The New Trenta vs. Coffee Abroad: Culture Clash in a Cup

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The United States already has a reputation for serving gargantuan proportions. Visitors from other countries have been known to gasp and sputter in shock when served at our restaurants and cafés. But apparently, Starbucks doesn’t think our portions are nearly out of control enough. Going against the grain of cutting back that usually happens at the beginning of the year, Starbucks ushered in 2011 by introducing a new cup size. The Trenta (which translates to “thirty” in Italian) holds a staggering thirty-one ounces of liquid. The Venti, previously the largest cup you could order at Starbucks, now seems almost wimpy by comparison, at a mere twenty ounces.

Of course, if you’re from another coffee-loving country, twenty ounces probably still seems ridiculous. Even Starbucks’ smallest offerings of cappuccinos, lattes, and the like still outweigh what’s served in Italy, France, and so on. The Trenta is just an extreme example of the supersized coffee trend we’ve long enjoyed in the States.

You Say Tall, They Say Behemoth
Order a brewed cup of joe at Starbucks, and you have your choice of sizes: Tall (twelve ounces), Grande (sixteen ounces), and the aforementioned Venti (twenty ounces). It’s not offered on the menu, but you can also request a Short size, which is eight ounces. Those sizes remain fairly standard across major coffee chains in the United States. For example, both Tully’s and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf offer coffee drinks in the same sizes; they’re just labeled small, medium, and large instead. On the East Coast, cup sizes from Tim Horton’s and Dunkin Donuts run a little smaller: ten, fourteen, and twenty ounces for small, medium, and large, respectively. (You can get an extra large containing twenty-four ounces, though.)

A standard cup of coffee in the United States. Photo source: jakeprzespo (cc)

It’s not just regular coffee that comes in a variety of sizes, though. You can ask for espresso beverages, such as cappuccinos and lattes, in anything from small to Venti cups as well. According to the World Barista Championship rules, a standard cappuccino is served in a five- to six-fluid-ounce cup that has a handle. And that’s precisely how it and other specialty drinks are served in small, independent cafés in France, Italy, Turkey, and other highly caffeinated places outside the United States.

A typical café in France. Photo source: gnperdue (cc)

Rita Sapunor, an editor who lived in Paris for a year, says that coffee culture there is quite different from what we’re used to here. “Although there were many options for size and variety of espresso drinks, the default coffee was just a little espresso,” she explains. Asking for un café means that you’ll get a tiny cup with just a few sips of very strong coffee. Un caffè in Italy gets you the same demitasse cup. But even if you asked for a large latte (un grande crème), the size would be closer to what we think of as medium here. As for to-go cups, European countries definitely have them, but Sapunor says that if you order a standard café, it comes in something similar in size to a Dixie cup.

Caffe macchiato in Italy comes with just a dollop of milk. Photo source: neil conway (cc)

Size variation exists within North America, too. Take Tim Horton’s, a chain that exists in both the United States and Canada. Even in such close proximity, you’ll find smaller cup sizes in Canadian Tim Horton’s stores than in the chain’s East Coast outlets. A medium in Canada is the same size as a small here. However, sizes—along with drink type preferences—vary between more traditional-minded countries, like Spain and Italy, too. For example, cortado is a classic Spanish drink that literally means “cut,” because a little warm milk cuts the heavy espresso. It usually comes in four-ounce servings. Caffe macchiato, the Italian version of espresso, mingled with an even smaller amount of milk, comes in at two or three ounces. An American macchiato is more similar to a latte. And if it’s served at Starbucks, it’s more similar to a milkshake. (Caramel macchiato, anyone?)

This is a caramel macchiato. These aren’t nearly as popular in Italy. Photo source: PseudoGil (cc)

The Trenta Is Here (and Probably Only Here)
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that, just as there are Starbucks aplenty in France and abroad, an increasing amount of coffee shops in the United States are serving more traditional drinks. They focus on smaller portions of better-quality coffee with little to no emphasis on add-ins like caramel syrup or hot-chocolate mix. Then again, there will definitely be plenty of people clamoring to try the Trenta size in the United States, whereas Starbucks is unlikely to offer that size in any other countries. Parisians and the like may turn to their local Starbucks when time is of the essence, but a thirty-one-ounce cup of anything is probably far too much for them to stomach.


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