The Last Mile

If you thought pumpkin spiced lattes were everywhere this Halloween season (which now apparently lasts two whole months), you weren’t seeing ghosts.  They were can’t-miss everywhere: Starbucks windows awash in orange and brown, other chains jumping on the gourd-themed bandwagon, and plenty of options for the DIY crowd at home.

I’m guessing you’re a purist like me, so let’s set aside what most of these autumnal treats lack: anything remotely resembling pumpkin on the ingredients list.  And in too many instances, only the faintest hint of coffee; hopefully, good coffee.  For me, the pumpkin spiced phenomenon is the latest, and perhaps most persuasive evidence to date of Americans’ longing for new experiences with coffee, and growing openness to coffee as a superb, versatile base ingredient.

As I’ve seen over many years developing menu items for cafes that serve illy, beyond-the-ordinary specialty drinks excite and delight guests, keep them coming back for more, build later-day traffic and healthily boost margins.  Open customers’ eyes to the possibilities beyond a pump or two of syrup, and the smiles will follow.  Smiles will also come to the faces of baristas and other staff, who will rejoice in expressing their creativity and feel a deeper sense of contribution to the business.  Not to mention, the R&D can be a blast.

Keep the innovation going and develop a pipeline of fun, original, seasonally-inspired treats. If you haven’t gotten on board yet, the holiday season is the ideal time to turn up the heat, when caloric concerns are put on hold and the festive mood invites indulging.

I’ve created upwards of 150 coffee drinks over the years, none more memorable than my first, and perhaps simplest preparation.  The key was starting with a precise goal in mind, critical to any culinary experimentation.  My objective was to create a beautifully balanced, delicious iced espresso.  I was still living in Italy, so espresso was the only viable option.  I was growing tired of the cold coffee served at bars (Italian for “coffee shop”), nearly always an unbalanced, oxidized, nearly rancid liquid mixed with water and sugar, cooled over an overly long period of time in the fridge.

Identifying slow cooling as the main flavor-sapping culprit, I stole a page from the bartender’s playbook and filled most of a metal shaker with ice, tossed in a just-pulled double shot, stirred in a drop of water – about 10 percent of the drink’s total volume – and a hint of sugar.  If it sounds Martini-like, you’re on the right path, with apologies to the shaken-not-stirred leanings of a famous Mr. Bond.

I started experimenting with the whole gamut of ingredients, from usual suspects like chocolate and cocoa (albeit in a variety forms) to wilder cards such as almond milk (the real thing, made with fresh almond paste from Sicily and water), coconut milk and water, ice creams, even jams and marmalades.  And for later-day enjoyment, with a host of adult libations, from vodka, to rum, tequila to whisky, coffee liqueurs, cream liqueurs, and many others.

All that recipe R&D paid off handsomely when I got involved in barista competitions, going up against and getting inspired by the profession’s masters.  After five years on the circuit, fully battle tested, I won the Italian Barista Championship in 2008 thanks in part to “The Trinity,” with beverage invention sharing equal weight on the scorecard with quality of espresso pulling and cappuccino making.  My idea was to create a three-layered drink that could showcase coffee’s basic tastes (thus, “Trinity”): a base layer of yogurt for acidity, a middle strata of espresso for bitterness, and a top coating of bitter and sweet from espresso kissed by a milk-persimmon foam.

Tips for the budding beverage builder?  To quote the Jedi Masters, “Use the Force.”  Start with an idea in mind and then let creativity carry you away.  Something rich in texture?  More savory than sweet?  Coffee more prominent in taste and aroma, more in the background?  Something ideally paired with seasonal food menu items?  Ponder those kinds of questions and you’ll be on the right track.

There are some rules of thumb, especially for adult beverages.  Espresso’s high concentration of flavor in small quantities of liquid make it the most versatile ingredient for specialty drinks.  And when priming the pump, keep the coffee-to-syrup ratio at 1:1.  For brewed coffee, whether pour over, syphon, Chemex, or even standard filtered drip, adjust that ratio to one ounce of liquor per six ounces of coffee.

In alcohol-laced creations, keep the espresso-to-alcohol liquid volume ration at a one-to-one maximum, to keep the coffee taste prevalent.  For drinks incorporating neutral spirits like vodka, or with drier taste profiles like tequila, use a touch of simple syrup or a sweet flavored syrup like vanilla to balance the relatively low sweetness of the coffee and spirit.

If it fits with your culture, you can even get customers in on the act.  I helped run a cocktail contest for illy fans last year, out of which the delightful “Espressoda” emerged (10oz club soda, 0.5oz simple syrup, 0.5oz vanilla syrup topped with a single shot of espresso, on the rocks), now residing on the permanent menus of our partner cafes in San Francisco and elsewhere.  If you want to maintain total control, launch a couple of new drinks of your own creation and have customers lobby for which should stay on the menu. That should generate a whole other kind of buzz!

Giorgio Milos is illy’s award-winning Master Barista and illy’s North American Barista in Residence who regularly ventures beyond the cup to study the biology and chemistry of the coffee bean, continually striving to master the beverage that is his passion and profession.

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