Cappuccino as conflict

March 7th, 2010

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  ↩︎

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