In my experience, coffee is an acquired taste. Like a lot of similarly acquired tastes, it actually starts out as something people seem to really have a distaste for, usually to the point of being unpleasant to drink. Coffee drinkers have an initiate moment where coffee becomes palatable to them. This is, I think, typically a trade off around two terms--utility and social acceptance. And the two go hand in hand. And this is perhaps typical of most things in the class that coffee fits, namely psychoactive substances.
Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world and people acquire it much like other such substances. At some point in your life you will encounter coffee and become initiate in it through one or another of the social or utilitarian aspects of it's effects. And then you get addicted to its effects. You will need to stay up and do work; you will want to meet someone for a cup; you will have to get up early; you will look for routines which aid your productivity; people you know will already be drinking it, at home, at church, at the office, in the morning. And you will look for ways in in spite of an initial repulsion. You will make the calculation that drinking this bitter brown water will push you through your labor; or you will decide to drink a caramel macchiato to be with others. Drinking coffee on your own will incline you toward Then you will get hooked.
Taste is a complex thing which I will look at in terms of coffee in more depth later. But once you're hooked you will develop and refine your taste. Coffee has a very swift learning curve for taste. Quite possibly faster than any other aesthetic experience, but coffee also has high degree of depth for the pallet. So being hooked on coffee--which will happen to you, because of it's pervasiveness and the low resistance to entry compared to other, similar things--will result in developed tastes.
This is as opposed to, say, wine which has very deep pallet experiences but comes with the costs of resistance to enter from wine snobbery, laws, and cultural prohibitions, and a slow curve in developing taste. Perhaps ice cream or fountain drinks serves as a reasonable examples of similar classed items with a swift curve and shallow pallet experience. At the end of the day, average consumers wind up ordering house reds out of ignorance, knowing their favorite ice cream flavor out of ubiquity, and having very specific coffee orders out of refinement and practice. The systems by which this socialization occurs is perhaps as complicated as the mechanism of taste itself.
The cappuccino is my primary drink of choice in coffee and around the world. This was a taste which also required a degree of cultivation as well as some resistance to entry. But by the time I started drinking cappuccinos I'd really moved through a process of accepting coffee in my life, although not exactly a part of my daily life, and I was looking for something pretty specific.
A friend of mine introduced me to drinking cappuccinos in a more conceptual manner than as simply a consumable. Instead, Grant submitted to me that this was something that was a drink by which to more precisely measure and more deeply understand my coffee drinking experiences. He was visiting me in Chicago and we got cappuccinos. I remember being turned off by a stiff espresso flavor and an annoyance with the degree of foam at first, but I realized the value of the point he made. This is a drink by which I can universally evaluate cafes.
I believe that the cappuccino is actually the ideal measuring stick for evaluating coffee. This has become reinforced by working life in coffee, and you may disagree with me, but I believe there's good reason to hold the cappuccino as the standard of experiencing coffee in the broadest possible sense.
As I will discuss below the actual definition of coffee drinks is a fascinating world of indeterminate terms, but the cappuccino offers a degree of latitude for understanding what's going on in your coffee that other drinks don't give you. Generally a cappuccino is a 6oz espresso drink with a ratio of espresso to milk of 1:2. So you've got a 2oz shot of espresso and 4oz steamed milk. The complexity and vagary of a cappuccino arrives with the texture of that steamed milk, sort of understood as a 1:1:1 ratio of coffee, milk, and foam. This definition fails to capture what I look for in terms of size, texture, and taste of my cappuccinos--generally a mild espresso taste with greater natural sweetness in the milk, and a very airy but consistent texture.
However, that's not really the point here. By drinking "cappuccinos" as they are called out there in the coffee world I can learn a lot about the espresso, barista skill, cafe, and almost always enjoy adding to my collection of cappuccinos enjoyed around the world. Generally tasting espresso, cortado, pour-over, lattes, or drip alone will in some way limit what you can measure. The cappuccino is really a multi-tool for understanding coffee.
The last part of the post is going to introduce the idea of definitions in the coffee world. But there is really not any sort of meaningful agreement on most terms in the coffee world, regardless of whatever gets put out there as the end all be all way of understanding drinks. In this way, the world of discussing coffee is rather a microcosm of all our linguistic frameworks the world over.
Basically there are a variety of languages and dialects to speak in coffee. Starbucks has trained a large consumer base about their lexicon of coffee terms. Third wave coffee has it's own rigid set of definitions based in a different assessment of what's important. And there are even smaller, localized takes on coffee language. In my own journey in this world I've done my best to speak as widely as possible the languages of coffee. Fluency across lexicons of coffee language is something baristas should strive for against their snootiness.
I think a lot of the differentiation between the way people talk about coffee has to do with salience. What do people who drink coffee and people who set up menus want the focus of their utterances to be. At Starbucks, no surprise, the salient feature of the coffee lexicon is what can be branded. This variation of salience is why sizes of drinks are not small-medium-large at Starbucks, the first thought and last thought at a Starbucks is supposed to be on-brand. Think about every single drink on the Starbucks menu and you will see that it's end-to-end branded, extensively from across any aspect of the drink you're ordering--an illusion of choice. This is all a story for another time, but basically you can't come at a Starbucks order from any side without running into something branded. That's by design.
Third wave coffee is supposed to be above that kind of commercialism, but really it's cashing on a different feature to set up its lexicon. There's a design influence here too. Third wave coffee is supposed to be about a sort of universality and repeatability of drinks. In that respect the definitions of drinks set up in the third wave of coffee are successful, if they're adhered to. (Which, why would they be?) There is a metric system to talking about coffee, but there isn't one feature of salience. So over the course of these posts I am going to have to look at what drinks mean.