Cappuccino as conflict

Competition season often leaves me with an uneasy relationship with a drink I usually find very enjoyable.  I should add that my own view is in no way representative of competition judges, or competitions or anything like that – just a thought rolling around my head.

Generally, it seems, we treat milk as an enemy.  People talk as if steamed milk is trying to hold a pillow over the face of coffee flavour.  We talk about whether or not a coffee “cuts through” the milk.  I’ve never really been thrilled with that phrase or way of thinking about coffee but I have to accept that I am in the minority here.

To get a blend to cut through milk we have a few choices:

Roast darker

By and large we end up with a flavour in coffee that is often described as having notes of chocolatey, nuts or  caramel.  These flavours are generally a byproduct of roast – results of maillard/caramelisation/strecker reactions.  Roasting coffees a bit longer will create more of these, losing more of the original characteristics of the coffee and increasing bitterness.  The argument has often been that milk combats the bitterness and allows these kinds of flavours through.  Fair enough – I can’t really argue this point.

Distinct components

Often people use very heavy bodied coffees in blends designed to be used in milk drinks.  Typically either coffees from Indonesia/PNG that will have heavy, earthy or woody notes or a robusta.  The woodiness of the latter is extremely present through milk, an easy to get “coffee” flavour – though whether or not you find it pleasant is a whole other thing.

It seems to me that whatever we do we end up with a fairly homogenous tasting global cappuccino – speciality or not it is likely that we are all using a fairly small number of descriptive terms to communicate the most purchased and accessible espresso based drink in the world. 1

What if?

Adding milk to coffee is a good thing.  As much as I am pro-purity in coffee, I am more pro-enjoyment.  Most people like adding coffee to milk, it adds sweetness and reduces bitterness and intensity.

I can’t help but feel that milk could also be a great vehicle for getting people to explore coffee further.  If you brew a wonderful citrussy washed Yirg as espresso and add milk surely you could sell a cappuccino that tasted like a lemon posset.  A massively juicy coffee from Nyeri turned into a drink that is reminiscent of fruit compote and icecream.  If we stopped looking at milk as getting in the way of coffee flavour, and instead saw it as a very accesible way to deliver coffee flvaour then would we start using more varied and exciting coffees alongside more traditional ones?

  1. I am gambling on the fact that globally cappuccinos just edge out lattes, like they do in the UK  ↩︎

25 Comments

  1. Single origin caps and macchiatos have always been big hits at the Millennium Park Intelligentsia among the baristas there (of which I’m one). The Flecha Roja, Costa Rica as a macchiato turned a fruity, acidic espresso into an orange creamsicle. Definitely brought out a beautiful, distinct flavor.

  2. I appreciate you using yourself in the phrasing “we treat milk as enemy” but I feel you should rather highlight that the most professional baristas view milk as their friend.
    That is the benefit of working in the cafe weekly or daily – that traditional cappuccino is the gateway for consumers to start enjoying quality coffee on a focused level. I have a regular just yesterday who was bored with his usual trad cap, “but I get that everytime…” was his reasoning for wanting to try something else. Thankfully I had some Gatura from Kenya in the hopper and could excitedly say, “but you haven’t had a cap taste the way this coffee will make it taste.”
    Often I worry you think too much James, and while I agree many people say the same ol “cut through / roast darker for cap” things, I think you can sleep sound knowing there are those out there who know milk is their friend when it comes to espresso. However that number might be lower than it should be.

  3. However that number might be lower than it should be.

    Much lower.

    This post really came out of competition, judging or competing. Competition has never been very good at rewarding innovation in cappuccinos – how many baristas who’ve competed (yourself included) have been scored down for “not enough coffee taste” in a capp. When was the last time you saw a taste score for your capp that matched your espresso? (not specific to you Scott, but I would still be interested to know.)

    Perhaps I do worry too much, but I would also say that barista competition probably encourage conservatism in milk drinks more than experimentation.

    The thing that would interest me most would be knowing what the customer’s reaction was?

  4. I also hate the ‘cut-through’ terminology.

    I was thrilled when the coffee I used for the UK comp totally lived up to my pre-stated goal of being delicious in milk – rather I should say – delicious WITH milk. All centrals (so not heavy Asians and certainly no Robusta) no oils (so not particularly dark) created a wonderful milk chocolate/malty smoothness that came from the quality and tastes of the of coffee and milk together rather than one trying to ‘cut through’ or ‘mask’ the other.

    Having said all that I didn’t win best capps or anything so perhaps I’m miles off!

