Somewhere, at some point in time, an unknown person walked into a Starbucks coffee shop and placed the following order:

“I would like a double ristretto venti half-soy nonfat decaf organic chocolate brownie iced vanilla double-shot gingerbread frappuccino with foam whipped cream upside down double blended, one sweet’n low and one nutrasweet. Light ice, please.”

One can only imagine the sighs and groans and despair among the poor souls standing in the line behind the fussy britches who placed the gargantuan order. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

The order is said to be the longest possible at Starbucks, but like most things on the Internet, the matter is hotly debated – there are something like 87,000 possible ways to order a hot beverage at Starbucks, after all. It would likely take a quantum computer to pin down the longest possible combination – at which point the guy in line ahead of you would promptly attempt to order it.


When it comes to coffee, Starbucks pretty much invented the concept of hyper-customization, to the point where a customer can choose the exact temperature at which it will be served, and that’s on top of the myriad choices in spices, creams, sweeteners, flavors, amounts and various frothing options.


Choices are good, right? Well, that depends on who you ask. It seems like half the population is thrilled to have all those coffee options. Sure, it’s a little pretentious to place an order that takes five minutes and 100 syllables to convey. Sure it’s a bit self-entitled, but when you’re paying six or seven bucks for a single beverage, why not super-duper customize so the final product is precisely how you want it down to the finest detail? Make that latte your own, my thirsty friend.

Others, though, see the vast coffeehouse menus as corruptions of what was once a humble drink. Remember when the toughest question you had to face was whether you wanted cream or sugar or both? Those fancy, know-it-all baristas will double over laughing if you try using that ancient lingo.

“Coffee has jumped the shark, in my humble opinion,” says Julie-Ann Baumer of Lisbon Falls. “There are many choices, but not much good coffee. Coffee joints are trying too hard.”

Perhaps, but judging by the number of once-modest coffee joints that are succumbing to the madness of personal customization, the market is clearly responding to demand.

The demand, apparently, is for more syllables in every cup.

Some lifelong coffee drinkers are sick and tired of waiting in line while the epicure in front of them labors to invent the perfect coffee order – Do I fancy almond, coconut or soy milk in my beverage today? Am I in the mood for caramel brulee, chestnut praline or peppermint mocha? Does a doppio tempt me or a macchiato? Shall I have tall, grande or venti and do I want anything whipped, dripped or pressed? What kind of mug do I want to drink from? And at what temperature? Is it a pumpkin spice kind of day or caramel apple?


Seriously, is the lady ordering coffee or attempting to sequence an extraterrestrial genome?

“Pretentious arrogance is what it amounts too,” says Jimi Cutting of Lewiston. “People spend more time making sure their coffee is just to their liking than they do relationships.”

Well, that seems a little harsh. Unless, of course, you’re the guy in line whose trying to order a basic cup of coffee, black, on his half-hour lunch break. Considering that an estimated 64 percent of Americans drink coffee in some form, you can understand the frustration of those who would rather have it fast than have it perfect.

“I don’t order any coffee I can’t pronounce, is not in English or has more than three syllables,” says Tim Lajoie of Lewiston.

It’s a respectable system, but let’s face it. The coffee genie is out of the bottle, and not everyone will be willing to go back to the days of “one lump or two” simplicity. Why would they? Ordering coffee specific to one’s own particular taste is empowering. It makes you feel like royalty, or like a Hollywood star who can order the perfect beverage with the snap of the fingers.

“I like to be pampered and feel handsome when I get my coffee,” says Jason Parks of Lewiston.


He’s kidding (we think), but there’s something to that. Having someone cater to your every coffee whim is a boost to the ego. When you order something with an absurdly long name such as a “quad long shot grande in a venti cup half-caf double cupped no sleeve salted caramel mocha latte with two pumps of vanilla substitute two pumps of white chocolate mocha for mocha and substitute two pumps of hazelnut for toffee nut half whole milk and half breve with no whipped cream extra foam extra caramel drizzle extra salt add a scoop of vanilla bean powder with light ice,” and somebody actually brings it to you, it feels like magic.

That’s a real order, by the way. Read it and weep.

