Coffee: Somewhere along the line, the bitter black beverage went from simple drink to national sensation. In fact, more than 150 million Americans consume coffee every day, contributing to a domestic coffee market that banks $18 billion each year.
And since the coffee/espresso revolution of the late ’90s, coffee has grown to mean more than just a cup of decent drip from the corner store — it’s an obsession, boasting a multifaceted universe of varietals, brewing methods, drink types and flavors. Even if you’re not entirely passionate about coffee, the drink’s finer points are worth considering, especially in light of the fact that even a basic latte can go for more than $3 in Los Angeles.
With that in mind, it’s equally important to know where to go. Unfortunately, more often than not, coffee shops fail to deliver on quality, despite relatively high prices.
USC’s campus flaunts a wide array of places to grab coffee, but only a few serve consistently quality drinks. The biggest problem: the crowds. The lines at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at both the Ronald Tutor Campus Center and the School of Cinematic Arts buildings, for instance, can extend perilously far during peak hours. Not only do these crowds create long waits, they also create a difficult scenario for baristas, who often rush through making your drink — and don’t focus on quality execution — in order to get to the next order.
It’s usually a better situation at locations across the street from campus, such as Starbucks at the University Village or Seattle’s Best at Gateway. These coffee shops make decent, if not noteworthy, espresso drinks, and their brewed coffee tends to be fresher and more flavorful than the coffee at places like Trojan Grounds.
The title of “best coffee on campus,” however, still goes to Shop Café, tucked away in the courtyard of the School of Architecture. As long as one avoids the lunch-break rush, the cafe is a veritable haven of coffee drinks. The gritty details are impressive: Shop Café uses the products of Pasadena-based roaster Jones Coffee, which features beans from the highly touted Guatemalan estate Finca Dos Marias. The shop also indulges customers with pricier, and also tastier, Monin-brand flavor syrups.
Most crucially, the cafe’s gleaming La Marzocco machines brew a punchy espresso with a luscious, tiger-striped layer of crema — the all-important microfoam, laced with the extracted essential oils of coffee, that sits on the surface of a shot and gives good espresso its nuance. The quality — or lack thereof — of an espresso shot can make or break an espresso drink.
The same goes for steamed milk. Sounds simple, right? You take some whole milk, stick it under a wand that shoots out searingly hot steam, wait till the liquid froths up and mix it with espresso: Voilà, a latte. Except it’s not so easy to do well — many espresso drinks arrive with milk that’s scalded and lacking body and froth that looks more like something from a bubble bath gone terribly awry, all drooping suds instead of thick, luxurious foam.
Thankfully, Shop Café’s espresso drinks consistently come with all the elements in proper form, resulting in a beverage with an assertive, deep coffee flavor mingling perfectly with silky, thick milk that retains its natural sweetness.
Off campus, options for great coffee abound. There are the “classic” temples of haute caffeine, most notably the notoriously hip Intelligentsia Coffee as well as Groundwork Coffee, both of which feature dedicated baristas who turn out some intense drinks.
Another gem closer to campus is Café Dulcé at the Japanese Village Plaza. The bakery and coffee shop offers many incredibly tasty things to try, including a rich, perfectly cold-brewed iced coffee and a heart-stoppingly delicious bacon-glazed donut.
The true winner, however, is the Dulcé Latte — a brilliantly devised latte that’s boosted with a dose of condensed milk, steamed together with whole milk. It’s one of the ultimate expressions of a latte: The milk is made even thicker and more velveteen with the condensed milk, and the drink carries the perfect undercurrent of sweet, caramel-like flavor.
If espresso drinks aren’t your thing, there’s still the world of brewed coffee to look into. Unlike espresso, which can rarely be made well at home without a professional machine, brewed coffee is best done at home, where each cup can be made fresh. As it happens, though, too many people are used to throwing Folger’s into a janky, ancient drip-coffee brewer.
Instead, try a French press. A simple device made of a glass container and a plunger attachment with a steel-mesh filter, the humble French press can turn out some of the most revelatory brewed coffee you’ll ever have, with a dense body and layers upon layer of complex flavor. All that’s needed is some fresh, nicely roasted coffee and the press itself, which often runs around only $20 at stores like Target. Make sure to buy your coffee in whole-bean form and get it ground fresh, either at the store or at a nearby supermarket’s bulk grinder or, best of all, at home.
Bad coffee is an everyday reality, whether it’s sipping on the final dregs of that workplace brew that’s been sitting around for hours or receiving a terrible drink from a chain coffeeshop. But good coffee isn’t that difficult to find — it just requires a little effort, whether it’s hunting past the corner Starbucks or simply investing 10 minutes each morning at home.