The Cappuccino

December 26th, 2010

If we were to say that brewed coffee is to be like wine, and espresso perhaps akin to creating an intense, complex spirit (like whisky), then I would say that the cappuccino is my favourite coffee cocktail. The combination of espresso and milk might seem a little simple, but calling a martini simple because it contains only gin and vermouth would be rather missing the point.

I’ve wanted to write about the cappuccino on here for a long time, for a lot of different reasons. The way I’ve thought about the cappuccino has changed a great deal over the years, but what has really prompted this post is pure selfishness. It is much easier now, in London certainly, to get a great espresso. If you enjoy milk in your drink then likely the best thing you’ll find is a flat white. A good cappuccino still remains pretty hard to find, and as I discovered when I logged my coffee consumption, I drink quite a lot of them!

Cappuccinos have never really been cool. It’ll be a long time yet before the word stops conjuring everything we hate about espresso based drinks gone wrong: badly brewed espresso, scalding hot milk, a looming, wobbly peak of milk froth all lovingly smothered in cheap cocoa. Delicious, no?

Around the cappuccino there remains a great deal of myth. One to get out of the way quickly: the name for the drink has nothing to do with the hoods of monk’s robes, nor the bald spot on their head. The original name for the drink was a kapuziner, and it was a Viennese drink was the 19th Century. It was small brewed coffee mixed with milk or cream until it attained the particular shade of brown that matched the colour of the Capuchin monks’ robes. Essentially the name implies the strength of the drink. If you want a genuinely traditional cappuccino then don’t even bother firing up the espresso machine. 1

This moves me onto the next frustration I have with myths of the modern cappuccino. The strange mystery of the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is passed around to this day, and describes a traditional cappuccino as being a third espresso, a third milk and a third foam. I was taught this very early on, as were a good number of people reading this. It didn’t take long for the oddity of it to dawn on me. Are we saying then, that if a single espresso is 25ml then a single shot cappuccino ought to be 75ml total? Nonetheless I still see cappuccinos that are labelled as being traditional with a recipe of being a double shot in a six ounce cup. This certainly fulfils the rule of thirds, but outside of the last 5 years I’ve yet to find any evidence or history of a double shot six ounce cappuccino existing to give it any form of tradition. This doesn’t make this drink any less tasty – it is a very tasty drink done well – I am just saying that traditional isn’t really a word that is accurate in its description. Would one describe a 12oz cappuccino, with a double shot at the bottom pulled long to 4oz, as traditional? I’m not slavishly devoted to, nor infatuated with, tradition. I just think we ought to use the term appropriately.

I own a good number of coffee books, and I’ve gone through a lot of them. The first reference to the cappuccino recipe of thirds I’ve found was in the 50s and it was described as being “an espresso mixed with equal amounts of milk and foam.” This sentence appears, pretty much verbatim, a number of times. It is a little ambiguous as it could be saying that only the milk and foam are in equal quantities, or that all three are. So the recipe of 1:1:1 could easily be meant to be 1:2:2. The single shot, 5-6oz cappuccino does have a long tradition, and is incredibly easy to find through much of Italy and the parts of Europe that haven’t succumbed to more generous portions of coffee as retail. It is also, when done well, absolutely delicious.

I used to be a little resentful of cappuccinos, to tell the embarrassing truth, because they were really hard to pour nice latte art into. (Bearing in mind that for almost all of my coffee career I’ve worked for companies that didn’t have cups bigger than 6oz). Barista competition didn’t help. I was guilty, as most competitors are, of prioritising the six point box for appearance (latte art or traditional) over the 24 point box for taste. I’d keep the foam as close the 1cm line (that was then the minimum) as possible – despite this meaning I was adding more milk than necessary and diluting the espresso further. This spread into my coffee making outside of competition. I began to resent foam (for want of a better phrase) and the cappuccino as a result. When people would complain about the lack of foam I wouldn’t be receptive – I thought this implied being out of touch, old fashioned. The arrogance of youth….

This is not all coming to a conclusion where I detail out the perfect cappuccino (though I will share what I currently really enjoy) I’m all for interpretation and individual presentation. I’m also for differentiation and definition and all too often I see cappuccinos that are nearly identical in recipe to other drinks on the menu, and that in the hands of different staff the drinks become completely interchangeable. This is true across the entire coffee industry, regardless of city or nation, of independent or chain.

In an odd way this is a plea for foam. I love really well textured milk foam. I like a decent amount of it in my cappuccinos too. I am not ashamed of this, though a more youthful me might have been. I really don’t mind if all that can be poured in the top is a heart of maybe a tulip. I love Intelligentsia’s policy of no rosettas in cappuccinos. Latte art is a good thing, but it still carries more weight than it is worth.

Our aversion to foam has created our own worst customers. Every barista I know hates making “dry” cappuccinos. 9 out of 10 people who order one, when asked why they want a dry cappuccino, explain that they are sick of getting drinks that are basically caffe lattes with a little chocolate on top. The only way to get the amount of foam that they want (that they have found) is to order the cappuccino dry. If you don’t believe me then ask them yourself. (Not in an accusatory way, but be genuinely interested and they’ll be happy to tell you.)

So – my current cappuccino recipe. Be warned, it is detailed (though with tolerances).

- Brewed into and served in a 5oz (150-160ml) bowl shaped porcelain cup. 2
- 15 to 17g of espresso 3
- 80-90g of milk, steamed to around 50-55C. 4
- The rest should be creamy, marshmallowy foam with bubbles so small they’re pretty much invisible. 5

I’m not going to label this “the perfect cappuccino” because that sort of thing makes me angry. It is just what I am really enjoying and I’d be interested to know what people think and what they are enjoying too. I suspect some people might take my thoughts about “traditional” cappuccinos above as an attack on their menu/store/brand/business. They are not. Hopefully it will generate a little discussion instead. Now don’t even get me started on flat whites….

  1. If you don’t believe me, that’s ok – I haven’t linked to any information here to back up my claims. There is plenty of information but if you are genuinely interested in this then the person to speak to is Professor Jonathan Morris, who wrote The Cappuccino Conquests. More information is pretty easy to find with a minimum of google-fu.  ↩︎
  2. No tulip cups, though they are easier to find in the smaller size.  ↩︎
  3. One spout of a double basket, I am going to presume you’re making too because they ought to be shared, or the other espresso should be consumed to alleviate a lack of caffeination. This liquid dose is dependent on the amount of coffee brewed, so we’re going to say 20g of coffee, brewing time of approx 28s and an extraction of 19-20%  ↩︎
  4. The cooler the better really. UPDATE – original post suggested 45C, which might be too cool for general enjoyment  ↩︎
  5. This will give you a coffee strength of around 1.8-2.0% which means there is plenty of strength in your single shot coffee drink. Ironically an underextracted short double, in a 6oz cup without much foam isn’t much stronger than this – 2.0-2.4%  ↩︎

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