  5. Personally I define those drinks as sepearte ones. Espresso is one drink while a Cappuccino has an identity for itself; it is not just an Espresso with milk. Doing this allows for preparing an Espresso whose fruity notes and acidity may be too intense if consumed by itself but in combination with properly foamed milk (e.g. not too hot to keep the maximum sweetness) it forms a wonderful and complex Cappuccino. I see milk as a tool not an enemy.

    According to the competition argument: I think you are right. So what? For me competition is judging the craftsmanship; that you are able to achive a given goal (which in this case might be not the personal preference).

  6. Because baristas in competitions are forced to use a single shot, I think it discourages them to look for real milk in their cappuccinos – instead they choose a thinner milk with less flavour and body.

  7. Funny, i was just thinking about this today as well. I agree that milk is a tool for the barista, and that a cappuccino can be a truly delicious drink (even if finding a great one can be just as, or more, elusive than finding a great espresso).
    I far prefer single origin coffees to blends in a cappuccino, precisely because of the alchemy of flavour that occurs, highlighting different flavour aspects of the coffee used. This happens even a single shot cappuccino, though I agree that the ‘coffee flavour’ can be more easily ‘lost’ (but using lighter milk is not the answer to that problem… especially if your coffee is bitter to begin with).
    Competition-wise, I have noticed recently that competitors are using milk with higher than 4% milk fat, which blunts the coffee taste somewhat, and doesn’t end up adding to milk sweetness or mouthfeel scores.
    I’ve also noticed that competitors tend to skimp on flavour descriptors for cappuccinos by talking more about the milk they’re using, rather than how their espresso translates/transforms in milk. Accurate descriptions of the coffee flavour in your cappuccinos are key for boosting scores.

  8. Just got back from the MARBC and didn’t see what you’re referencing. Pretty much every competitor talked about how the milk changed what was X flavor into Y flavor (variations on Kyle’s “what was caramel is now butterscotch”. Very little talk about cows. So there’s certainly progress on that front, in our opinion.

    However, we are waiting for someone to do two-shot cappuccinos in competition in the near future. There’s plenty of time to do that for most competitors. We’d prefer seeing more of that than over-elaborate sig drink constructions.

  9. I love to watch how people “enhance” their coffee – it is fun to see the “ritual” of these coffee hounds. Generally, my preference is just plain coffee, no enhancements, thank you very much! Bitter is also out.

  10. “Competition has never been very good at rewarding innovation in cappuccinos – how many baristas who’ve competed (yourself included) have been scored down for “not enough coffee taste” in a capp.

    In competition isn’t it part of the barista’s job to lead the judge by the hand? If a judging panel is likely to score you down because they percieve your cap to “not have enough coffee taste”, then isn’t your job to anticipate that and help your judges discern and experience the flavours in the cup that are there? I have heard very few baristas (and admittedly in South Africa we are a little behind the curve maybe) get excited about the subtle flavours in a cappuccino – the ones that you have to have tasted over and over for yourself to be able to explain to anyone else tasting the coffee like this for the first time.

    That phrase in this country tends to send baristas going for domination of taste rather than subtly of flavour – and those that do go for subtle, as much as that has the potential to be appreciated, it isn’t, because the baristas don’t explain themselves or their coffee properly and succinctly. Adding milk is just another way to showcase whatever coffee you have chosen – explain that choice.

  11. It’s an interesting proposition, but perhaps you give too much credit to the competitions. While many of us are immersed in the competition culture, most of our profession is not involved in any way – and the most innovative baristas I know either put up with the competition BS or shun it altogether.

    I think we get too myopic when it comes to our profession, somehow tying it to the competitions. We should bear in mind that competitions are about winning – and winning a standardized competition is all about conservatism in order to exploit maximum points to win. Innovation and experimentation are not rewarded (nor should they necessarily be rewarded in competition).

    To my mind, competitions have little to do with our profession and craftsmanship. Certainly there are some base commonalities and the competitions have served to increase standardized awareness globally, but once the barista has the basics down, that’s where the divergence occurs. There is a way to win the WBC and that necessarily focuses on a different path than providing your customers with the experience of your coffee.

  12. Too bad smaller milk drinks aren’t more popular.

  13. I think capps have to have only a single shot, according to the rules, no? (too lazy to check!)

  14. In a completely non-judgemental way, I’m a bit surprised that nobody’s brought up the fact that there often seems to be this underlying assumption that one size should fit all… in this case, that one espresso should be able to taste good to you as a straight shot, and perform “well” (whatever that means) in full-fat cow’s milk.

