What we call our coffee drinks says a lot about us.
Here in America it’s all-Italian-everything. Cappuccino. Italiano. Espresso. The way we talk about coffee is still beholden to the Italian craftspeople who invented espresso technology, and thus espresso drinks, over a hundred years ago. There are of course a few exceptions, like the Mocha, which has its roots in Yemen, or the Gibraltar, which is named for the Libbey brand glassware it’s served in. Slang is creeping into the American coffee experience slowly, but for the most part our cafe menus have stayed the same, even as seemingly everything else about coffee in America has changed dramatically.
The Australians, meanwhile, slang-obsessed and giving little to zero linguistic fucks, have developed* their own lingua franca of coffee drinks. An Americano is, in Australia, a “Long Black,” made with four ounces of water and two-ish ounces of espresso. A simple espresso is, by the same logic, a “Short Black.” A latte is a “Flat White”—that’s really all it is, don’t @ me—and a “Magic” is, I think, a double ristretto topped up with like 120-150 ml of milk, although most of the time it isn’t a true ristretto shot, because that would mean resetting the grinder. So the mythical “Magic” is really just an overdosed shot or a shot pulled short with a little bit of milk. It’s a glorified macchiato with a great big ego and rare earth mineral rights, basically.
There are some drinks that get all the love—people were once obsessed with the cortado/Gibraltar paradigm, in a way that seems quaint now—and there are some drinks that feel like they get the short end of the stick. Consider the Americano: has the Americano ever been cool? Isn’t it just a way of ruining a shot of espresso? True espresso drinkers drink theirs straight. And if you want a six to eight ounce beverage, why not have a delicious, meticulously dialed in cup of “batch brew” (the American term) and/or a “filter coffee” (what they call it in the Commonwealth, except for Canada, where, sorry, it’s called “drip”).
The Americano is the cafe menu’s ugly duckling. Not quite a purist beverage, not quite a specialty of specialty. This juxtaposition cuts me straight to the heart because, friends, the tiny Americano is my favorite drink.
I’m not sure where I first confronted the Americano stigma, but I do recall an experience in a small village in Italy that probably cemented the feeling. At a tiny basement cafe in the religious pilgrimage town called Assisi, in the heart of Umbria, I had one of those emblematic Italian cafe experiences and it has stuck with me for years. First, I attempted to order a cappuccino. It was 3pm in the afternoon and my order was met with a lot of hand gesturing. Instead, the barista/barkeep (it is a dual role in Italy) thought I might like an Americano (was it my Airwalks that tipped them off?) and proceeded to make me what remains to this day the best Americano I’ve had in my life.
I don’t mean “best” in any kind of points score technical way—this was one of those Illy umbrella sorts of places—but I was sixteen and knew exactly nothing about coffee, other than it seemed to fuel the daily efforts of adults, which is what I desperately wanted to be. Sitting there on the Piazza del Comune, with thousands of years of Roman Catholic history all around me (the church next door had an ancient Roman blood sacrifice altar!), well…they could have served me dishwater and I’d have loved it.
But I’ve since reflected that it was, perhaps, the water to coffee ratio of the drink itself that I loved best. I think it was an Americano constructed out of some combination of derision and spatial limitation: two ounces of water and a standard Italian espresso shot. The beverage was perhaps 4 ounces in total. Not a straight espresso—certainly not—but not, as I would come to learn in the years proceeding, a standardized Americano, which is typically at least six ounces, and often more like eight ounces or 12 ounces, and commonly presented with room for cream.
I don’t like these great big ghastly Americanos. Who needs that much water? I don’t even really like the “Long Black” with its two parts water to one part spro dichotomy. But I do love, and really, I mean love, an espresso drink made with just two ounces of water. This is a good drink. Only I’m not sure what we’re supposed to call it.
(To be clear, in brief sidebar form, I am most decidedly not talking about the Montreal allongé, or an EK43 shot, or a Pergerccino or a Coffee Shot or whatever the hell else you want to call the briefly popular gigantic long shot of espresso, which, if I’m strolling down St-Viateur with a wood-fired bagel, sure, but otherwise, no thank you.)
I have heard my favorite drink called, in no particular order, a “Little Buddy,” an “Italiano,” a “Tiny Americano,” a “Teeny-Cano,” a “Baby-Cano,” a “Lil’ Cano,” a “Medium Black,” a “Minicano,” a “Two x Two,” a “Peggy,” the “Unamerican Americano,” a “Little Meri,” a “Halfacano,” a “Roaster’s Americano,” the “Spanish American War” (at Houndstooth Dallas), the “Mitch” (at Seattle’s Espresso Vivace), and a “Danny DeVito.”
A surprising number of people actually call this drink a “Danny DeVito”—I did some public polling around the question of what this drink is called, and multiple people from different parts of the United States had that response. It is named this because it’s “short and strong.” This drink is for real being called a Danny DeVito out in the wild. That’s amazing.
Also, some people were rude:
Ah yes, the “Why would you drink that” https://t.co/JPQUojkY4Y
— Justin (@hyperpape) March 30, 2018
BECAUSE IT IS GOOD JUSTIN.
I typically order my tiny Americano drink with a combination of hesitation and what I hopes come across as empathy—sort of, you know, “Yes I am self-aware that my coffee drink order is fussy and particular, and I’m sorry for both of us that I’m on some Frasier Crane bullshit, but please, this drink is good, so if you don’t mind…” And from there it’s a game of ounces and cups. If it’s for here I ask for a cappuccino cup, as a kind of spatial limiter. That typically gets the job done, ratio-wise, because those cups can only hold so much liquid. If it’s to go, I’ll say something like, “Can you just use like half as much water as you normally would for an Americano?” I either get a funny look in response or sometimes a knowing, enthusiastic reply if the barista is also aware of this drink and its inherent goodness.
I will also, occasionally, be corrected to just call it by one of the many names. This is my favorite potential outcome. “You mean a Little Buddy?” Yes, I do mean that, but I’m not going to just say that to you apropos of nothing across the counter. Because what if you’ve never heard of a Little Buddy before? What then? If there’s no agreed-upon nomenclature for my favorite drink, I’d rather err on the side of you correcting me halfway through my order ratio song and dance.
I hope that coffee in 2018 is post-stigma for most things. The coffee culture has more important stuff to care about, frankly, and so there should be no more hating on condiments. No more batch brew derision. No more eye-rolling if a place wants to offer a really, really good white chocolate mocha, or a blended frappe. And no more looking down upon the Americano, especially my beloved tiny Americano. Whatever you call it, I love this drink. This is a good drink.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.
*and / or thieved from New Zealand.