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The mad scientist of coffee cocktails

Words by Taylor Stark Photograph by Chantelle Grady

We interviewed Truman Severson of Costa Mesa’s Theorem about his take on affogato and the art of coffee cocktails. 

Drowning is a nightmare that should be avoided at all costs, unless, of course, we’re talking about submerging a scoop of ice cream into a sea of coffee. Affogato, an Italian-style dessert beverage whose name means “drowned in coffee,” consists of a shot of espresso poured over vanilla ice cream or gelato. It can be a dessert or a beverage depending on your rate of consumption. Those who sip coffee slowly may be left with something soupy. It combines two distinct substances and creates a complex taste between sweet and bitter.

Affogato is not a revolutionary concept by any means. Adaptations can be found at a variety of places, from traditional Italian restaurants and Starbucks to third-wave coffee joints such as Intelligentsia. Although it’s often made with vanilla ice cream and espresso, it can be quite the malleable recipe experiment. In search of unusual variations, we asked Truman Severson, manager of Portola Coffee Lab’s concept coffee bar Theorem in Costa Mesa, California, which specializes in making cocktail-like coffee drinks, for some ideas.

How do you prepare an affogato?

Our method is very labor intensive, which gives us the ability to control as many variables as possible. We start with fresh ingredients—cream whole milk, sugar, eggs and vanilla beans—making a very rich custard that will act as the ice cream base. From there we take a measured amount of that base and in a double walled bowl, whisk the custard with liquid nitrogen [−321°F/−196°C], which freezes the custard into ice cream so quickly that the water molecules freeze in very small groups rather than large ice crystals creating an impeccably smooth texture. Then we prepare an espresso, freshly roasted, calibrated, ground and extracted with precision, served on the side of the ice cream, which allows the drinker to play the final role in the drinks’ creation.

What’s your mentality as a barista?

Our job as part of the coffee chain is simply damage control, to be blunt, not screwing up. From the moment a coffee cherry is plucked from the tree, its value is decided. The quality can no longer be improved upon, only diminished or maintained. And to that end, everyone involved is simply trying to do his part to uphold the quality and flavor that nature gave us. I have the very detail-oriented task of making sure that the coffee is brewed and served the best I know how.

How do you come up with your recipes and pairings?

Often they are based on structure built by others. Einstein said, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” The heart of this is true and yet I find great joy in not hiding my sources, so many of the drinks we make in theorem are simply cocktails—some of which are hundreds of years old—with coffee in place of spirits. Something as simple as the memory of eating watermelon on a summer day as a child becomes a beverage. Sometimes a drink has its genesis in the hope of communicating a flavor or an idea, and we reverse engineer the beverage to meet that need.

Do you have a favorite coffee cocktail creation?

My favorite is one I can take very little credit for: the Coffee Sour. It’s based on a family of cocktails known as sours, which were originally described by Jerry Thomas in 1862. The traditional recipes call for two parts spirit, one part acid—almost always citrus juice, one part sweetener and often an egg white. I simply replace spirit for coffee and served it thusly. I’ve seen my baristas take this idea and run with it. We now have a compendium full of coffee cocktail recipes with a full section devoted to sours.

What is the mission behind Theorem?

We try to push our understanding of the way coffee is served and consumed. I had a mild revelation one day when, at a cocktail bar, I realized that the people drinking their whiskey neat had no judgment for the people drinking their Old-Fashioneds and Boulevardiers, and that the feeling was reciprocal. I wondered if coffee could work the same way?

The specialty coffee community is one built on protest. We refuse to drink and serve the poorly sourced, past-crop, over-roasted coffees that make up so much of the coffee served in cafés. We stand in total opposition to the hyper-sugared, poorly brewed beverages that build the structure of the American coffee vocabulary—and yet we limit ourselves in that. Some believe that “poor quality coffee shops use coffee as an ingredient, so quality-focused coffee shops only serve coffee as a beverage.” We realized that it shouldn’t be a hard and fast rule, so our thinking is much more fluid: We use outstanding coffee and ingredients, focusing not on covering the coffee but highlighting it. We have the opportunity to change the way people interact with coffee.


Check out Truman’s recipes for affogatos here!

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