Irish Coffee

Originally published March 18, 2012.

Cream, rich as an Irish brogue;
Coffee, strong as a friendly hand;
Sugar, sweet as the tongue of a rogue;
Whiskey, smooth as the wit of the land.

-a traditional toast accompanying Irish coffee


Irish Coffee with Floated Cream

The Irish coffee typically served in restaurants here either has cream stirred into the drink, or whipped cream floating on top.  The traditional way to enjoy the drink is to gently pour heavy cream onto the surface of the coffee so that it floats, then sip the coffee through the cream.

Let’s discuss ingredients.

The Coffee – Use good coffee.  Brew it strong.

The Sugar – Irish coffee is made with brown sugar which has a distinct, cooked, molasses-like taste.  I use demerara, which is a very dark brown sugar.

The Whiskey – You can make a fine Irish coffee with Jameson or Bushmills, but for a superlative cocktail I suggest Redbreast.  It’s aged in oak barrels and therefore has more of the toasty vanilla and caramel notes that pair well with brown sugar.  I know many will cringe at the idea of pouring such a fine whiskey into coffee and sugar.  In fact there’s an old joke that Irish coffee simultaneously ruins three great drinks: coffee, whiskey, and cream.  The way I see it: how often do you make Irish coffee at home?  Maybe twice a year.  Use the good whiskey.

Sidenote: In Scotland and Canada they make “whisky.”  In Ireland and America they make “whiskey.”  I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.

The Cream – What we call heavy cream is usually around 33% milk fat.  I find it very difficult to float this cream on the coffee and maintain a clean separation between the two liquids.  I prefer to use a higher fat cream, closer to 50% milk fat, something the British would call double cream.

Vital Green Farms is an independent dairy producer in Picture Butte, AB.  You can buy their milk at Planet Organic.  The Vital Green whole milk is some of the best milk I’ve ever tasted.  They also sell an organic heavy cream that is 52% milk fat.  Heavy cream is one of the few exceptions to the kitchen adage “fat is flavour.”  If you sampled a range of dairy products, from skim milk, through 1%, 2%, whole milk, coffee cream, and heavy cream, you’ll find that while whole milk is much more flavourful than skim, heavy cream has very little flavour.  I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.  Perhaps the fat in the cream somehow obscures the flavour of the lactose.  Despite its muted flavour, Vital Green heavy cream has the fat content we need to properly float our dairy.

Sidenote: people often refer to whole milk (3-4% milk fat) as “homo milk.”  In dairyspeak “homo” is short for “homogenized,” which means the milk has been processed to prevent the separation of fatty bits from watery bits.  All commercially-produced milk is homogenized, not just whole milk.  The next time someone asks you to pick up some homo milk, you should clarify this with them.

These sidenotes are ruining what should be a nice, succinct post.  Sorry.

Notes on Floating Cream – Fill the glass with the coffee, sugar, and whiskey mixture to within 1/2″ of the top of the glass.  Filling the glass very full will allow you to keep a spoon close to level as you add the cream.

Touch the tip of a large spoon filled with cream to the inside of the glass, just above the coffee.  Gently (gently!) tip the spoon so that the cream slides down the side of the glass and onto the surface of the coffee.  If the cream mixes with the coffee, you have ruined St. Patrick’s Day.

Since you’re going through the effort of floating cream, Irish coffee should be served in a glass, not a ceramic mug.  If you’re a sucker for tableside theatrics, as I am, bring the glasses to the table filled with the black coffee, sugar, and whiskey, then spoon the heavy cream on top in front of your guests.

