On Coffee Culture Between the U.S. and Europe

Order a latte and be prepared to get a glass of milk. Order a café au lait “to go” in France and it will be given to you in an 8 oz. plastic cup. Order a large, non-fat, extra hot, sugar-free mocha with two added shots of espresso and no foam in most European cafés and you’ll get a death stare.

Americans typically have their coffee on the go as a crutch to help them tackle busy days with their caffeine fix conveniently in hand.I wouldn’t be surprised if these situations happen frequently to caffeine-seeking American tourists in Europe. They’ll most likely end up with something they don’t expect. But they aren’t exactly to blame. Most American coffee shops provide a broad range of options that cater to both low and high maintenance customers–anything from a small cup of coffee to a quad-shot extra foamy low-fat mocha. In Europe, you aren’t given as many options because locals are all about the basics: espresso, cappuccino, and café au lait. As a barista at Peet’s Coffee and Tea who has been to Europe, I’ve experienced both coffee cultures and discovered that there isn’t only a difference in what you order, but also a difference in how you savor your coffee–or not.

For those of you who aren’t coffee drinkers or are unfamiliar with coffee-speak, espresso is the product of forcing highly pressurized hot water through finely ground coffee. It’s the basis of popular drinks such as lattes, mochas, and caramel macchiatos. A cappuccino is made of espresso topped off with freshly steamed foamy, creamy milk whereas a café au lait is simply brewed coffee with added steamed milk.

Euro-sounding size terms popularized by American coffee shops such as “grande” and “venti” aren’t taken for anything more than their literal Italian meanings in Europe: “big” and “twenty,” respectively. Instead, European cafés serve drinks according to the number of espresso shots desired (i.e. single cappuccino or double espresso). 

Americans typically have their coffee on the go as a crutch to help them tackle busy days with their caffeine fix conveniently in hand. Europeans typically don’t have coffee “to go” since they consider coffee drinking to be more of a social activity. I went to a café on the famous Parisian open-market street Rue Cler and observed the patronage sip their coffee with ease, some having vibrant conversations while others people-watch or read the daily newspaper Le Monde. Coming from the fast-paced environment of my workplace, it was nice to be in a setting where I could actually sit and enjoy my cappuccino because everyone else was doing the same.

It’s interesting how espresso drinks have become such marketable U.S. commodities in recent years, yet they have been an integral part of European life since the beginning of the 20th century. After coming back from Europe and diving back into the “daily grind” of my job, I definitely gained a newfound appreciation for coffee and what it really means to savor it.

For further reading and recommendations on where to sit back and enjoy your espresso doppio in Rome or café au lait in Paris, consult Moon Metro Rome or Moon Metro Paris.

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