    To want the espresso to be sufficiently delicious to folks like you (and do well in competition) both as a straight espresso and in a single cappuccino, is perhaps simply asking too much. Coffee-and-milk as a taste duo works well for many reasons, and the milk in the cappuccino is certainly rooted in tradition… but in certain ways the milk is a somewhat arbitrary pairing.

    Amber Fox brings up a great point: in the pursuit of excellence in both competition and behind the bar, baristas have been using more flavorful milks. Indeed, these are wonderful ingredients which taste great… but in a competition that rewards the predominance of coffee flavors, the trends (at least here in the U.S.) seems to be to use clean, bright, washed coffees… and thick, creamy, buttery milks.

    Granted, the cappuccino is worth the least number of points on the scoresheets, but pity the poor and lowly cappuccino! Competition baristas rarely choose a coffee specifically for cappuccino excellence, and they rarely seem to craft a taste experience for the cappuccino as a result.

    Note: the last time I remember a barista displaying anything particularly unique (and relevant to this topic) about their cappuccino presentation was Pete Licata just last week, as he took greater control over the judges’ taste experience by instructing them on how to engage the capps. I was SO excited to see him do that, and it was one of the many elements of his presentation that led to his season-high point total. I was also excited to see Ryan Willbur (did Devin do the same?) presenting his cappuccino milk choice as a blend he put together for flavor balance. I don’t know whether he was trying to help balance out the flavors, or just putting to heavy/creamy milks together.

    Before that, the last time I saw something unique for capps… was James Hoffmann in 2007 in a little competition in Tokyo, using a separate espresso just for his cappuccino course.

  15. To offer a different slant on the debate I want to champion Robusta a little. Whilst Arabica offer acidity generally and persistence robusta can add some chocolate notes and body with ease. Robusta does drift away on the palate quite quickly whatever the grade. Many people shun robusta because their experience of robusta has been a bad one. Historically robusta has been added to save money but the finest washed robustas from India and Java are much more expensive than your average Arabica. By washing robusta the woody nature vanishes and both fragrance and chocolate come into play. Starbucks roast their coffee very dark to try and maintain coffee flavours in such huge drinks as they use only arabica. By roasting their coffee darker they actually reduce the acidity of the bean and arabica acidity is important in milky drinks. Many 100% arabica espressos can get lost in cappuccino unless the correct milk coffee ratio is used. I would say most cappuccino in the market place using robusta is not that good but try to hunt a good one out? Washed robusta from the Kaapi Royale estate in India is a good starting point and you maybe suprised. I used 30% of this coffee in my cappuccino for UKBC semis 2009 and is was rated 6th out of 24 so it cant be that bad.

  16. A consumer’s view.

    In the world of Port wine, there are two big “schools”. Vintage Ports aim for power and balance; Tawnies prefer subtle nuances. Each Port lover has a favourite; for example I’m definitely a Tawny guy, while my father is more into the Vintages.

    As a coffee consumer, I’d really really like to be offered a choice. Some of us prefer their milk sliced. Fine. I’ve always enjoyed the soft and the delicate, with or without milk. Usually with.

  17. I agree with you, James, that the treating of milk as a distasteful adulterant (some baristas do this) is a problem and that the terminology that espresso has to struggle against milk (“cut through” it) is a problem.

    Let’s think about the interaction between milk and espresso coffee, though. This is really a flavor pairing; matching two flavors and blending them for positive culinary effect. Milk is often used in our cuisine to blend with other flavors. By far the most common pairing for milk is with what food scientists would call “browning reaction” flavors. The most common, of course, is chocolate. Milk chocolate and chocolate milk are so commonplace we forget they are actually blends of two ingredients. Other famous browning reaction-milk combos are vanilla ice cream, chocolate ice cream, caramel custard (dulce de leche, flan, etc), milk caramels, etc. etc. etc. For some reason, there is a natural culinary affinity between browning reactions and dairy. The cappuccino, of course, is the mother of all coffee-and-dairy pairings, and it is a classic marriage of browning reactions in coffee with milk. Coffee flavor itself is dominated by browning reaction flavors- sweet brown caramel flavors emerge in “full city” type roasts, and as roasts get darker, bittersweet fully caramelized flavors emerge. Both are traditionally paired with milk all over the culinary landscape. Therefore, I feel it is fair to say that the “classic” cappuccino flavor is a browning-reaction centric coffee paired with delicious, creamy milk.

