Could you fall for a coffee that’s shorter than a latte but taller than a macchiato (an espresso “marked” with a spoonful of milk foam)? Many of us have, more of us will.
In Milan, the caffè marocchino – essentially a mini-cappuccino dusted with cocoa– has risen to the height of fashion and stayed there. The cortado, the Spanish take on a espresso “cut” with a small quantity of milk, has been assimilated at coffee bars on both sides of the Atlantic. And in San Francisco, the Gibraltar – a mini-latte served in a paneled glass – is a local cult coffee with a growing and now transatlantic following. The gospel of Gibraltar has spread to seminal coffee shops in LA (Intelligentsia) and New York (Café Grumpy), and to Climpson & Sons in London. It’s the coffee of choice at the newest of London’s great independent coffee shops, Dose Espresso, on Long Lane at Smithfield Market.
The Gibraltar was conceived as a lark and named as something of an inside joke by the esteemed Bay Area (California) roaster Blue Bottle Coffee. Prior to the January 2005 opening of his first coffee kiosk in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley district, owner James Freeman began using the distinctive but cheap glasses he’d bought at a restaurant supply store for his improvised R & D. This research entailed pulling shots of various blends and roasts in the 4 1/2-ounce glasses, topping some with steamed milk and offering samples to the hopefully grateful employees at Dark Garden, a corset shop down the street. These young women knew a good shape when they saw one and quickly developed a fondness for the little lattes and the cute glasses with octagonal paneled bottoms and smooth, rounded tops. The coffee needed a name and barista/roaster Steve Ford, then a colleague of Freeman’s, found inspiration on the packaging for those glasses. Forget Gibraltar the rock, the city or the strait. This “Gibraltar” is
a registered name for a line of tumblers by the American glassware manufacturer Libbey. It is perhaps fortunate Blue Bottle did not buy similar glasses from a popular French manufacturer, otherwise its coffee invention might have taken the name Duralex, which sounds like the brand of a male contraceptive.
Although Blue Bottle has served Gibraltars by the thousands, Freeman has resisted any temptation to put it on his menu. The word-of-mouth status has been seen as part of its allure. Other cafés, like San Francisco’s Ritual Coffee Roasters, where Ford is now head roaster (but not the boss), have felt no compunction about listing it in bold letters alongside their espressos, lattes and cappuccinos. So how does Ford feel, now that his Gibraltar may be destined for the Oxford English Dictionary?
I’ve never really talked about the Gibraltar for publication, partly because I think it was very much of a time and place – that being the Bay Area circa 2005. The fact that I’m talking about it now is mostly because I’ve given up on the original idea. There WAS something special about it back then. Now, it’s just another drink on the menu to me, and like so many cappuccinos, generally prepared poorly or just wrong. Every year people ask about it, so I can track how far the idea has gone, but the fact that it’s all the way in the UK and I have no idea how it got there is disappointing. And not to be too melodramatic, but I feel like the soul of the drink has been lost. It used to be something unique, and now it’s just another piece of fucking latte art.
Any bitterness felt by Freeman is less of the dark-roast variety. He likes the Gibraltar’s appeal as a transitional coffee for latte drinkers ready for something shorter and stronger. (The Gibraltar has less milk than a standard latte but the same amount of espresso.) He’s pleased that it’s served in a glass (though not all cafés use the exact same glass) and therefore can’t be ordered to go. It’s a stick-around coffee which, according to Freeman, fosters cultural experience, the urban use of spaces, and sustainability (no paper to toss out). He’s nevertheless uncomfortable taking or sharing credit for the unintended consequences: “The moral of the story?” asks Freeman. “Be careful what you joke about.”