In Auburn, a Starbucks barista tells us that, while plenty of people come into the store with long and complex orders, many others skip the line altogether and place their orders through the Starbucks phone app. The most complex orders possible can be placed through the app and the customer who uses it will never bog down the line inside the store. Nice.

And of course, there’s always the option of skipping Starbucks all together in favor of some place with a less nebulous drink menu. Hyper-customization, after all, is not for everyone.

“I order a medium coffee with extra cream,” says Betsy Way of Hartford. “It really bothers me to be behind someone that is ordering 15 to 20 different things to go in their coffee. It’s coffee, people. Coffee and cream. I can honestly say I have been in a Starbucks once – yes one time to try it. I let 10 people go before me because there were so many choices – all I wanted was a medium coffee with cream. . . . Guess I’m not a Starbucks person.” (And, yes, you can get a coffee with cream at Starbucks.)



At the newly opened Aroma Joe’s on Center Street in Auburn, a man is standing halfway to the counter, his eyes locked on the menu board above. His name is Joe, ironically, and when asked why he seems almost paralyzed by the choices, Joe has an answer at the ready.

“I just want to make sure I can order a plain old cup of coffee here,” he said.

No problem, Joe. It’s right there on the menu under “Fresh Brewed Coffee.” Here you will find modest options and they’re mostly familiar to the non-connoisseur: house blend, dark roast, hazelnut, French vanilla and decaf. Easy peasy, right?

Not so fast. Even that familiar part of the Aroma Joe’s menu specifies that 50-plus flavor options are available, upping the potential complexity of each order. And that’s not to mention the rest of the menu, which includes lattes and mocha, espresso and cold brew. Venture to this dense part of the menu and a common Joe like Joe might get as disoriented as a man in a jungle – hot or iced? Whipped cream? Steamed milk? How about a little foam on that? Once you start going through the Aroma Joe’s options, you realize that there is plenty of customization to be had here as well.

“Oh, it’s an extensive menu,” says franchise owner Tulio DeAlmeida. “It can get pretty complicated.”

Aroma Joe’s, a chain with dozens of stores across New England, opened in Auburn in late February. It opened a little earlier than expected – DeAlmeida said he wanted to make sure his workers could manage long and complex orders efficiently before going live.


“We had them train for a week,” DeAlmeida says. “They did really, really well, so we opened the next day.”

For some, Aroma Joe’s might feel like a perfect balance – all the crazy options are there, but the coffeehouse has humble, workaday feel of a Dunkin’ Donuts in a blue-collar neighborhood. The more exotic beverages might be every bit as grandiose as those found at Starbucks, but they feature names like “Wicked Mudslide,” “Coffee Shock” and “Irish Kicker,” so at least they don’t SOUND so hoity-toity.

Aroma Joe’s goes both ways – a person can feel at home here with a black cup of coffee and a book of crossword puzzles, or with a half-written screenplay on a tablet and a Cappuccino FroJoe.

You know, whatever that is.


Coffee drinkers who eschew high-falutin’ beverages as a rule all tend to say the same thing.


“I either make my own coffee at home or I get a cup at Dunkin’ Donut’s,” says Michael Shostak of Auburn. “I don’t believe in all that flavored garbage.”

Invoking Dunkin’ Donuts seems to be a way of declaring that you are a coffee purist and that you scoff at Starbucks and its ilk, with their skimmed this, whipped that and blond-roasted whatever.

But hold the phone, tough guy. A quick glance at the Dunkin’ menu reveals plenty of beverages that froth and foam here, as well. You got your Dunkin’ latte. You got your cappuccino, your espresso, your chai, macchiato and hot Americano. If the words “salted” and “caramel” reside together on the menu, how rough and tumble a coffee joint can this really be?

In a flavor-infused word, fancy coffee is everywhere. To get away from it, you may have to go to your neighborhood gas station and hope they have that nostalgic black pot of goo on the burner, and even that is no guarantee – have you been to Cumberland Farms lately? Inside this gas station/convenience store combo, there are now “flavor stations” where one can infuse an ordinary cup of coffee to get something more than ordinary. Cherry, caramel apple, strawberry, chocolate, amaretto . . . You can get a chai latte at Cumby’s these days. You can get cappuccino in a dozen flavors.

