Coffee Communication

Jamie White Farnham

Like many people, I didn’t start to drink coffee until college. Back then, as a newbie, I offset its bitter flavor with too much cream and sugar. I was also an “Equal” person for a while. But, having grown to love the taste of coffee, my cup today holds strongly brewed coffee with only a teaspoon of sugar and a splash of cream, half-and-half, soymilk, that powder stuff, whatever’s on hand. I’m not fussy. In the absence of any of that, I’ll drink a cup black now and then.

This is partly to say that I am not really a coffee snob, although I do engage in some haute coffee culture. For instance, I make my coffee each morning in a press. I enjoy a cup of Ethiopian cold-pressed coffee from specialty shops like Duluth Coffee Co. On the other hand, I sighed with delight over several cups of Folgers made in a drip machine on last year’s cabin-camping trip with my daughters’ Girl Scout troop.

On the other, other hand — and this only makes sense if you’re in the know about haute coffee culture — I have yet to try a cup of coffee with butter in it. Hipsters swear by it. I might go there; we’ll see.

Coffee also has plenty of politics surrounding it. You should buy shade-grown coffee from sustainable farms, but it is hard to distinguish where and how your coffee has been grown just by looking at labels of mainstream brands. You should buy coffee locally roasted and ground, but often smaller companies buy their stock from wholesalers who also don’t know where and how the coffee they buy is grown.

At work, my office has a single-serve coffee maker. Many colleagues feel this is environmentally unsound. True, the plastic packaging is excessive; the inventor of this type of coffee pod was reported to regret his design. Some people, therefore, use a reusable filter for the machine. Others buy coffee pods made with a paper filter, rather than a plastic cup.

These are all things a coffee drinker might mull over when making his or her own cup. A whole different problem arises, however, when a coffee drinker orders from across a counter. This problem is centered on cream. Specially, the amount of cream a coffee drinker does (and does not) want in his or her cup. More specifically, it is a problem of communicating this amount.

I mentioned I like a “splash” of milk or cream in my coffee. A splash is not much. It’s less than a little plastic creamer stacked on the table at a diner. It’s probably, like, half an ounce. Of course, I don’t expect other people to know my splash measurement. And I realize I can’t ask for a half an ounce of cream at the donut shop. I’m not crazy; I just love coffee.

Accordingly, I’ve tried to communicate my splash of cream in many ways. But, no matter what I say, I’m handed cup after cup of a drink that’s a light, lovely, creamy shade of pale beige. The same color as vanilla ice cream. The putty-color of khakis from the 1990s. A standard file folder. Tropical beach sand.

Consider these attempts:

At a museum coffee shop:

Me: “Hi, can I please have a small coffee with one sugar and just a tiny bit of cream?”

Received: Drink the color of vanilla ice cream.

At a coffee counter:

Me: “Hi, can I please have a small coffee, dark, with one sugar?”

Received: Putty khaki-colored drink.

Response: “Oh, I asked for it dark.”

Server: “It’s dark-roast.”

At a fast-food drive-through:

Me: “Hi, can I please have a small iced-coffee with one sugar and cream on the side?”

Received: Standard file folder plus five little diner-creamers in a bag.

At a fast-food counter:

Me: “Hi, can I please have a small coffee with one sugar and not much cream at all?” (Accompanied by a tentative, scrunched-up question-mark face and voice to match.)

Server, handing me the bottle: “Why don’t you do it?”

Yes. Let me do it. Many places leave the accouterment out for coffee drinkers to do it themselves. Often, though, as I have described, young servers who themselves do not drink coffee or are coffee newbies go heavy — so heavy — on the cream. Having grown into my coffee love, I understand their hesitation. Or perhaps it is an effort to make the coffee palatable for others. They are being thoughtful, not thoughtless, I am sure.

It’s not just me. My husband, who loves coffee less than me, but still enjoys a strong cup in the afternoon, has experienced similar cream communication issues. I will leave you with this final example, after which you might remember your own example. More likely, you will want to argue with me over the relative importance of coffee, cream, and communication. Go ahead. Only two are important to me.