A complete recipe, if you’re interested:


Irish Coffee (for four)


  • 14 fl oz. strong, quality coffee
  • 3 1/2 tbsp demerara sugar, packed
  • 4 fl. oz. Redbreast Irish Whiskey
  • 3 fl. oz. heavy cream (52% milk fat)


  1. Add the sugar and whiskey to the hot coffee.  Stir briefly to dissolve the sugar.
  2. Divide the coffee mixture into four glasses, ensuring the liquid comes to within 1/2″ of the top of each glass.
  3. Float a portion of heavy cream in each glass (see Notes of Floating Cream, above).
  4. Consume immediately, sipping the coffee through the cream.


Sampling a glass of Irish coffee

A friend experimented with dunking oatmeal poundcake into his Irish coffee.  Initial impressions were favourable, but more rigorous study is required.

Dunking oatmeal poundcake into Irish coffee

Roasting Coffee at Home

Green (unroasted) Costa coffee beans from TranscendDid you know that for much of modern history domestic consumption of coffee involved roasting the beans yourself every time you intended to brew a cup of joe?

When coffee first swept Europe in the seventeenth century, most coffee was brewed and consumed in public coffee houses, but by the nineteenth century, most coffee was prepared at home.[1]  Green coffee beans were purchased from a grocer, then roasted, ground, and boiled just before serving.  And not just on lazy Saturday mornings: under every circumstance, if there was time to drink coffee, there was time to roast the beans yourself.  During the American civil war, green coffee was a standard ration for the Union army,[2] and every night soldiers would crouch over a fire to roast the beans.  (The same would have been true of the Confederate army if the Yankees hadn’t blockaded New Orleans so effectively, thus keeping coffee from the American south.)

It wasn’t until the 1840s that pre-roasted, pre-ground coffee was marketed.[3]  Before this, everyone knew that coffee tasted best when roasted just before brewing, but manufacturers started an ad campaign to convince Americans, especially housewives, that they in fact couldn’t roast coffee properly at home.

Obviously there are pros and cons to having the coffee roasted in advance.  Professional roasters have much, much more control over the roasting process.  They can manipulate temperatures very precisely, and they roast in rotating drums that brown the beans evenly.  And of course there is the convenience of not having to fire up the oven every time you want a cup of coffee.  These are the thoughts that discouraged me from roasting at home for some time.

Last summer I worked for the Nomad food truck.  I was cooking in their prep kitchen, which is located in a hilariously labyrinthine complex that houses a number of artists and businesses, including an Ethiopian coffee joint.  One afternoon we took a break from cooking and sat down for the traditional Ethiopian coffee ritual.  First incense is burned.  Green coffee beans are roasted in a bulbous container than resembles a large Florence flask (you remember those from junior high science class, don’t you?)  Then hot water is poured into the jug, and a feather is wedged into the slender neck.  The feather filters the coffee and prevents ground beans from falling into the drink.  Little cups are arranged into an array so they are all rim to rim.  Then the hostess pours the coffee in a slender but continuous trickle from a foot above the table, moving from cup to cup without breaking the stream.  Then you drink the coffee while munching on popcorn, of all things.  The coffee was good, but not great.  It was a fun experience, and at the very least it convinced me that palatable coffee could be roasted without the use of fancy equipment.

I asked Josh at Transcend to score me some of their green Costa beans, prized for their acidity.  He referred to my order as “a pound of green,” which made the transaction sound more illicit than it really was.

Let me say that I know a handful of professional coffee roasters.  I realize that roasting is a craft that one can spend years, indeed a lifetime, trying to perfect.  I realize there is a science to it.  There is expensive machinery.  I also realized that I don’t know anything about how to roast coffee, and I purposefully avoided researching how to do it well.

I spread some of my green beans on a sheet pan and put them in a 425°F oven and watched and waited and sniffed the air and periodically redistributed the beans on the tray.  Within three minutes there was a whiff of chocolate in the air.  And butter.  Actually it smelled like I was baking a chocolate cake, and the edges of that cake were starting to become slightly crisp and tacky and sweet.

Later caramel aromas showed up.  I started hearing the odd “pop” in the oven.  I pulled the beans when they were amber, much lighter than the lustrous black beans that I typically buy.