It’s crazy, yo.



At Forage Market on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, where bagels are the thing, they like to keep their coffee choices simple. Yet in this age, simplicity includes cream, skim, soy, whole and almond milks, and that’s just the stuff that goes INTO your coffee. We haven’t even discussed the available sweeteners. And even there, “simple” includes espresso, lattes and even mate lattes.

Even Turner’s Nezinscot Farm cafe – a farm, for crying out loud – advertises lofty coffee varieties that are light years ahead of the ordinary cups of mud many of us grew up with. “Our cafe now offers house lattes – cold brewed and infused organic espresso coffee beans, served with frothed milk and select organic flavored syrups,” the Nezinscot website trumpets.

And if you thought you could find refuge and a straight cup of joe in a well-known fast-food joint, think again. Yes, you can get a regular cup of coffee at McDonald’s. But you can also get a McCafe latte, various McCafe mocha coffee varieties (including your seasonal favorite, the McCafe shamrock mocha) and cold coffee drinks of various names, flavors and sizes.

So where does coffee go from here? Do all the gourmet options eventually collapse in upon themselves, leading to a coffee singularity where your only options are brewed or instant? Don’t bet on it. It’s the age of personally customized everything, remember. People who have grown accustomed to vast choices aren’t likely to settle for less.

Look for even more elaborate coffee options in the near future, and robot baristas to serve them up. Meanwhile, watch out for the fellow ordering the “venti iced skinny hazelnut macchiato, sugar-free syrup, extra shot, with light ice, no whip” to be just ahead of you in line.

It never fails, does it?


A glossary for coffee purists

If you’re the type of guy or gal who prefers a no-frills coffee, overhearing someone order at a coffeehouse these days might make you think it’s a strange new language. And in a way, it is. To help, here is a glossary of popular coffee terms.


Ice cream (traditionally vanilla) “drowned” with a shot of espresso.


A shot of espresso diluted with hot water.



The person who prepares coffee at a coffee bar.


An espresso shot combined with foamed steamed milk. Five to seven ounces total.

Cold drip coffee

Coffee grounds are steeped in cold water for about 12 hours, then strained to make a concentrate that’s used for iced coffee and cut with milk or water. It’s associated with New Orleans.



Espresso topped with flat steamed milk, 4 to 4 1/2 ounces total.


Thick, caramel-colored emulsified oils that sit on top of an espresso.

Dark roast

Coffee beans roasted until they exude oils. The style has fallen out of favor among many artisanal roasters who think it overwhelms certain flavors.

Double espresso (Doppio)


A double espresso is just that, two espresso shots in one cup. Therefore a double espresso consists of: 2 shots of espresso in an espresso cup


Concentrated coffee made when hot water is forced at pressure through fine coffee grounds. Usually slightly less than 2 ounces total. Baristas prefer 8 to 10 bars of pressure and 15 to 25 grams of coffee.

French press

Coffee made by steeping grounds in hot water in a special vessel that has a plunger with a metal filter. Once steeped, the plunger is used to push the grounds to the bottom of the vessel. Often used in coffee bars for limited-edition coffees. Also called a press pot.



Espresso with steamed milk, 8 ounces or more total. (How’s it different from a cappuccino? Mostly, more steamed milk, less foam.)

Latte art

The pattern formed by rhythmically pouring steamed milk into an espresso drink. Decorative and demonstrative; only properly steamed milk will hold a form.


Espresso topped with a dab of foamed steamed milk, about 2 to 3 ounces total.



Espresso mixed with chocolate syrup and steamed milk.

Pour over coffee

A method of drip coffee developed in Japan in which the water is poured in a thin, steady, slow stream over the coffee grounds in a cone filter. One cup of coffee takes as long as three minutes to brew. Some coffee bars have pour-over setups with several cones and distinctive swan-neck kettles from Japan.


Espresso pulled short — with less water — for a smaller, more concentrated drink.

Source: New York Times and Latte Art Guide

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