    I strongly agree with you, James, that there is room to elaborate on this classic. Although much less popular, fruit-flavor (fruit flavors are associated with enzymes and with acidity) paired with dairy is also popular: lemon posset as you state, strawberries and cream, strawberry ice cream, etc. etc. It’s not quite as popular as browning-and-dairy, but it occupies a legitimate culinary space. I agree that there is room for exploration here, but we need to address the simple reality that if people are expecting sugar-browning and milk and get fruit-with-milk, they might justifiably dislike it. As Amber points out, walking the consumer through the process is the key here. Just yesterday, I had a delicious confection made for me by a student at the Culinary Institute of America. It was a passionfruit and vanilla cream ganache, enrobed in bitter chocolate. It was a delicious balance of creaminess, bittersweet browning flavors, and fruit. My brother tried it without explanation of what it was, and he hated it. I had been conditioned to expect this unconventional pairing and loved it. That’s the way it goes.

    As for the competition, I have always seen the cappuccino course as the exercise of “classic”. It’s like an imaginary steak contest: cook the perfect simple steak, prepare a classic steak bernaise, and then for the final course, prepare a creative signature dish based on perfectly cooked steak. There are rules about bernaise sauce, and the addition of other ingredients would be unwelcome in the French orthodoxy. I feel that many judges have this idea of “classic” in their minds when they evaluate cappuccinos, and this means browning-and-dairy flavors. On the one hand I agree that we should be open minded about allowing some experimentation here, but on the other hand I really personally celebrate a barista who creates a perfect, sugar-browning style cappuccino.

  18. If we all try and make caps that taste the same, then why not just get a food scientist to make a flavouring to add to steamed milk? As baristas are we not supposed to showcase the variety of flavours coffee has to offer? Why would this change with the adding of warm milk?

  19. It’s not about making all cappuccinos tasting the same per se’, but rather giving the customer what they want and expect. If my customer wants a traditional tasting cappuccino I use my Delirium blend. On the other hand I give them options, currently running “Kaldi Bomb” and Kenya Kirinyaga PB in SO grinders. Kaldi Bomb is an Ethiopia blend of 2 WP and 2 DP Ethiopia each melange roasted City and City++, it’s an “Hawaiian Punch” fruit bomb and makes a phenomenal cap’, but not if expecting a traditional cap’. Same goes for the spicy citrusy Kenya.

  20. I’m not against coffee with fruity/sweet characteristics, but I find they never work well in a cappuccino. They are too contrasting and don’t seam match up together. I still don’t think you should use overly dark roasted beans so it “cuts through”. I use more of the term what does work well rather what cuts through, since this seams more of a positive choosing the right coffee to work with the milk, so they can support each other. I find for more self any south American, or an Ethiopian coffee works best in a milk based drink. If its not cutting through what your doing wrong is using to much milk, if you can’t taste the flavour then for that particular coffee maybe it needs a larger dosage and or if that’s not possible then use less milk so that you can taste it. Okay admittedly people will have cream with a fruit desert such as a crumble, but its never been something I would do, so maybe this is a personal opinion.

  21. A recent article published in ‘cafe culture’ magazine stated that as much as 95% of all espresso coffee consumed in aust is milk based. The comments were made by Lance Brown. Lance Brown is an employee of the biggest Dairy company in Aust (National Foods) which is also the biggest milk supplier to the cafe industry. Incidentally, the dairy company is owned by a Japanese brewing giant – Kirin.
    If it were not for milk i think espresso coffee consumption/popularity/culture in this country, and many others, would be significantly lower. Milk is the only reason espresso coffee is so mainstream popular today. Milk is the very vehicle that allows the mass consumption of Espresso coffee. It’s the conduit between the masses immature palletes and the esoteric world of espresso coffee.
    In the cafe that I work in espressos would account for 1-3% of all coffee sold.

  22. To clarify – a 2-shot cappuccino AS a signature drink.

    We’ve seen really basic stuff before as sigs (B. Wilson’s single origin shot). It’s time for the 2-shot capp. And I wouldn’t mind hearing whomever decided to do it throw a bit of criticism of the format in with the presentation…

  23. From a consumers point of view milk is a necessity for high volume sales of coffee and can make a coffee exciting. I’m thinking of of the “upside down” latte where the the milk and espresso can be seen floating on each other in a clear glass. Without the milk this drink wouldn’t have happened.

    A watery milk kills a great tasting cappuccino, I think it is important that the espresso is thick and strong and the milk fresh organic full cream milk to blend with the espresso. This is all from my coffee lovers point of view.

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