When Americans say "Would you like cream in your coffee?", do they mean powdered creamer (milk or milk-substitute)? Basically what South Africans know as Cremora or do they put heavy or double cream in their coffee? Is cream some sort of collective noun for any type of dairy that is put into coffee?
There's no consistent answer to this, as you can see from the comments below there's it's slightly contentious.
Usually cream when offered with coffee refers to either half and half (half milk and half light cream, about 12% fat) or a non-dairy liquid creamer like Coffee Mate. The half and half could be fresh, or in little single-serve containers in which case it's probably UHT so it doesn't require refrigeration. Non-dairy creamer is almost always in single-serve containers.
Less likely it could also mean light cream or very rarely heavy cream. If it's powder people will usually say it's creamer.
tl;dr: "cream," means heavy cream or half-and-half.
For context, I live in the US.
If you visit my house and ask for cream in your coffee, I will give you heavy cream. I suppose it is possible to find light cream in the US but this is so exceedingly rare in a normal supermarket that we'd normally say it doesn't exist.
Half-and-half (approximately 1:1 cream and milk) is very common and it used in many restaurants to replace cream. It is common largely because it gives much the same feeling in one's coffee as cream but is significantly better on the health. If I had this, I would give it to you and consider it equivalent to cream.
If I didn't have cream but I had milk, I would tell you that. Most likely, I would offer by milkfat percentage I have available: whole, 2%, 1% or skim.
If I didn't have milk, I would tell you what else I have that may substitute. Lactose-free milk is increasingly common and even more so non-cow milks such as almond, oat, coconut, etc. (Soy milk, on the other hand, has nearly disappeared from American supermarkets due to an irrational fear of soy products.)
I would not offer you creamer, mostly because I drink my own coffee black and I don't ordinarily have fresh creamer on hand. Much of the creamer available in this country is sweetened and artificially flavored, French vanilla and hazelnut being very common. I have met social groups where putting this sort of creamer in your coffee is de rigueur but I cannot recall anyone who has ever called this, "cream."
In some (American) circles, "creamer," is of the dry-powder variety, which can vary from the dry version of fresh creamer to simply powdered milk of some variety. It is sometimes sweetened and often not made of any ingredient that began its life as cow milk. In any case, if all I had was powdered creamer, I may offer it to you but only with significant disclaimers.
I do not frequent Starbucks or any other coffee shop. Perhaps someone who does, or someone who works at one, can shed some light as to their corporate standards for this. There are may Americans who consider what Starbucks does to be both the original and definitive way of serving coffee.
Based on my experiences as a coffee drinker who has lived in 5 US states and drunk coffee in at least 14 others, here's the things they could be offering you in order of probability/common use:
- Full-fat milk
- Liquid non-dairy creamer
- Dairy heavy cream
- Some form of non-dairy milk (such as oat milk or soy milk)
While liquid non-dairy creamer is the most commonly used of the above, most of the time Americans distinguish between it and "real cream"; they would be more likely to say "creamer" or a brand name than calling it "cream". However, some people and some regions make less of a distinction. Also, creamer is more likely to be called "cream" if no other options are available, such as in many workplaces.
At the same time, non-dairy milks might be offered, but outside of certain venues (e.g. vegan restaurants) the host is most likely to distinguish them from "regular cream".
There's a couple of cultural reasons why Americans are usually careful to distinguish between dairy and non-dairy options. One is that we have a strong national dairy industry and there's some dairy pride. The second is that a lot of Americans have lactose intolerance, so hosts want to make sure they know that non-dairy options are available.
Cream for coffee means "table cream" or "light cream" like this:
But it is common to say "cream" for half-and-half or artificial creamer, unfortunately.
By US law, "cream" is defined as:
Cream means the liquid milk product high in fat separated from milk, which may have been adjusted by adding thereto: Milk, concentrated milk, dry whole milk, skim milk, concentrated skim milk, or nonfat dry milk. Cream contains not less than 18 percent milkfat.
while "half and half" is defined as:
Half-and-half is the food consisting of a mixture of milk and cream which contains not less than 10.5 percent but less than 18 percent milkfat. It is pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized, and may be homogenized.