Coffee drinkers and cafe campers in Portland are bored.
A cup of coffee is still a cup of coffee, and for a lot of people, that just isn't enough anymore. Like most other food-and-beverage sectors, specialty coffee and tea is prone to falling for fanciful gimmicks and bizarre attempts at selling the same old shit in a different way.
Though Portland remains at the forefront of the world's third-wave coffee-shop culture, the millions of customers who utilize their services are no less impervious to getting hyped on stupid trends than people in lesser coffee cities. Keeping up with these trends is both baffling and exhausting for baristas. So before trying out something "new" and "hip" because that uber-fit Silver Lake shaman you follow on Instagram told you to, consider this list of the most obnoxious trends your favorite barista hopes will become extinct in the coming calendar year.
"The flat white"
To get an idea of how frustrating this drink is for baristas, simply Google "What is a flat white?" and marvel at the disparity of results. Is it a double latte served just above room temperature? Is the foam extra bubbly, or is it a normal amount of extra-fine bubbles? Some recipes call for ristretto shots, but does the customer even know or care what that is? The lack of a unified theory behind the flat white is baffling, as are its mythical origins, which the internet agrees trace back to Australia. Or New Zealand. Or to a British expat who moved to Tasmania to start a cafe, only to have his idea stolen by some bro from the mainland. At any rate, order one of these and there's a 90 percent chance you're getting a regular-ass double latte.
Bizarre travel mugs
Back in the good old days, woke regulars would bring their own Kleen Kanteen, Hydro Flask or Contigo tumbler as an environmentally conscious receptacle for their beverage. Aside from the occasional lunatic who preferred to barehand an old Ball jar filled with scalding hot coffee, there was some semblance of normalcy to the bring-your-own-cup world that's rather popular here. Then, in 2016, Hydro Flask was acquired for $210 million by the same company that makes Revlon makeup and Oxo kitchen gadgets, and all hell broke loose. Some coffee drinkers migrated to Yeti tumblers, which was fine until it was revealed the popular Austin-based cooler and cup manufacturer was cozy with the National Rifle Association. Others hit up their local New Seasons to see what they could find on an end cap and landed on what must be the most impractical and maddening selection of drinkware baristas have ever seen.
First, it was all-glass tumblers protected by a rubber band, which are so fragile they crack right up the middle if you look at them askance. Then it was tall, narrow cylinders that become top heavy when you fill them all the way, creating a heightened risk for chaotic spills at the pickup counter. Now it's shorter tubes with tapered openings so small you can't even fill them with drinking water without attracting all sorts of calamity. You want your barista to put an iced dirty chai into a silver container that looks like a space-age butt plug? You can't even fit ice in the damn thing! Please just grab a Ball jar from the thrift store like a normal person.
Freestyle sparkling coffee beverages
Thoughtful hybrids of coffee and sparkling water—think coffee cocktails infused with housemade syrups and just a hint of effervescence—were all the rage a couple years ago. The downside to this trend is the inspiration it served for customers to find increasingly dumb ways to combine their dual addictions to fizzy water and coffee into one crusty, bubbly mess. Espresso on its own often lacks the viscosity to accommodate the carbonation of popular bubbly waters like Topo Chico or Lurisia, but that won't stop petulant menu-hackers from asking the barista to combine the two in a tall rocks glass for what they assume will be a smooth and refreshing caffeinated treat. What it ends up looking like is a goopy, scaly mess where the worst parts of the espresso are brought front and center. Then there are the people who add half a can of coconut La Croix to their iced vanilla latte, which is even more disgusting than it sounds.
Baristas received oat milk rather warmly when it broke out as the hot new alternative milk of 2018. Its pleasing texture takes well to frothing, the flavor is much more neutral than that of hemp or coconut, and it plays particularly well with the South and Central American coffee beans many Portland shops turn into espresso. The problem isn't actually the oat milk itself—it's the pious, unquenchable thirst customers have for hip milk alternatives that drives baristas nuts. It just so happens that oat milk—specifically Oatly, the Swedish purveyor largely responsible for ushering in the trend—represents the dead end of coffee consumers' obsession with novelty and quirk. Oatly was quickly loved to death, leading to a shortage that found most Portland coffee shops scrambling for an alternative to the alternative. The Oatly Outage of 2018 was documented by The New Yorker, and just as quickly as it arrived, it appeared to be gone forever, leaving throngs of devotees hounding their baristas for yet another dairy-free accoutrement to help them slip that caffeine down their gullets. It's back for now, but it probably won't be long before another enterprising European comes along with yet another gimmicky milk made from some other seed or sprout that has no perceivable business accompanying a shot of espresso.
Flavorful surrogates for the brown stuff are nothing new, but the lengths people will go to approximate the taste and texture of an actual latte is nearing the point of absurdity. While props are due to places like Townshend's Tea and Tea Bar for getting Portlanders hooked on legit matcha lattes, it's worth noting what customers probably want when they order a matcha latte is a cup of hot milk poured over a mysterious, sugary green powder. It's an incredibly popular drink at suburban bubble tea shops and Starbucks, which means you always have to raise an eyebrow when someone walks into an actual coffee shop and asks for such a thing. You can tell who's learned about this pitfall the hard way when they defect to a London Fog, which is an almost equally annoying beverage that's basically a chai tea latte made the long and hard way to accommodate whatever custom tea preference the customer may have. If you plan to spend the five minutes it takes for the tea to steep scowling at your barista while wondering what's taking so long, you should either order a chai or fire up the Starbucks app and head across the street instead.