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I like coffee and I live in Russia which is not generally a coffee drinking country.

More often than not, when you ask for an espresso in Russia, you get 100 to 150 ml of liquid in your cup.

The cafes as a rule have the good equipment: espresso machines, grinders etc., but for some reason the Russian barista's idea of an espresso is usually take a big cup and wait for the machine to fill it all the way up. Sometimes you get a warning "you know an espresso is a very small cup of coffee, right?", which is a good sign.

I assume most people who are not familiar with espresso feel cheated when they get hardly enough liquid to cover the bottom of the cup, so the baristas and the cafe owners have to account for it.

At one place I had to ask to have my coffee re-made, and the response from the lady at the counter was "wow, finally someone who knows how to drink the right kind of coffee". But this is the exception rather than the rule, and most often you get pursed lips and avoided eye contact.

There are places which know how to make their coffee, and I'm familiar with all of them which are next to the place where I live. However when I'm eating out and want to finish my dinner with a nice cup of coffee, or when I'm away from home, I'm at the mercy of the person operating the machine this day.

I feel awkward when I come to the place I've never been before and try to tell the barista how to do their job. However, if I'm not specific enough, like in "I want this cup to be filled this high, and I want it to take this long", there is a good chance I get a full cup of watery and bitter swill from a good-meaning person. And it's twice as hard when you have to communicate it through the waiter or the cashier rather than talk to the barista themselves.

I have no problem being Ron Swanson ordering bacon and eggs if I know I have to, but there's always a chance the barista actually knows their job.

Question: how do I communicate that I'm ordering one sip of coffee and I mean it, without offending the barista?

Update: you totally have to be really really specific and use absolute units of measure if you want your coffee made the way they make it in Italy.

I'm speaking from experience. 4 times out of 5 if I'm not being that specific, I get my coffee severely over-extracted.

Russia is a tea drinking country, words like "small cup" don't really translate from tea to coffee. 100 ml is a very small cup of tea but a very large cup of espresso.

And the real problem is that the staff rarely if ever get complaints about being served too much coffee but get many about being served too little. If you don't assure them they won't get in any trouble by serving you two tablespoons of coffee, they'll pour you more, just to be on the safe side.

The best course of action is take the cup, mark the level with your nail and say "could you please set the grind level one step finer than you usually do and fill the cup up to this mark here?"

As I said before, I have no problem doing that if I know I really have to (say the second time I visit the place), but it's awkward to start the first conversation with a barista by making an assumption they don't know how to do their job.

The question is how to avoid accidentally alienating the 20% of baristas who know what they are doing, given that the other 80% need the very specific instructions.

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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – Arwen Undómiel May 12 '18 at 20:43
  • What happens when you ask for it "doppio" - will they get out a bigger cup? – rackandboneman May 13 '18 at 2:13
  • @rackandboneman as a matter of fact this has happened to me once, the guy asked "solo or doppio", and when I said "doppio" he asked if I was OK having it in a big cup because they were out of the medium ones. – Quassnoi May 14 '18 at 20:42

12 Answers 12

21

The exact definition of coffee drinks heavily varies across countries. I heard stories of Austrians and Germans ordering a coffee in Italy and being disappointed at getting an Espresso. Seems they expected a 200ml mug of black or a Macchiato.

You could ask whether they make Ristretto. Depending on where you are, chances are it will turn out exactly as an Espresso if they just go for it. If they are confused, you have an opportunity to ask for exactly what you want.

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    Asking for "ristretto" proved to the the best option. I've had a talk with a couple baristas, and complaints about being served too little coffee is indeed the root of the problem. Asking for a ristretto (which is usually not on the menu) is a clear sign for a barista I won't be one of those people, and for me to get the idea who I'm talking to. – Quassnoi May 24 '18 at 16:45
200

Either as an alternative or in addition to the other good suggestions, you can try phrasing the difference as something like:

Can you do me an Italian-style espresso? Like, shorter and stronger than a usual Russian-style one?

This way, you avoid presenting it as “Your espresso is wrong, here’s the right way,” which may make the barista feel attacked and defensive, but instead as “I prefer a different style from the usual one here,” which invites them to do something positive.