Lightly roasted beans v. green beans

I ground the coffee immediately, while still hot.  The powder had an orange tinge.

I brewed in a drip-filter coffee machine.  The final drink was noticeably lighter than most coffee I brew, with an orange hue that I associate with tea.  The aromas were more towards the fruit and nut end of the spectrum.  On the tongue, the coffee had a pleasant, mild acidity and a lingering, light chocolatey finish.  It was a good brew.

Will I brew like this every day?  No.  But if you are of the opinion, as I am, that coffee smells better while being ground than it tastes in the cup, this is the process for you.  It really did fill the house with a bewitching aroma.   Between the amazing scent of the roast, and the pageantry, I daresay the ritual of the brewing and drinking, I can say this is something I will definitely do again.  Next time with some friends.

A cup of home-roasted coffee



1.  Pendergrast, Mark.  Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed our World.  Rev. Ed.  ©2010 Mark Pendergrast.  Published by Basic Books.  Page 44.

2.  Ibid.  Page 47.

3.  Ibid.  Page 46.  One of many, many memorable coffee ad campaigns explored in Uncommon Grounds.

Coffee, At Home and Abroad

I was surprised to learn that Austria has a strong, distinct coffee culture.  I probably shouldn’t have been, as the adoption of exotic goods like cane sugar and coffee beans was the hallmark of European imperialists, and Austria, as the granddaddy of European imperial powers until the First World War, has been roasting, grinding, brewing, and drinking coffee for centuries.

The story of how coffee came to Austria was told to me several times during my stay.  In 1683, the Ottoman army, led by the Grand Vizier, besieged Vienna.  A Polish soldier named Jerzy dressed in Turkish garb and left the city to contact Duke Charles of Lorraine and ask for assistance.  Jerzy snuck back into the city, bringing a promise from the Duke.  With this information, the Viennese city council decided to resist the siege until reinforcements arrived.  The Turks were later defeated in the Battle of Vienna, and forced into a hasty retreat, during which they left behind several bags of coffee beans.  Jerzy is said to have been awarded, among other things, many of these bean sacks, with which he opened the first coffee house in Vienna.

Another version of the story has the Turkish beans discovered and brewed by a Capucin monk who, finding the drink too strong, dilutes it with milk, thus founding European coffee culture, and inventing what we, with most of the world (but not Austria!) call the capuccino.  That was the most complicated sentence I’ve ever written.

I have no idea if these stories have any historical merit, but the very fact that they are widely known and repeated speaks to the pride Austrians take in their coffee.  To further appreciate Austrian coffee culture, let’s talk a bit about our own.

North Americans tend to distinguish between “normal coffee” and “espresso,” sometimes erroneously pronounced “expresso.”  Many think that these are two different types of beans.  They’re not: they are two different methods for extracting the flavourful oils from a roasted, ground coffee bean.  The same beans are used in both methods.

“Normal coffee,” that is, the coffee brewed in most homes before the morning commute, is drip-brewed and filtered.  Hot water is slowly poured over ground coffee beans.  Under the force of gravity it seeps through the grounds, absorbing the flavour of the beans.  A paper filter ensures that none of the grounds get into the final cup.

“Espresso” is made by forcing hot water under pressure through compact coffee grounds.  This method of extraction produces a very different drink than drip-brewing, as it extracts and emulsifies components of the beans that are usually left behind.  It yields an extremely flavourful liquid that can have an almost viscous mouthfeel.  This method also produces a bit of foam on top of the drink, called crema.

In many parts of Europe, including Italy and Austria, almost all coffee is “espresso-style” coffee.  In my experience, drip-brewed filtered coffee was only available at a few touristy rest stations and hotels.  The reason I keep puting “espresso” in “quotation marks” is because much of the world uses this style of brewing, but doesn’t drink anything called an espresso.  It’s a bit like calling braised meat “coq-au-vin-style” meat.

