Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter far than muscatel wine! ~ Lieschen, Coffee Cantata by Johan Sebastian Bach
In the early 18th Century in Leipzig, Germany, coffee was a controversial commodity. Some years later, Bach composed Coffee Cantata about the coffee “brew”- ha-ha, which features the clash of a father and daughter over her love of the seductive beverage. (Here is the English translation.)
Today, we have some controversies of our own about coffee, or at least variations in the way we serve it in formal or semi-formal social and business luncheons and dinners.
When to Serve the Coffee
A long-held tradition in very formal dining is that coffee is served following dessert. Like other customs of Western etiquette, this tradition began in Europe.
Nirmala Lalvani, etiquette and protocol expert in India, explains: “At very formal dinners, which have numerous courses and last for hours, demitasse is not served at the table but in another room, e.g., the ante or drawing room. This allows guests to stretch, freshen up and regroup. In other words, coffee is served after the pudding, or dessert, course.”
And, Vera Tanger, business and social etiquette and protocol expert in Portugal, and author of Diplomatic Life, says, “In the diplomatic world we tend to serve coffee or tea after the meal and in a separate room. This allows for people to mingle in a more informal way. On the other hand, at a working meal where guests tend to take notes and there is a Q&A period, coffee or tea is served after dessert/fruit and plates have been removed and while guests are still seated.”
In the U.S., as well, you might encounter this progression in serving coffee, especially at a very formal dinner in a private home, banquet hall or restaurant, or at a State Dinner at the White House. But, because the custom originated in a bygone era when people had more leisure time and dinners were drawn out, and modern life allow us less leisure time, many Americans would rather have their coffee served with dessert rather than afterward. As a result, you are likely to find that practice observed more often than not in American homes and establishments. Indeed, most of the etiquette experts I consulted who are American born or live in the U.S. prefer to have coffee and dessert together, or at least agree that it is the host’s decision.
Even in the U.S., however, certain populations still prefer to have coffee served after the dessert course. Yvonne Salas, etiquette expert in the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area, says, “I always recommend that coffee be served after the dessert, and suggest that it be done away from the dinner table. In Latin America and here in South Florida with so many Hispanics, I find that a great way to finish a dinner is to serve coffee and a pousse-café in another area of the home, such as a terrace or family room, to facilitate more lively conversation.”
The compromise I favor is to serve coffee and dessert together, and then offer a second cup after dessert. If the occasion is a formal dinner party, the second cup may be offered along with an after-dinner drink in another location.
Ms. Salas agrees. “It would be acceptable to offer coffee with dessert and then adjourn to another area to relax and enjoy another cup of coffee,” she says. “I like that suggestion because it would satisfy those that prefer the coffee right there at the table and those that would rather end in a more relaxed environment.”
Dessert and Coffee–Together or Apart?
Many international etiquette experts and connoisseurs of fine food believe that another reason that coffee should be served after dessert is that coffee is both a digestive and a stimulant. And, by the way, tea is also a digestive and stimulant that is served during the coffee course for those who prefer it. Decaffeinated coffee and herbal teas also aid the digestion, and won’t keep you awake all night!
In many cases, when coffee is served after dessert it’s accompanied by chocolates or cookies! It seems that serving coffee and two desserts, while lovely, is overkill. Of course, no one need eat either dessert or sweets at all after dinner, but if one is inclined to do so and prefers to have dessert with coffee, it is gracious and sensible to offer the two together.
There are other considerations, however. For example, at many luncheons, business people cannot spend more than a couple of hours away from their offices and clients. In such cases, serving coffee with dessert or immediately after is a practical and expeditious decision.
Wine or Coffee? And Don’t Forget the Brandy!
Other reasons given for serving coffee after the dessert course at formal dinners are the occasional inclusion of the dessert wine with the latter and brandy and cordials with the former.
Some guests might wish to pass on the dessert and stick with the dessert wine, but they can always be offered a choice of wine or coffee to accompany their dessert. And, then there’s always that second cup of coffee that can be offered with brandy following dessert, either at the same table or in another room or on the veranda.
Go with the Flow
Regardless of when the coffee is served, as a guest at a formal, informal or business luncheon or dinner, consideration of the host and other guests must always be paramount. As you are now aware of the various practices regarding the serving of coffee you will be prepared for any eventuality and should go with the flow. Unless the host offers choices, don’t ask for anything other than that which is being served at any given moment. If the coffee and tea are being served without exception following dessert, you should deal with it. If demitasse is served without a choice of cream or milk, so be it. You don’t want to disrupt the flow of the service or conversation, or be labeled a “high maintenance” or difficult guest.
It’s wise to remember that although a scrumptious meal, delicious drinks and dreamy desserts are part of the occasion, and that there might be something that does not meet with your approval, it’s never about the food or drink – it’s all about the people with whom you are dining and the purpose of the visit, celebration or business involved.
On the other end, if you are hosting or planning a formal luncheon or dinner you should know your audience and which type of service they would prefer, and balance that information with what will be the most efficient and cost effective.
Have a Happy Fourth of July!
Until next time,