I am a black-coffee drinker.
I’ve enjoyed my coffee black, no sugar, since college, when a friend explained to me with the confidence of youth that coffee with milk was an adulterated beverage. To him, adding milk produced a muddle: a thing neither dairy nor coffee. Black coffee, he told me, was pure, “like crystal.”
From that moment on, I’ve been a lifelong black-coffee drinker. Black coffee was the real stuff — the core, the essence. I didn’t have to go on a whaling voyage like my hero Melville to confront life: It was there in the cup, waiting for me.
Glenn Prezzano, the publisher of mvm, knows my preference for black coffee and, perhaps with a sense of mischief, came up with the idea of assigning me the task of finding the best milk-coffee drinks in the valley. By milk drinks, I refer to any coffee beverage that comes served with milk, including cappuccinos, the famous espresso drink of Italian origin, and lattes, which everyone thinks are Italian but are not. (I’ve been told that if you order a latte in Italy, your confused server will shrug and bring you a glass of milk.)
Here it is. A jittery, jaw-clenching coffee tour of the Merrimack Valley. It is a story written in cafes as ever-increasing doses of caffeine pumped through my quickening heart. Drink, write, drive, repeat. [Please note: At the time of online publication, the cafes noted in this article were offering special services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please call or visit their websites for updates.]
Let the tour begin.
Viet Brewed Mocha Coconut
Blueberry Coconut Latte
Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus / Lowell, Mass.
The first drink on my tour was the Viet Brewed Mocha Coconut. Vietnamese coffee is typically made with dark roast coffee and condensed milk — Brew’d’s mocha coconut is a contemporary twist on that idea. The coconut was a tropical touch, and I loved how it was a nod to both specialty coffee and the city’s ethnic heritage. Next up, I ordered the blueberry coconut latte as the item on the menu that would be most out of character for me to choose. It was delicious — a fun pie flavor without pie’s excessive sweetness. I have frequented Brew’d for years, and this colorful downtown Lowell mainstay has played a significant role in my life in a number of ways. Most importantly, I met a woman there in 2013 who would later become my wife. The tour had to begin at Brew’d Awakening.
Plum Island Coffee Roasters / Newburyport, Mass.
There are a number of Newburyport-area cafes I enjoy visiting, and Plum Island is one of my favorites. It’s spacious. It has a fireplace. The view is scenic: Behind the shop, the Gillis Memorial Bridge spans the Merrimack River. Many of the fancier drinks I ordered on this tour were seasonal or special offerings. I note this because you might not be able to find the Meltaway latte if you visit after this is published. But who knows? The Meltaway is flavored with toffee nut and caramel. Think of it like a hot liquid Heath bar.
Market Square Bakehouse / Amesbury, Mass.
The caramel affogato served at the Bakehouse is a kind of upside-down latte, with vanilla, caramel and sprinkles. Or so the kind barista explained to me. The caramel forms a lattice on the surface of the foam. The traditional Italian affogato is a dessert drink, often served over ice cream. I would hardly call this version a dessert drink — it was one of the most balanced drinks of the tour. The Bakehouse opened late in 2014, but it feels like it’s been a part of Amesbury’s downtown for longer than four years. The mood reflects the same cozy charm you find in the surrounding boutique stores and restaurants.
The NH & Toasty Oats
The Grind Rail Trail Cafe / Derry, N.H.
I tried two drinks at Grind Rail Trail because I wanted to sample at least one beverage made with untraditional milk — the Toasty Oats is made with cinnamon-infused oat milk. The drink was surprisingly powerful, and the cinnamon more potent than I expected. With milk alternatives, it’s hard to get the same texture as a properly prepared whole milk cappuccino, but this was appropriately foamy. I also tried a flavored latte drink: The NH. How could I not try a drink with such a name while in the Granite State? Appropriately, it was made with maple. The presentation was attractive and the taste subtle. I happily slurped The NH to its dregs.
White Mocha Latte
Cafe La Reine / Manchester, N.H.
I stop at this cafe whenever I’m in the northern reaches of the Merrimack Valley. Its intimate interior reminds me of the independent urban coffee shops I favored when I first started developing my love of the noble bean. Books line the walls, and I noticed as many people reading paper as screens. My kind of place. I imagined most of the customers were students or professors at nearby Southern New Hampshire University. The novelty of milk drinks was wearing off on me by this point and I longed for a cup of black coffee, so I ordered an excellent Guatemalan, black, along with a white mocha chocolate. On a day when the outside temperature had dropped into the single digits, the warmth of the drinks was welcome.
Snowball & Peanut Butter Latte
A&E Coffee and Tea / Amherst, N.H.
A&E is a cafe, but also a roaster. It has a relaxed bohemian vibe that I find stimulating for conversation or creative work. I like it so much I find myself driving there even though it’s out of the way for me. Feeling ambitious, I ordered two of their seasonal drinks. I have no idea if The Snowball or the peanut butter latte (made from their own peanut sauce) will still be available on their rotating menu by the time you read this. I assume The Snowball, which was made with mint white chocolate, would be a familiar taste to those who appreciate winter-themed treats. The peanut butter latte was more unusual, although roasted coffee already has chocolate flavor notes in it. Therefore, coffee and peanut pairing makes perfect sense. I was left wondering if the drink was too refined. There is something indulgent about a late-night scoop of peanut butter, and that’s what I expected here. Instead, this was a much gentler and even sophisticated experience than my preferred after-hours snack.
Coffee and Cotton / Lowell, Mass.
I finished my journey with a cortado at Coffee and Cotton in Lowell. A cortado is a Spanish drink that uses equal parts espresso and steamed milk. The milk cuts the acidity of the espresso, but there isn’t enough of it to make it feel like a foamy latte variation. The cortado was welcome after so much froth — at this point, I couldn’t take another coffee drink with candylike flavor notes. Simple was best. It was also nice to finish the coffee tour in Lowell, since I was close to home. By the time of the cortado, I was more tired than wired, and the boost gave me the energy to get back into my car, crank up Carl Perkins, and hit the highway as the day drew to a close.
Coffee for a Cause
Of course, there are other delicious ways to use coffee. Pictured above is the Not Yo’ Mama’s Cappuccino. This Horseshoe Grille specialty is made with house-infused Ketel One vodka, vanilla and, of course, coffee.