Saturday, March 29, 2008

Burnt Coffee America, Chicory, and Hijacking Meaning

I stopped into a local large international coffee shop today, that I will call Burnt Coffee America (BCA), to work on some outlines for my comprehensive finals this July. Well, I had a hankering for a café au lait, so after being greeted by the barista, I quickly asked for an “au lait with your dark roast.” They call their dark roast ‘bold’ despite the fact that not ever dark roast is bold in flavor, but that is beside the point. After ordering my coffee and before the barista started making my coffee, I said, “If you have any coffee with chicory could you use that?” As it is, a chicory au lait is the best kind of au lait. All other au laits are just weak imitations.

“Chicory,” the barista asked, “What’s that?”

“Are you serious? You don’t know what chicory is,” I inquired.

“Never heard of it. What is it,” he asked again?

I could tell he was serious because he gave me that look that you only see when a person is genuinely unsure of something: head slightly cocked to the right, a furrowed brow, an open body posture, hands hanging at the side. It is a look that is reminiscent of the way a dog looks at a person when it is confused about something. I found it surprising that this gentleman, who worked in perhaps the largest coffee chain in the world, did not know what chicory was.

Part of my surprise came from when I worked in a large family chain coffee shop in South Louisiana through out college, and we would not have even thought of opening for business if we did not have our chicory coffee ready to serve come opening time. To me, a coffee shop without chicory is like a seafood boil without beer or worse: a seafood boil without the seasoning. While working for this one particular coffee shop in Louisiana, we had to learn our product and learn it well, so this meant cupping (tasting black coffee) the different roasts and blends of coffee the store sold and brewed and learning the differences in the regional coffees we served: like the difference between a Costa Rician coffee (which is kind of clean and crisp) and a Sumatran coffee (which is ‘earthy’ – tasted like dirt if you want to know the truth).

Eventually we learned all about the local (I didn’t realize this was a local thing till recently) treat known as chicory coffee, and its history in Louisiana. I found myself repeating this information to the barista at BCA. In short the history is as follows: Chicory is used in coffee to give coffee a stronger taste. Chicory is cheaper than coffee so what people in Louisiana did, mainly the French settlers during the 18th century in New Orleans and much of Europe when coffee was scarce, was buy coffee and mix ground chicory with it to make their coffee go further. By mixing ground chicory with coffee while brewing the result was a strong cup of coffee more akin to espresso and more bitter than espresso. To cut the bitter taste of the coffee/chicory mixture, people added milk to the beverage. The name of the drink, café au lait, literally means “coffee with milk”, so if you go to France and order an au lait you will most likely get a glass of milk without any coffee. Because a coffee/chicory blend is cheaper to produce and cheaper to buy, a café au lait is sometimes refereed to as a ‘poor man’s latte’, and if you have a good au lait it is very difficult to tell the difference between a latte and an au lait.

After I finished my history of chicory coffee, the barista proceeded to make my drink excepet when he told my order to the girl behind the espresso bar he told her I ordered a coffee mitzo (spelling?). “I have never heard of this term before to describe an au lait,” I thought to myself. When waiting for my drink, I saw that café au lait was not even on the drink menu. So it got me thinking. Why is it that in 99.9% of the coffee shops I go into all have café au lait on the menu and they call it a café au lait but BCA decided to call it something else?” This really should not surprise me because it is the same coffee shop that calls a vanilla latte with a squirt of caramel on top a caramel macchiato, while the rest of the coffee world calls a shot or two of espresso marked with a dollop of milk froth and caramel a caramel macchiato.

This might not seem like a big deal, but it is clearly an example of how one company can single handedly change the meaning of words without anyone really knowing meanings have changed until the new wrong meanings have become part of the society’s vocabulary. What does it matter? Changing the meaning of words causes confusion. For instance, when I would worked the drive through at the coffee shop in South Louisiana and a person ordered a caramel macchiato and I would give them a what they asked for – a shot or two of espresso marked with a dollop of milk froth and caramel in a little four ounce cup instead of a big honking 16 ounce vanilla latte in a paper cup– the driver would look at me like I was an idiot. When they objected to the drink that they ordered and insist that I gave them the wrong drink, I then had to let the customer know that we are not Burnt Coffee America and we use coffee terms according to their intended meaning unlike BCA and that what they actually ordered was a shot or two of espresso marked with a dollop of milk froth and caramel.

I guess my beef is that I hate it when people don’t use terms and words as they are meant to be used. It is as if someone robbed the meaning and coherency from the language that many people have worked hard at learning while no one was looking. This hijacking of terms and meaning for a person’s or company’s own private use is deceptive, misleading, and confusing. For instance, I would never go into a steak restaurant order a steak and expect a piece of chicken or fish to be served as my meal. To think such a thing is lunacy. My words contain meaning and my words must mean something in the context in which they are used, and hopefully there is some common meaning that will help others understand what it is I am trying to mean with the words I use. For some reason this experience at BCA reminds me Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm.


mpwalker said...

Great post. as a former employee of BCA (there for 4 1/2 years! yikes), I felt those same frustrations about names, etc.

What we were told was that we call it Cafe Misto because it's Italian not French (the original design of the BCA store from Italian cafe's) but, really, is it that hard to call things by what they are/common names.

a macchiato is exactly what you said, an Au Lait anywhere else gets you a Misto (along with many many other things not listed on the BCA menu....although I haven't been in one in a long time).

flatlander said...

Hey Paul Cat,
Been reading your blog off and on the last few weeks after stumbling across it and recognizing your name... you and I drank some beer at a Mexican place in Brevard back in the summer of 2006 when you were living at the horse stables at Kahdalea. Blaha's the name...
Your post got me thinking about all the chicory coffee I drank over at Chos that summer. Dave had brought a huge 10lb paper bag of the stuff and kept it in the office. I'd whip some up in the mornings (never seemed to be able to do it without pissing Art off) and we'd drink all we could with breakfast before we headed out on trips or hit the lake for paddling classes. we'd let it sit there, popping in throughout the day, sometimes sitting out on the porch when it was hot and lazy and drinking that chicory coffee in the afternoon shade. MMMMMmmmmmm. Nary a drop has crossed my lips since then as they don't have such things up here in Chicagoland, though I've certainly looked, and CERTAINLY have not forgotten.
Keep up the good work on the blog.

The Ironic Catholic said...

Lack of knowledge of chicory proves that Maryland (or was it in Delaware) is NOT part of the South.

Anonymous said...

I love coffee, but your chicory story reminded me of something else I thoroughly enjoy: a good pipe of tobacco. One of the best smokes of my life was with an outdoorsman who gathered his own plants and ran with a couple of trained wolves. He had a smoking mixture made primarily of wild tobacco and chicory. We smoked it out of a horn pipe. Very nice. Chicory is a lovely flavor enhancer, but you oughtn't to expect real deliciousness out of BCA. Delaware has college towns. Can you find an independently-owned coffeehouse nearby? Maybe one that likes a little sprinkling of cardamom on top?

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