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    Great answer. Possibly worth noting that the commonly used term 'Americano' for elongated coffee has come about for similar reasons. If enough people ask for coffee "Italian style" then perhaps they will add it to the menu and it could even catch on. – Astralbee May 8 '18 at 10:53
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    Thanks for the answer. Unfortunately words like "Italian-style" or anything like that don't really work, you have to be extremely specific. The guy at the counter probably never got any complaints about serving too much coffee and has got many about serving too little. – Quassnoi May 8 '18 at 11:29
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    I love that this doesn't shame the barista or claim there is a "right" way for making an espresso but instead focuses on communicating what you'd like directly. Note that there are places with good coffee in the larger cities in Russia - they're just a bit of work to find. Nespresso also works as a quick non-premium-but-usually-good-enough workaround. – Benjamin Gruenbaum May 8 '18 at 11:57
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    @Quassnoi: Yes, it may well also make sense to describe what you want in more specific detail. But my main point is: it usually works best to frame your request as “this is the style of espresso I prefer” (i.e. purely about your own preference, and not overriding their judgement), not “this is the correct way to make espresso” (which comes across as criticism if they normally do something else; and even if they would have made a good classic espresso anyway, they may resent a customer assuming a position of superior knowledge and telling them how to do their job). – PLL May 8 '18 at 13:47
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    @BruceWayne: they call it "espresso". The problem is that those who don't make what I'm expecting call it "espresso" as well. – Quassnoi May 11 '18 at 13:55
32

You could ask:

Tell me about your espresso. Do you make it the very small and strong way, or a whole big cup?

If they say "small and strong" or ask you what you want, you're good. If they say "big cup" you can order something else.

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    Thanks for the answer. Unfortunately, if you ask like this, "is it small and strong", you'll probably be assured it's very small and extremely strong, then you get half a tea cup of coffee being extracted for a full minute. You have to be really specific. – Quassnoi May 8 '18 at 11:40
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    you can of course be more detailed: "is it small - like just one mouthful - and very strong?" I also like the idea of including the phrase "Italian style". – Kate Gregory May 8 '18 at 12:02
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    Espresso is also referred to as a "shot". Assuming alcohol is fairly large in Russia based on stereotypes... I would assume the barista would at least know the volume based on the size of a shot glass. Most espresso ordered in the USA at least get 2 of those shots in a cup. @Quassnoi – ggiaquin16 May 8 '18 at 16:19
  • @ggiaquin16 That's an excellent way to phrase it, in English at least. I don't know if it translates to Russian, but asking for "a shot of espresso" in any place I've been gets the point across very easily. – thanby May 9 '18 at 14:45
14

Maybe you could pretend that you forgot the name of it when ordering:

Could I have a very short and strong coffee .. hum.. sorry I always forget the name of it!

And if he doesn’t guess it, you can conclude with

 Ah yes, an espresso please

Then you give an explanation in a way they don’t feel like you teach them a lesson, actually it’s the opposite: they teach you a lesson and they’ll show you what’s a good espresso is.

EDIT: if you’re not George Clooney

Still avoid calling it an espresso (or whatever the name is in Russian). Just order a short and strong coffee while insisting on the gesture. Or go for a pleonasm :

I’ll take a short and strong Italian style coffee please

  • @Ian Do you mean that "cafe" is specifically "espresso", or that there is no word for different types of coffee such as espresso, and they are just called the word for "coffee"? – Acccumulation May 18 '18 at 16:20
  • @Acccumulation I meant that e.g. in Italian it used to be that caffé was simply short for caffé espresso in many places, because "regular" coffee as most westerners know it was simply not usual in Italy. I think it is similar in Spain where an espresso is a café solo. – Ian May 28 '18 at 7:37
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I don't think what you are looking for is the most inoffensive way to order because this might skirt around the details and fail to communicate the point. I think you are looking for the briefest, quickest way to convey the details of what you want. The briefest explanation should convey what you mean to a less-well-informed barista, but not make a more knowledgeable one feel like they are being lectured.

You mentioned in a comment that a Russian vodka glass is larger than other countries would use. But I'm surprised nobody has suggested using the word "shot". Baristas in the UK (who are heavily influenced by American coffee chains) tend to use the word "shot" to describe one serving of espresso and when adding them to make elongated coffee drinks such as Americano or Cappuccino. I don't know any Russian, but I'm fairly certain this type of glass/measure is familiar around the world. I found the Russian word "рюмка" and also I have been suggested the word "стопка" in a helpful comment below as possible words for this measure but perhaps if you live in Russia you know a better word.

You could perhaps say:

I would like an espresso please - just a single shot.

If this needs any further qualification perhaps you could also maybe gesture and show the size you mean with your index finger and thumb, if this is not considered rude in the culture?

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    Actually, if you follow your own Wikipedia link and switch to Russian version of it, you'll discover the word стопка, which is quite different from a рюмка (snifter). – Ruslan May 8 '18 at 14:14
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You could play dumb.

