Despite the French, Café Americano more than watered down espresso
Years ago, I asked a thinly-mustached waiter at a small café in France how the "Café Americano" was named. He gave me a condescending smirk as only a native Frenchman is able and said, "I don't want to say, because I think you are an American."
"No, no, please tell me. For the moment, assume I'm Canadian."
"It is called Americano because it is the same amount of coffee only made fat and weak," he enunciated clearly as his smirk grew. "Like the … you see?"
The waiter walked away, satisfied with himself. I let him have his victory; his countrymen have had so few in the last century. I know now that the café Americano was actually invented by our troops in World War II in attempt to make the dark shots of European coffee into something more like the cups of Joe back home. Because I wanted to "blend," I didn't try an Americano for years after that. That's a shame. Having been raised in Kansas on Folgers Crystals flowing from my parents' Mr. Coffee, graduating first to syrupy mochas in the early days of Il Primo Espresso Café and then in time to "actual coffee," I relied on doppio espressos and the occasional cappuccino while overseas.
Now, we are well into what coffee snobs the coffee elite are calling the third wave of American coffee. The first wave was commodity coffee: basic Folgers-style, often freeze-dried and bought in bulk sitting on supermarket shelves for who knows how long. This is how coffee found its way into most homes: on the counter in a drip machine.
Next, thanks primarily to Starbucks, came the European espresso-based coffees of the second wave. In the wrong hands, second wave coffee devolves into giant cups of warm milk and sickly sweet flavors. This wave led many hipster baristas to spontaneously combust upon hearing soccer moms misuse terms like "macchiato" and "socialism."
The third wave is a bit more complex. Now we are encouraged to know where our beans come from, when they were roasted, and to grind them ourselves. The giant steampunk contraptions for the pressurization and extraction of espresso are being replaced with the gentle boiling of kettles and sedate Sunday afternoons with the French Press. Or the AeroPress. Or the Chemex. All this is geared at producing the best simple cup of coffee.
It turns out that in many people's opinions — including my own — the best way to get this best "simple" cup of coffee, the best way to see if a barista knows what they're doing and the best way to compare any two coffees is the Americano.
Usually two shots of espresso in a mug, filled to taste with what should be 197° water. Magically, you have something that really isn't too different, on the face of it, from the coffee in my parent's percolator circa 1979. (I assume they had a percolator then. I didn't care about coffee at that age. I just wanted to get through kindergarten and to the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, but I digress.) Making an Americano does for good coffee what a touch of water does for a good single malt whiskey — with just the right mix, you unlock flavors and tones that are overpowered when you drink it on its own.
In 2008, I spent some time hanging around Wichita for the first time in years. I saw the town through fresh eyes. There were so many things that simply hadn't existed when I was growing up. "Revitalized" neighborhoods, venues, an expanding arts scene and most importantly: coffee. There are at least a dozen independent coffee places in Wichita right now. That's before you count all the Starbucks, bookstores with coffee and guys selling lattes from unmarked vans outside of elementary schools. There are also plenty of local roasters and purveyors of coffee-making gadgetry around town, so that even the agoraphobic can enjoy quality coffee from behind their closed blinds.
I'm here to give you the lowdown on local coffee culture. I'll give you some ideas about what's good and what's not so good about all these places and their wares. Also, just to start arguments, I will occasionally declare a "best of" in a certain category — a drink, a venue, a barista, maybe even best chair.
To begin with, in our most basic category we revisit my friend and yours, the Café Americano. In the past few weeks, I have had Americanos at every place in town. While now completely hypertensive, I am comfortable saying that the best Americano in Wichita, consistently, can be found at Mead's Corner.
I'm a fan of the smooth, velvety Americanos at The Donut Whole and can spend the day swilling the slightly sweeter concoction down at The Vagabond (which uses, it should be noted, the same coffee supplier as Mead's), but no place in town makes as consistently tasty and well-made an Americano as Mead's. It's never over watered and always well-extracted. What you wind up with is a bold without being bitter sort of dark chocolate hit of coffee, comforting and just right to keep you from remembering your own mortality and the inescapable entropy that decays everything around us.
I'd better go find more coffee. I think I'm coming down. Next time I'll be profiling and reviewing a place in full, and perhaps declaring a best cappuccino with a sub-category of best soy cappuccino (because those are really hard to do well and sometimes wind up tasting like old lo mein.) In the meantime, if you know of a coffee place I may not have heard about, drop me a line here at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be sure to add them to the list.