How Coffee Shops Are Breaking The Rules To Create Signature Drinks


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Housemade syrups are par for the course at independent coffee shops: patrons are just as likely to see menu stalwarts like cappuccinos and mochas grace a menu alongside latte mashups flavored with syrups like dulce de leche, lavender, and brown sugar cardamom. For many coffee shops, signature drinks usually take a coffee classic—like a latte—and give it a slight spin, creating something both instantly recognizable and unique to the cafe. 

However, many coffee companies are pushing beyond the boundaries of classic coffee beverages and crafting drinks outside the realm of the traditional—from Bluestone Lane’s Coconut Water Cold Brew to Starbucks’ Oleato, a new line of drinks infusing cold pressed extra virgin olive oil into everything from cold foam to cortados. 

Coffee provides the perfect canvas for exploring techniques and flavor pairings beyond standard menu offerings. While offering menu staples provides customers with a sense of consistency, a signature drink that breaks convention can become the showpiece of a cafe. When shops break the traditional rules of coffee, they can create memorable signature drinks that defy expectations and keep customers coming back.

Small But Mighty

The popular Italian shakerato—traditionally a sweet, frothy shaken espresso with sugar and ice cubes—gets a rich, nutty twist at the new Caffè by Mr. Espresso in Oakland, California. Owner Luigi Di Ruocco adds Valrhona hazelnut praline paste and heavy cream to the recipe, creating what I overheard one customer describe as a fluffy cloud of deliciousness. “It’s balanced but also very decadent, which is why we serve it in a five-ounce glass,” he says. “Some of the best things are consumed in small portions.”

Photo by Amber Gibson

Another unique brew at Caffè by Mr. Espresso is the super strong Sugo, also served in a five-ounce portion and only available after 1 pm. Sugo translates to “juice” in Italian, but this is not based on any popular beverage in Italy: it’s a pure Di Ruocco invention, named because it reminded him of a fuller-bodied coffee juice. 

“We’ll take a coffee with an interesting flavor profile and brew it three to four times stronger than your average cup of coffee, using our state-of-the-art Ground Control coffee machines,” he explains. “The result is a very, very heavy-bodied and rich cup of coffee.” 

Di Ruocco uses a 1:5 brewing ratio of coffee to water and a fairly coarse grind for the Sugo. He worked closely with the team at Ground Control to dial in the brewing parameters to highlight the coffee’s sweetness and acidity and create a round mouthfeel. “The Sugo is not fully an espresso and not fully a drip coffee,” Di Ruocco says. “It lives in between those two worlds. It has a huge flavor and presence while keeping all the sweetness and delicacy to make a fascinating cup of coffee.” 

The resulting drink is more than coffee brewed at a higher coffee-to-water ratio, but an entirely new beverage altogether. This drink requires a bit of an explainer, and baristas will enthusiastically describe the drink to anyone who inquires. Curious coffee connoisseurs willing to try it are often hooked, and it’s become an “if you know, you know” afternoon pick-me-up for locals.

A Fruity Twist

Coffee shops often find it helpful to advertise unique specialty drinks with images, either in-store or on Instagram, to spread awareness of a beverage different from what customers usually order. Klatch Coffee, a roastery with retail locations across Southern California, posts photos and descriptions of its signature drinks on Instagram to entice followers to try new offerings like The Everyman, a seasonal drink made with Ethiopian nitro cold brew poured on top of peach puree and topped with a squeeze of lime. “The nitro adds a creaminess that pairs with the peach, and then lime livens it all up,” says barista and director of training Heather Perry.

Drinks like these are why customers come to Klatch. We like to take the coffee people love and make it for them in ways they never thought of. Heather Perry, Klatch Coffee

Perry says The Pineapple Express, a tropical riff on an espresso tonic, is her favorite seasonal drink at the moment. “We start by shaking the ice with mint leaves and a lime wedge to loosen up those flavors, and then add pineapple juice, tonic, and lay the espresso on top,” she says. “It is beautifully layered and just so refreshing.” It’s also an unforgettable drink that is truly one of a kind. “Drinks like these are why customers come to Klatch,” Perry says. “We like to take the coffee people love and make it for them in ways they never thought of.”

Inspiration for new flavor combinations can come from other drinks, including cocktails. Chicago’s Fairgrounds Craft Coffee and Tea serves a twist on an old fashioned, substituting espresso for bourbon alongside Fee Brothers walnut bitters, simple syrup, and an orange twist.

The Pineapple Express. Photo courtesy of Klatch Coffee.

“My grandfather used to drink old fashioneds,” says founder Michael Schultz. “I wanted to honor him with this unique non-alcoholic libation, which we call elixirs.” Schultz uses a full-bodied espresso with dark chocolate and citrus notes for the drink, and the orange accentuates the espresso’s citrus notes. The elixir is poured over a large ice cube to keep the beverage cold without watering it down, just like in the classic cocktail. “Grandpa Irv’s old fashioned is a rounded beverage meant to be sipped and enjoyed.”

Coffee may be a daily ritual, but it doesn’t have to be routine and repetitive. These forward-thinking baristas and coffee shops are proving that customers are intrigued by specialty drinks that they can’t find anywhere else.

Cover photo courtesy of Mr. Espresso

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Amber Gibson

Amber Gibson graduated as valedictorian from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and writes about travel, food, drink, and wellness for Saveur, Conde Nast Traveler, The Daily Telegraph, Hemispheres, Chicago Tribune, Vegetarian Times, The Kitchn and many more .

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