Edible Asks: The Origin of the Espresso Sidecar.

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espresso at andy town with a sparkling water sidecar
Espresso with a sidecar at Andytown Coffee Roasters on Taraval.

Why you’re served that shot of sparkling water alongside an espresso.

The customary shot of sparkling water served alongside a demitasse cup of (third wave) espresso: we can’t see it disappearing any time soon. Espresso doesn’t deserve the accompaniment any more than a cappuccino or macchiato, and yet, do we know why it’s singled out to receive the accompanying shot? There isn’t an explanation on café menus, nor are patrons typically advised when ordering an espresso that they will also receive a complimentary glass of sparkling water. It just shows up. Is this a tradition, and where and why did it begin?


“You don’t want to straight-chase it—that’s not why you drink espresso,” says Jason Reed Miller, director of coffee at Mazarine Coffee in San Francisco’s bustling financial district. Miller believes that you can always tell the quality of a coffee shop’s coffee by whether a patron drinks the sparkling water sidecar before or after they take their last sip of espresso.

“Espresso is a really concentrated, intense beverage. When it’s a well-balanced shot, that intensity is unbelievable because it’s a lot for your palate at once,” says Miller. “It’s nice to have something to prepare your palate, then cleanse it, possibly during and at the end of the cup. The sparkling water is basically a palate cleanser,” he says. “However, if the shot’s good, you don’t want to cleanse your palate.”

Miller believes the emergence of the glass of sparkling water can be attributed to third wave cafés: “They’re about hospitality and service as much as they are about high-quality coffee and dialed-in shots.” He suspects that one of the reasons why a lot of espresso drinkers prefer the water is because it can be enjoyed in-house, alongside the auditory pleasures of music streaming from the speakers and espresso served in a tactile, ceramic vessel. The act of serving water as an unexpected accompaniment expands the experience of drinking espresso in a café.

Many people think serving the sparkling water is a carryover from Italian espresso bars. Interestingly, though, Miller hasn’t seen sparkling water served with espresso at Italian cafés or in Italy.

Lauren Crabbe, co-owner of Andytown Roasters, feels the water is a useful addition to the espresso drinking experience. “We love serving our espresso shots with a little glass of bubbly water on the side. It allows customers to cleanse their palate before they try their espresso, and clear out any lingering toothpaste or food that might interfere with the flavors of the coffee. Or they can sip it after their shot and fight coffee breath. It’s a nice accessory to a simple and delicious coffee beverage.”

“Most often when the water shows up, people think, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’” says Nick Cho, proprietor of Wrecking Ball Coffee on Union Street in Cow Hollow. “I like to equate it to that old adage, ‘Why does the family cut the ends off the roast before serving it? It’s to fit the pan.’ The joke being that everyone had all these theories about how and why it was better one way or another, when in reality the family had a small oven.”

“The value is from the analysis as a professional,” he continues, offering his origin theory about sparkling water. “Throughout history there have been people who served water with coffee in one form or another. It’s likely that it happened before third wave espresso shops introduced it, in that [Christopher] Columbus way. There is legitimacy to the modern discovery, it’s just not articulated well.”

According to Cho, when barista competitions were established in the late 1990s, it was determined that when coffee was served, part of the hospitality was to serve water and a napkin and to offer sugar. It was done as a certain degree of practical hospitality. The acculturation of specialty coffee standards and values started with the 2007 World Barista championship.

“World Barista champions were competing with dark-roasted coffee until the golden age of barista competitions in 2007, when people began to be able to watch them online for free,” says Cho. Through the democratization of access, the rules were revised to eliminate the sugar requirement. “The water thing persists, though. Still or sparkling? You decide; you’re the barista.”

For Cho, it’s really a question of how barista competitions have influenced specialty coffee. “Before those presentations went online, you didn’t have a way to see high-end specialty coffee service. All of a sudden here’s everything on display for people to experience.” He remarks that it’s the same origin story for [modern] cappuccino milk foam and single-origin espresso. “As much as the competitions should reflect what’s happening in the industry, there is a bad radar-rebound effect, where it’s what’s actually happening at the competition that gets reflected at the cafés, afterwards.” Serving single-origin espresso was a game changer.

“At the time, it seemed radical to not do a blend. Espresso as a single-origin was too one-note. It wouldn’t be balanced. Today, it’s still not balanced, we just recalibrated our idea of what balanced is. That kind of relativistic notion reveals where you are in a relative time span.”

Cho hopes that “we’re on the tail end of coffee coming out of its adolescence phase. So much of it is proving we’re different from our forebears, proving we have our own identity.” Part of that maturity is coming back and starting to establish what your values are and why you do things a certain way.

For now, the sparkling water sidecar is fashionable; we can only ponder what comes next.

{Disclosure: Maggie Spicer is also a proprietor of Douglas}

 

A few SF coffee purveyors that offer a sidecar with espresso:

Saint Frank
2340 Polk Street
1081 Mission Street

Mazarine Coffee
720 Market Street

Sightglass Coffee
3014 20th Street
270 7th Street
301 Divisadero Street

Andytown Coffee Roasters
3655 Lawton Street
3629 Taraval Street

Linea Caffe
3417 18th Street

DOUGLAS
1598 Sanchez Street

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