How big is large?

A silly-season story from the Plain English Campaign has, quite unintentionally, brought the fraught question of coffee serving sizes back into the spotlight. But as so often happens, the important part of the story for the trade is not the angle the daily press took up.

In the quiet early-year period, the newspapers had leapt on the campaigners’ complaint that ‘buying a coffee has become too complicated’, and that instead of classifying sizes with fancy names, coffee houses should simply stick to the terms ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’.

The campaigners were even reported to have demanded the removal of the word ‘regular’ from café terminology. A campaign spokeswoman was reported to have said: “Almost every cafe now seems to ask if you want ‘regular’ – they seem to use the word ‘regular’ when they really mean ‘small’ or ‘medium’. That’s not what ‘regular’ means – it’s irregular use of language.”

Only some coffee houses do use the term ‘regular’. However, in the coffee business, ‘regular’ can also mean filter coffee (from the American terminology) which can be perfectly correct – in most American roadside cafes, that is the ‘regular’ (or ‘usual’) kind of coffee which is served, in the ‘regular’ (or ‘usual’) size of cup.

The newspapers went on to ridicule the major café chains’ terminology – typically, Starbucks uses ‘short, tall, grande and venti’, Costa uses ‘primo, medio and massimo’, and two others actually do use the term to which the campaigners objected – Caffe Nero has ‘small, regular and grande’, and Coffee Republic uses ‘tall, regular and supremo’.

However, in their haste for a silly-season story, the press completely missed the meaningful point of the complaint from the Plain English Campaign, which was that those names mean nothing unless they are explained.

“We had received a call from a member of the public asking ‘what is a regular size’?” the campaign’s Marie Clair told us. “We think a coffee size in fluid ounces should be displayed. If you’re paying for it, you should know what you’re getting!”

As it happens, there is no actual variation in the serving sizes from the major coffee houses. At Costa, the smallest size is 12oz, and is called ‘primo’; it is also 12oz at Coffee Republic, although they refer to it as a ‘tall’, as does Starbucks.

The next size up for those three chains is 16oz, although they can be called ‘medio’, regular’ or ‘grande’, depending on the café. The largest sizes are 20oz, known as ‘supremo’, ‘venti’, or ‘massimo’, depending again on where you are.

The real point, says the Plain English Campaign, it is extremely difficult to find a coffee-house which tells you exactly what measure you are getting for their fancy name.

Sadly, none of the general media thought to question Starbucks’ explanation of using ‘venti’ for its largest size, which is that the word means ‘twenty’ in Italian… because, of course, it would be a very strange Italian indeed who would be seen drinking a 20oz cappuccino. Italians generally prefer their standard size of about 6oz.

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