Husband: “Hi, can I please have a small coffee with one sugar, light on the cream?”

Received: Drink the color of tropical beach sand.

Husband: “Oh, I asked for it light.”

Server: “Yes, it’s very light.”


David Beard

about 8 years ago

Between 4 and 5 a.m., my grandparents would wake, walking downstairs from the attic bedroom they slept in, inside my great-grandparents' house. They were in their late fifties, early sixties. Grandma worked as a school cook, and so she needed to be at work to make breakfast for the kids, early. Grandpa was the janitor at a Nunn Bush shoe factory in Milwaukee, back when things were still manufactured in the United States.  

They both worked early, and they did not want to wake my great-grandparents, retired, or, if we were sleeping over, my sister and I.  Almost no lights, almost no noise.  

There was a nightlight in the kitchen, a small incandescent bulb that was plugged into the outlet next to the gas stove. It was all the light Grandma needed to turn on the stove. The click-click-click of the pilot light ignited the burner under the percolating coffee pot (which she prepared with grounds and water the night before, to make less noise in the morning).

(Do people use stove-top percolators anymore?)

When the coffee was done, she poured it for herself and Grandpa before they left for work. They drank it black. It was done silently, it was done almost entirely in the dark.  


They never finished the pot, so my great-grandparents would warm the coffee up when they ate breakfast (a bowl of either oatmeal or raisin bran, alongside a bowl of prunes). They would warm it again with lunch.

I am sure that this rewarming would horrify today's coffee drinker. The Keurig cup seems made to ensure that every cup is fresh.  


When, in high school, I offered to buy my grandmother coffee at a Barnes and Noble cafe, she did not really understand. She drank coffee every day, without any of these choices, options, terms. (At best, she might have thought "regular" or "instant" were the great choices in coffee.) So knowing what "roast" something was, well, that was like understanding what kind of trees your newspaper came from. You could know that, but it seemed entirely not the point.

And when I brought the coffee to the table, she would take a few sips. I might grab a magazine I had no intention to buy or a book I was thinking about buying and start to read. Maybe I would look up and share a blurb from the magazine in hopes we might talk about it.

After about five minutes, she would ask: are we ready to go yet?

Bookstores: You went in, you bought what you needed, and you left. Sitting to sip coffee, well, that was what other people did.  

Grandma didn't sip coffee under fluorescent lights, thumbing through a magazine while her french roast cooled. She drank coffee alone, in the dark.  


... I love your essay, Jamie.

Molly McLaughlin

about 8 years ago

I enjoyed "sweet" coffee drinks until I got a job at Caribou coffee. We were required to taste our blends, black, so we had the knowledge of how to describe them to the customer.

Well this turned me into a coffee snob! I am so picky when it comes to how my coffee is made. I can pick out a light roast from a dark roast, which I never had even cared about before (I now prefer light roast.)

I love the varieties of coffee and trying new things, but that also means I cannot stand a cup of weak or burnt coffee. 

I enjoyed your article.

Michelle Rowley

about 8 years ago

Ha! I'm sharing this on my Facebook. Began Barista work back in the '90s, at the original Lakeview Coffee in Fitger's, and continued to do so off and on while cultivating my marketing communications and fundraising career. Last week, I quit the career track to go back to my first job love, and "ran away to a coffee shop" in Lanesboro. I'm a barista who lets the customer pour the amount of coffee into their cup, and add the amount of cream they want. With automated espresso machines (Starbucks) and fast-food joints posing as espresso bars, the simple art of coffee is lost. I come from the '90s generation of Barista training, of having coffee tasting where you Haniball Lector slurp sips of coffee and spit them out. And where you simply know everyone prefers their coffee differently -- pour your own cup and add your own cream.

Michelle Rowley

about 8 years ago

Shared it on our coffee shop Facebook page.

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