"Do you serve the italian style coffee, small cup, very bitter, only just covers the bottom of the cup? Forgot what they call it?"

This way you state what you need, appear to be ignorant of its name, and leave it open to them to educate you, while you are actually doing the opposite.

I do like the other options as well, the dumb approach often lets people off the hook of not knowing the answer.

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    How is your answer any different from Florian Gauthier answer? – Violet Flare May 8 '18 at 12:38
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    You are right, this is a similar style, I just called it playing dumb. Maybe I am being dumb, also, lol. – PeterJens May 8 '18 at 12:48
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I'd go with Peter's answer. But if you really want to ensure results, perhaps show don't tell.

Here's a different, almost cute solution. Carry around a picture, maybe business card sized and laminated, maybe with a two line instruction on it. Show it to the barista with genuine enthusiasm. You'll be seen as a coffee loving eccentric, perhaps, but it might work!

Or, pull a picture up on your phone. Maybe that's less quirky (but definitely not as fun!).

Consider something like the graphics on this poster by Follygraph.

3

You can start the ordering conversation by asking how they make the espresso here. They'll probably be just as familiar as you are with the big 150mL Russian "espresso", either because they make it that way or because they know that many places do.

There, you just started a conversation. Now you can ask them how big their "shots" are (or whatever expression you want to use) and, based on the answer you get, you can either tell them that that's how you want it, or that you want something else. Now you can go ahead and tell them how to make it, without having been wrong about assuming they don't already know.

2

Well, if you're into slight smile on your face, you can try this:

Please, I'd like an espresso, please, make it short, like a vodka shot [smile on your face].

This way, you are very specific about the expected size. If the café knows what an espresso is, they'll be delighted that you want it. If they do not know, they will likely give you some weird looks, but they'll give you these looks anyway.

I have the same experience from Czechia, and this style of message has worked for me in many places.

2

The crux of the problem is that the meaning of "espresso" is different in the context. Lecturing about the "proper" meaning is obviously alienating and in ignorance of local culture. Asking for "Italian-style espresso" is better in that you acknowledge the cultural differences, but likely isn't going to help you much - shops that don't already serve "Italian-style" will probably not know what you're asking for anyway, but at least it opens the way to using gestures ("espresso this short") etc. without seeming rude or condescending. However, you say you did meet some baristas that do understand "espresso" the same way you do - that's a great opening.

Ask them if they know other "Italian-style" coffee shops in the places you shop, or how to order a "proper espresso" in one of those "Russian-style" coffee shops - chances are they have a different name for the same thing (e.g. "piccolo" used to be a popular name for an espresso where I'm from, despite being nothing like the "Italian" piccolo). If they're just people interested in a particular style of coffee and not hipsters/snobs, they'll probably be able to help you better than random people on the internet :P And if you do get a good answer, you can post it here as well.

2

Before you order, ask the barista how many ounces (or milliliters) are in their espressos. If they respond with a number higher than you expect or point to a large coffee cup, you can ask them for a custom order.

If they know how to make espressos properly, they may assume that you think that espressos come in different sizes or that you have never had an actual espresso before, but they won't be offended by the question since you aren't suggesting that the barista doesn't know how large an espresso should be. If the espresso sizes are as varied in Russia as your original post makes it sound, you may not be the only person to ask them this question.

2

The key word describing an espresso is small. I suggest you use that word when you order, and perhaps reinforce the idea with sign language, showing with your hands exactly how small you want it to be:

picture of a hand making a gesture representing a quantity

If you see espresso cups you can also point at them when ordering. You'll still get your cup filled, but it will be about the right amount of coffee.

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    This is exactly what I was about to post, kudos for the picture of the gesture. The coffee will actually be espresso-like, since there are grinders etc. and it just runs for a shorter time (as opposed to having some kind of machine which delivers a constant stream of (weak) coffee which would mean that you would just have less weak coffee) – WoJ May 10 '18 at 16:44
  • It seems like that request and gesture would just get you 1/3 of a cup of coffee. Surely there's more to expresso than that??? – Harper May 13 '18 at 3:46
  • Also, "if you see espresso cups", doesn't that mean they already know what espresso is? – Mr Lister May 13 '18 at 13:23
  • @Harper 1/3 of a cup out of the espresso machine is quite close to a real espresso, especially compared to a full cup. I don't see how one can realistically get a better espresso done by people who don't know what espresso is. – Dmitry Grigoryev May 14 '18 at 6:48
  • @MrLister Not really. I assume they already got an espresso machine, yet won't make a proper espresso without further guidance. – Dmitry Grigoryev May 14 '18 at 6:50

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