Recently, I unexpectedly found myself back at my alma mater with my college roommate a decade after graduation, holding an iced beverage that defied explanation. We had dipped into a coffee place in Raleigh, North Carolina, that’s upscale enough to satisfy my friend’s desire for San Francisco-esque eateries, even though we now reside in a decidedly suburban area. The shop, Jubala Coffee, takes their coffee so seriously that when I visit, I feel like I need to pretend to have a preference between Central American and African grown coffee varieties. (I don’t.)
On this day, I was a little horrified to observe her nonchalantly order their spring special: a coffee lemonade. While serving a lemon peel with espresso is a thing that one sometimes sees in certain cafés, mixing coffee and lemon juice together just shouldn’t be done, right? The barista, a dapper gentleman named Brian, took a stab at convincing me to try his special recipe and assured me I would enjoy it if I drank my coffee black once in a while. I do, so I took a $4 gamble and ordered myself one. Apparently, this is what living on the edge looks like at age 33.
By the time I had taken my last sip, I felt smug in knowing that I now belonged to a group of bold and daring coffee lemonade ambassadors: It was effing delicious
Here’s what you need to know: The drink contained cold brew iced coffee, house-made lemon syrup, and fancy Q Spectacular Tonic Water. “Isn’t tonic water the stuff that tastes awful?” I asked the barista before I took the plunge. Brian nodded. I was absolutely certain that you don’t mix two things that don’t go together with something bitter and expect an improvement in flavor.
My first sip forced my eyebrows up, almost involuntarily. Wow! It had the complexity of a really good cocktail. The tonic water provided an energizing boost. It was slightly sweet, but not cloyingly so. The lemon didn’t overpower my taste buds either. The coffee flavor was subtle at the beginning, but asserted itself at the end with those familiar toasty notes. It was the perfect way to enjoy coffee in the middle of a summer afternoon, and in retrospect, I’m sure that’s what Brian the brilliant barista had been trying to tell me all along.
If you are thinking it’s just too weird for you or that you would never be that adventurous, don’t pretend you are so principled that you haven’t tried unusual food combinations. Have you dipped your Wendy’s fries in a frosty? Been tempted to try chocolate bacon? Eaten rice pudding? Listened to your grandmother extoll the virtues of peanut butter and pickle sandwiches? Heck, an Orange Julius is basically orange juice and milk mixed together with sugar, and that’s definitely not supposed to work, but it does. Plus, how is mixing coffee and lemonade much different from tea and lemonade, a time-honored combination of summer drinks so special that it’s earned its own name, the Arnold Palmer?
Don’t play like you are above bizarre combinations of accidental deliciousness. If you find yourself somewhere that offers coffee lemonade this summer, do yourself a favor and indulge. Even better, try mixing one up yourself at home—it’s a glass of toasty, citrusy sunshine that I’m willing to bet will leave you with a smile.