When I worked in a Starbucks-style coffee shop, I saw people, day in and day out, put the same things in their coffee. Milk—dairy or non-dairy—sweetener—sugar or Splenda; or I saw them put nothing in and boldly drink it black. (This made me shudder then, but these days I prefer black coffee myself, mostly to avoid dairy and sugar). It was always a pleasant, if weird, surprise when someone put something else in their coffee. There was the guy who always used three small packages of honey for his…weird, but not outlandish. One day, however, I got asked: “Do you have butter?” Yes, we had butter for muffins, so I thought nothing of handing him a couple of packets until he started scooping the butter into his fresh coffee. I was flabbergasted. It turns out this was a fad; the fat in the butter supposedly slowed the release of the caffeine in the coffee, making its effects last longer. I tasted it once, and the butter acted in the same way milk does to cut the bitterness and give a fuller mouth-feel.
It’s not clear where butter coffee, also known as bulletproof coffee, originated. It reportedly provided additional benefits such as giving your brain healthy fats necessary for preventing certain diseases. There were also claims that it would kick your body’s fat-burning processes into gear—a fat-burning start to the day. It was said that it could potentially improve your cognitive abilities, and it supposedly did all of this without that pesky post-caffeine crash. Some people even used it as a meal replacement in the mornings, citing the calories and fats from the added butter and the energy from the caffeine as substantial. It still seems weird; but, I’ve since learned that it is not the “weirdest” way people drink their coffee.
In relatively the same arena as butter coffee is egg coffee. The origins of this concoction are better known; egg coffee is Vietnamese. The most common concocting method is whipping together egg yolk and condensed milk until it is creamy and then pouring the coffee into it. It seems similar to the fluffy cappuccino or the addition of whipped cream to your brew. It is supposed to taste like a coffee custard.
In Taiwan, where it is common to add salt to fruits to bring out their sweetness, they’ve started adding sea salt to their coffee. Salt reacts with certain molecules in food and helps them release flavors more easily. That’s why it’s the basis for so many recipes; not to make them salty, but to bring out all of the other flavors. In particular, salt is known to curb bitterness, which makes it a perfect fit for coffee. When I tried butter coffee, I expected to be weirded out by the saltiness of the butter; all I got was creaminess, however, and the bitterness was diminished.
My prize for the weirdest coffee custom is coffee with cheese. This isn’t just drinking your coffee and nibbling on a bit of cheese; it involves dipping cheese directly into your coffee, or, even weirder, drinking coffee that has been infused with cheese already. Now, rationally, it makes sense; milk, cheese, and butter all have similar fat and cream characteristics that function to cut the bitterness and affect the caffeine-delivery system. Perhaps it is my association of coffee with sweet things, whether sweetened with a little sugar or accompanying a blueberry muffin, that throws me off here. My brain doesn’t like the idea of savory coffee. Sweden boasts the origin of this practice. The cheese used is apparently sweet-ish when cold, and nutty with a mozzarella essence when toasted. That’s not as bad as the sharp cheddar I was imagining, but I still don’t know if I’ll be jumping on board for that one.
Moving away from fats and creams (and cheeses) there is the tradition of drinking coffee, espresso in particular, with a wedge of lime or lemon. When you think of espresso as a shot, like tequila, having a lime wedge afterward makes sense. The acidity in the fruits cuts through the bitterness and also gives you a fresher feeling in your mouth post-coffee. I learned this trick from a couple of my regular customers back in the day; they came in every day after lunch for their espresso and always requested a lemon wedge. This seems counter-intuitive when you’re accustomed to Frappuccinos and lattes laden with sugar, but, just as for a shot of liquor, a lemon or a lime acts as an excellent chaser for espresso.
While it is becoming increasingly popular to infuse coffee with alcohol or to infuse alcohol with coffee, or energy drinks (cringe), some coffee connoisseurs are instead treating their coffee like beer. Nitrogen infused coffee is an upcoming trend in brewing. It involves cold coffee (made cold by nitrogen), served from a tap, which comes out looking just like a dark draft beer. The foam that is produced from the nitrogen gas gives it a creaminess, bypassing the bitter, and allowing it to retain its natural flavors (they hopefully aren’t using burned, bitter coffee beans for this). It is also served without ice because the nitrogen process lowers its temperature, which means no dilution. I’ve had this from a shop in Manhattan, and it was phenomenal. It was like drinking a smooth beer, but instead of getting sleepy I got energized for the rest of my day.
People love their coffee, and when you love something, you like to push the boundaries of its capabilities. As much as I like routine, I might just have to try a couple of these for myself and see if the impossible is possible: coffee can get even better.