Anyways.  Food historians now refer to three waves in the marketing and consumption of coffee in North America.  The first wave was the establishment of large coffee importers like Folgers in the nineteenth century.  The second wave was started by small coffee houses that made espresso-style drinks and categorized much of their coffee by country of origin and roast. This movement culminated in the proliferation of franchises like Starbucks and Second Cup that popularized a style of coffee loosely based on the Italian caffe.  I say “loosely” because the language is largely Italian (grande, venti, espresso, capucino, latte, americano, macchiato, ad infinitum…) but many of the practices (like the irresponsible use of foamed milk) are not.

The third wave, still going strong, emphasizes coffee bean roasting, grinding, and brewing as an artisinal trade.  Roasters and vendors are developing ways to categorize and discuss coffee much like sommeliers describe wine.  They sell their brew with detailed aroma- and flavour-profiles.   Their coffee is usually presented simply, without the elaborate, sweet, foamy accompaniments associated with the second wave.  Even so, ordering in a third wave coffee house can be an alienating experience to the uninitiated.  (If you don’t know what I mean by that, go to the Garneau Transcend and try ordering “a coffee.”)  Third wave vendors promote fair trade, and often develop lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with coffee bean growers and their communities.

Coffee culture in Austria has been much more static over the past hundred and fifty years.  Most of the classic cafés in Vienna were established in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.  They have a fixed style of brewing and serving.  Ordering “a coffee” in these cafés is a bit like ordering “beef” in an American steakhouse.  Here are some of the common drinks:

  • Brauner – Black coffee, served with a small dish of milk to be stirred in.  At one time it was available as either a Grosser Brauner (bigger) or Kleiner Brauner (smaller), though the smaller version is now more or less extinct.
  • Verlängerter – (Literally, “lengthened,”) A Brauner pressed with a little hot water.  Similar in concept to an Americano.
  • Melange – (From the French, literally, “mixture”) Coffee with steamed milk, and often whipped cream.  Similar in concept to a cappuccino.

There are also a number of coffee drinks containing liqueur:

  • Maria Theresia (a famous eighteenth century Habsburg) – coffee with orange liqueur and whipped cream.  I can’t say for certain, but oranges might be associated with Maria because one of her residential palaces, Schönbrunn, in Vienna, is famous for its orange groves.
  • Fiaker – a Verlängerter with rum
  • Masagran – ice coffee with Maraschino cherry liqueur

The coffee is served on a silver tray with a glass of water, a small chocolate, and, if appropriate, a small pitcher of milk.

Traditional Viennese coffee service: silver tray, water, milk, and sometimes chocolate

Labrador Tea

While on the AMS Great Alberta mushroom foray near Hinton, we came across some large patches of Labrador tea.

Some Labrador tea, sharing a basket with yellow suillus mushrooms

Labrador tea is a little evergreen shrub.  It was once commonly brewed by the natives and used in countless medicinal applications.  It was also part of some of the traditional gruit mixtures of northern Europe.  (For an explanation of gruit, and why it could be important to our provincial brewing identity, please see Alberta Beer: A Thought Experiment.)

The principle flavour is minty evergreen.  I swear when I bruise the fresh leaves I also get a sweet melon aroma, but I haven’t been able to convince others of this, nor have I been able to coax that flavour into solution.  Labrador tea can be used much like young evergreen buds, in tea, syrups, and dry cures for meat.

Raspberry Leaf Tea

Drying raspberry leaves for raspberry leaf teaThis is a quick one.  I just learned that raspberry leaves make good tea.

Pick the leaves, dry them in a low oven, and store in an airtight jar.

To serve, steep in hot water for 4 minutes, as you would any other tea, and strain.

I’m not good at describing the subtlties and complexities of something like tea.  To me, raspberry leaf tea tastes a bit like green tea…

It’s good.

Steeping raspberry leaf tea