This article was first published in Solo Magazine #7.
“A tiramisu and four kinds of coffee. As different in color as possible.” I had been tasked with writing about coffee and color, and was on a coffee crash course. And I thought asking for a dessert first would make it less weird.
There was no avoiding this. I had to experience coffee in person. Not only because you cannot rely on memory with color. But mostly because I am not a coffee drinker, except for the occasional tiramisu.
I began with a cafeteria that was not particularly specialised in coffee. It was less intimidating. They had great Italian pastries though.
The terrace was packed and I shared my table with a stranger who said was going to leave quickly. He did not. He stared at my coffee collection while I took notes and told me all about his unfinished novel.
I went at a perfect time too: 7 PM. (The next times I did better: 4 PM). I only tasted it all. I am not crazy.
The waiter was an Italian young woman. She was kind and patient. She agreed to serve everything in glass cups, so I could benefit from a 360 degrees view. She told me her favorite coffee was espresso.
It was one of the options, along with a regular milk latte, an oat milk latte and a cappuccino, that I got. I could not for the life of me agree with her taste. But when it came to the visual experience, I did.
I mean, that rich caramel espresso FOAM. A thousand tiny bubbles gave the color a delicious irregular texture. I was being nurtured. Visually.
Let it sit for a while (I know, I know, you’re not supposed to), and the foam recedes to the sides, leaving thin patches of foam of a surprising greenish color. All set against that dense, almost black background. I had reminiscences of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki writing about gold and lacquer shining in the darkness.
The lattes and cappuccino told a different story. Top and side views displayed nuances of muted sand tones. Quiet, comforting colors to paint a room in.
Oat milk seemed to darken the drink’s color but kept it in the same hue range, a yellowish orange with plenty of grey added to it. The cappuccino’s top was decorated with cocoa powder. I suspect some was added inside too. While similar in saturation, it was visibly redder than the other two.
Oh, and I could drink these.
My second and third visits were to specialty coffee shops.
On the first of the two I monopolised the only tiny bar table just outside the shop for 1.5h. Again, I had an all-glass service plus a useful white cup at my disposal.
There the owner himself got curious. He heard the word “color” and immediately made me google the coffee color wheel. Which was lovely, though not what I had in mind. He also offered me water to help me savour each coffee separately. The focus was, as it should, on taste. The fact that I wanted to analyse the colors of coffee itself was clearly a first. I still tipped generously.
Of course, I used the pastry shield. Then clumsily ordered a flat white, filtered coffee and an espresso and ice. My surprise came when I enjoyed the coffee more than the pastry. Something with peanut butter, way too sweet.
I have two words: flat. white. This one won both my eyes and tongue over. I already imagine myself asking for it next time I meet my coffee lover friend. I’ll sound really smart.
Compared with the coffee and milk options I had had at the previous place, it seemed someone had boosted the saturation up. And shifted the hue towards orange. Was it the raw material? The preparation? The earlier, more luminous time of day? Possibly all of the above.
The flat white’s texture was velvet smooth and its presentation impeccable. Another surprising factor was that, from the side, it was almost monocolor. Foam and liquid were like sky and sea, on a day when one has trouble discerning the horizon line.
The other two gave me a lesson in transparency. I had not thought about it before but coffee with added milk is completely opaque. I confirmed it by taking the flat white to a patch of sunlight close by. Nothing went through. It was not the case with the espresso and ice and the filtered coffee. The former was dirty and translucent, in expected tints and shades of warm browns. The latter shone like a ruby.
I understood I had to look at that last one differently. Back at the table, I used the white cup as a perfect background and filled it at different levels. I wanted to see how the colors changed depending on volume. Wow.
Add a few drops and the cup fills with bright, warm fall colors, unlike any shade I ever related to coffee: orange ochre, gold, mustard.
Half filled, each color darkens and ochre turns rusty.
Completely full, the palette goes even deeper. From the center to the periphery I could identify black bean, chestnut, caramel, finishing off with golden brown with a greenish tinge. It reminded me of moist earth after a rainy day.
To add to the color surprise, who would have known coffee could taste like lemon?
At my last stop I squeezed my multiple coffees, camera, phone with palette app and myself on the smallest bench ever invented. Thankfully there was a windowsill of dubious cleanness at my back where I stored my bag and coffee as I was finishing with it.
I tested the barista’s composure by forgetting the coffee I had ordered the moment I chose the next one. With her help I finally settled on an iced latte with oat milk, a latte with regular milk, a batch brew filtered coffee and an espresso. No pastry this time.
There my experience was closer to the to-go experience. I was only allowed a metal spoon in addition to cream colored paper cups and a plastic cup and lid (I recycled it) in which calming clouds of iced latte floated.
The top of the iced latte was equally dreamy: almost white with tiny caramel areas, only broken by rocky ice cubes.
The warm latte’s top inverted the proportion of white vs color. I could not see what was under, so I ate the foam with the spoon. I enjoyed that.
In both lattes, the colors were more vivid than those of the first cafeteria. And, similar to the flat white, the hues also drifted towards orange.
I still couldn’t drink the espresso without making a face. But the foam remained gorgeous. A little brighter than the first. There was definitely a pattern there.
Once the foam retreated, I used the spoon to see the reflections the dark liquid created on it. A small quantity cast honey and caramel reflections. A full spoon was composed of deep cinnamon and chocolate. As I recorded these colors on my phone, I could not stop thinking of comforting winter food. Ideally sweet.
The filtered coffee continued to amaze me. The foamless liquid looked lovely in the paper cup. I savoured the olive green creeping around the dark saturated brown. I could see it. Right there where it touched the paper.
I noted the reflections again. This was fun. This time I slowly drowned the spoon in the liquid.
Close to the surface, the show began with the lightest shade of amber. Next came sunset orange tones. Then I wondered if I was drinking rooibos tea instead. Right before the spoon disappeared, I glimpsed bloody tones, reminiscent of Coca Cola.
I encourage you to try it.
I feel light on my feet after the experiment, in spite of the slight embarrassments.
I had intended to use my eyes only. But color and taste go, roughly, hand in hand. Milk softens both. Its absence keeps browns and flavors rich and deep. The filtering technique, particularly, seems to reveal a rainbow of unpredictable colors.
There is a possibility that specialty coffee is more saturated in color. But I need more testing to confirm that. Ideally at the same time of day.
I will find out. Because, colors or not, I think I will go back.
But mostly I feel this way because I payed close attention to something new and was blown away by the unexpected richness behind it. It seems to happen every time.
What is next then?
Maybe I can write something for Tiramisu magazine.