The Making Of A Specialty Drink

Congregation's staff is brimming with creative talent. Lead Barista Alex Skalany (inventor of the Horchata Latte, Ruby Latte, among others), Barista Erin Cessna (inventor of the Candied Yam Latte), and Owner Eliot Guthrie (inventor of the Hamburger Latte) let us into their process. Read on to learn how they turn this creativity into the specialty beverages featured in our cafe! 


Where do you get ideas for new recipes?


"Specialty beverages are a such a treat and are an opportunity for the barista to give the customer something cozy, familiar, and delicious or introduce new ideas and flavor profiles not typically thought of in combination with coffee. I mainly like to draw my ideas from culture specific flavors that folks may be unfamiliar with, educating while giving representation in the coffee shop. I’ve heard from our latinx customers that seeing a Horchata latte on our menu has made them feel at home, included, and seen in the community they live in. It lets folks take ownership of their local coffee shop and allows them to see themselves in the story. That really is a huge goal of mine. 


"I also like to draw ideas from food or new flavors and ingredients I’ve encountered in cooking or dining. The fun thing there is the challenge of translating a flavor in food that you chew and eat, to a coffee beverage that you drink without necessarily using the literal food item that the idea comes from. For example, our Ruby chocolate latte had no chocolate in it at all! It's another opportunity to educate and bring something new and exciting to the table."  — Alex

 A layered, iced Ruby Latte next to a gator toy wearing a hat!

I’m usually always trying to find fun flavor combinations. Often i’ll have a sip or try of something and have a moment of, that would be good with coffee, or maybe it’s a candy bar. There was a bunch of tamarind candy at a school event for my daughters, and I instantly thought that I wanted to try to use tamarind in something. For the hamburger latte, that started from eating honey mustard pretzels, and thinking those would be fun flavors to work with, it just so happened that national hamburger day was coming up, so it made sense. — Eliot


I came up with this one when I was trying to dream up an alternative to a PSL. Nothing against it's popularity, but pumpkin pie isn't a fall favorite of mine. WHAT DOES get me excited about fall are root vegetables being in season (read: SOUP)! I'd seen recipes pop up for sweet potato/ube lattes online and wanted to see how I could elaborate from there. — Erin


How do you make a recipe from that idea? 


From the conception of the idea, the next goal is identifying the key flavors I want to communicate and achieving balance while making sure the coffee is represented too. The choice of a particular bean or roast can make all the difference in the drink, providing supporting flavor notes and more complexity to the drink. I may want the fruity brightness of our natural Ethiopian, or the spicy, rich smokiness of our chicory blend. After choosing the coffee, I like to focus on two major components of flavor for a specialty drink recipe. For example: in the horchata we need cinnamon and rice flavor to come through, for the Ruby latte we need the raspberry and milky white chocolate notes, etc. Additional flavors can add complexity and nuance to the experience. From there it’s a game of trial and error and trusting your palate to guide you. Is it sweet enough, am I tasting the rice enough, could there be more orange flavor and how do I boost it, is orange peel enough or should I use orange zest, am I losing the coffee, and so on and so forth. It’s a very satisfying process especially when you’ve hit the point of “hey that’s pretty dang good!” — Alex


Honestly, i kinda just throw it all together to start, don’t really worry about any techniques. I’ll put everything into a blender or shaker and see where that gets us. From there maybe we’ll decide that a few of the components need to be separated, either by the flavor or texture, then we’ll play with techniques, whether it’s making syrups, foam, or infusions. After that, we’ll probably try a few iterations and see what sticks. — Eliot


A Hamburger Latte garnished with a sprig of dill


I used our Honey Tahini recipe as a template, savory+sweet+milk alternative to help blend, and then adjusted the ratio using my coworkers as guinea pigs. The idea to sweeten with maple syrup actually came from a customer at Congregation who'd asked me once if we had any they could use instead of regular sugar. I joked about calling that drink a "Canadian Latte." Marshmallows (and leaning into a "candied yam" theme) was all part of the taste testing. — Erin


What's the best specialty beverage you've ever tasted?


One of my favorite specialty beverages I’ve had comes from a coffee shop in Houston I grew up going to. The drink and the shop were a big part of developing my love for coffee and coffee shop culture. The shop is Antidote and the drink is a Cajeta Latte. Cajeta is a type of dulce de leche primarily seen in Mexican sweets and baking. It is a slow cooked sauce made from goat milk. The milk is cooked down with sugar until it is reduced to a very sweet, thick and gooey golden brown sauce. It gives the drink that familiar caramel-y sweet richness, but also brings in a funky complexity and tang from the use of goat milk that keeps you wanting more.  — Alex


I think the most exciting and my favorite is Kumquat’s Cloudy with a Chance of Peanuts. It hit all the right notes! Something to really strive for! — Eliot


I'm between Honey Tahini and that Autumn Spritz we did a few months back —Erin

A Candied Yam Latte with marshmallows on top!