous, but I digress...

I learned this lesson; to keep it simple (I mean really simple), only after some hard won experience. I sallied forth from the Northwest oblivious, ready to order my usual variations; a double tall americano with room for cream, or a double tall nonfat latte with foam.

I anticipated that terminology would be a problem. Local variations have taught me that. Here in town, I prepare to order at an unfamiliar espresso bar by hovering at the back of the line, listening to the orders, and checking for hand chalked signs that might indicate the preferred sequence and terms for specifying oneís customized coffee drink.

In the South, this would be harder. Chances are that I would not be able to make out more than a word or two of the orders from customers ahead of me. Chances are that this word would be: "dear", "honey", or "Bubba", leaving me ill informed as to correct ordering style. It was a hazard that I was prepared to face; I would brazen out the humiliation of my ordering style by conversing loudly about Seattle, and waving my personal Starbucks stainless steel and black rubber commuter cup! No problemo!

Little did I know, and how rudely I found out. The surprises started in Milledgeville, Georgia, a small town near Atlanta with a private college and an insane asylum. We ate dinner in a cafe known for its (awesome) fine desserts. After a light dinner, we ordered a round of desserts and lattes. Once we a got over the surprise of : 1) the arrival of two (one large and one small) Irish whisky mugs per latte order, and 2) the quantity of brown liquid served in the larger of the two mugs, we decided to pour part the hot foamy milk found in the smaller mugs into our relatively weak but tasty coffee. It worked...

Our next experience was a long dry day driving south, staving off withdrawal by nibbling on a chocolate bar loaded with espresso beans. I was warned by locally knowledgeable coffee lovers to avoid roadside promises of cappuccino, which lured me often along the way. Apparently the old hot water and instant cocoa machines now sit alongside similar machines which mix hot water with instant "cappuccino" powder. Horrors!

My personal coffee stash was supplemented by some fine French roast from Tallahassee, for the morning brew during our beach cabin stay. However, Christmas dinner out, and a day in Panama City, a local roaster, and fine dining experience in Alabama were all yet to come.

Christmas day went well. Terrified by my previous experience, yet confident that the fine dining restaurant would not use an instant powder, I ordered, and received, a cappuccino. Success!

The trip to Panama City seemed promising. After all, tourists need coffee, and are ready to spend money. Surely we would find espresso. In fact we spotted the first sign on our way to town, just outside Tyndall Airforce Base. A small trailer, painted bright pink, and labeled "Motor Mocha" faded into the distance as we sped by, still fueled by our morning French roast.

The beach was another story. Devastated by hurricanes, faded by sun and too many smaller storms, the Panama Cityís Miracle Strip was dry. No unlit neon espresso signs hung askew in damaged restaurants or gift shops, and no espresso carts lured us to unfamiliar grocery storefronts. It was back to Motor Mocha on the way home! Here we chatted with a recent emigrant from Alaska, who greeted Seattlites with extra coffee in the scoop and heavier twist of the wrist as she packed the coffee down. Once I compensated for the SBC style sizes (12 oz. singles, and 16 oz. talls), the coffee was fine.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama, provided both good and bad coffee experiences. A local cafe, associated with three family run coffee plantations in Guatemala, was roasting beans as we arrived. We sipped our lattes with our breakfast danish and muffins, seated next to burlap bags of unroasted coffee beans. Excellent.

Last, but not least, I fell for the lure of the latte at the Cypress Inn, on the Tuscaloosa (Black Warrior) River. I knew this was dangerous; my query on whether espresso coffee drinks were available generated a puzzled stare. However, light dawned and the coffee drink menu arrived. Espresso and lattes were listed. Bravely, I ordered my latte with a double shot, my brother politely joined me by ordering just a latte. Again puzzlement was evident, at my order, but a glimmer of understanding appeared when I elaborated that I wanted double coffee.

A few moments later, our two lattes were brought to the table. A latte was placed in front of me, along with a second mug of dark coffee, and the waiter departed. A sip of the latter identified this as a mug of the worst coffee in my recent experience; a sip of the latte revealed an insipid milky drink. It seemed I was thwarted. The attentive waiter, however, inquired as to how my coffee was. I allowed as how this was not quite what I had expected, and tried to clarify my wish for a second shot of espresso in my latte. The waiter, eager to be helpful, declined to take my latte, but promised me a single shot of espresso. Fine! I would add this to my latte, and be satisfied.

The espresso arrived, with fine aroma and crema, accompanied by a twist of lemon and two sugar cubes. Divided (in my favor) between my brotherís latte and my own, it assuaged our thirst. However the shock came with the bill. The lattes cost us $2.50 each, and the separate espresso another $1.95. $4.45 made that my most expensive double latte yet. Even the snooty Dallas/Ft. Worth airport espresso stand charges only $1.05, for that second shot.

Live, and learn, and then come back to Seattle!