Sunday, August 13, 2006


Cappuccinos are like snowflakes

So… before I get to the actual cappuccino review part of the cappuccino review blog, it seemed like a good idea to lay out where I’m coming from and to try to put into words what I’m looking for in a cappuccino.

A cappuccino is typically defined as a drink that is one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third foamed milk. (You can check out the wikipedia definition of the cappuccino here.) But implicit in this definition is the idea that you can separate a cappuccino into its constituent parts. I would argue, instead, that the perfect cappuccino incorporates coffee, air and milk into a few magical sips of something else entirely, something that is more than just the sum of its parts. Like I said in my last entry, a cappuccino should be a fluid experience.

So let’s get one thing out of the way first: a good cappuccino starts with a good shot of espresso. This is no easy thing to find, but I’m going to gloss over it for a second. And if you check out the links section, you can find plenty of other places where the intricacies of pulling a superior shot of espresso are discussed at great length. (I have found the coffeegeek forum particularly interesting.) So… let’s just assume for the sake of argument that good shots of espresso are everywhere. (HA!) After that, what makes a good cappuccino?

The first thing I notice when I sip a cappuccino is the texture. A cappuccino should feel dense and creamy in your mouth, but light and airy at the same time. You should not be able to perceive the separation of liquid and foam, at least not in the first few sips. I have heard this texture described hundreds of times by people in the coffee business as “velvety.” (It’s my considered opinion that the smoothness of a well-made cappuccino puts velvet to shame, but I’ll go with it until I can think of something better.)

This unique texture is produced by a substance that I’ve sometimes heard Italians refer to as the “crema del latte” – literally, the “cream of the milk.” This is in no way related to actual cream, but it is a recognition that we are no longer dealing with just milk here. A chemical process has occurred, and we have a new substance entirely. Americans refer to this substance by the decidedly less charming name of “microfoam.” So if nobody minds the pomposity of throwing foreign words into an English language blog, I’m going to go ahead and stick with crema del latte.

Judging from its scarcity, really good crema del latte is incredibly difficult to produce. But to me, it is what makes a cappuccino a cappuccino. Espresso exists elsewhere. So does hot milk. But crema del latte can’t be found anywhere else. (Sadly, it can’t even be found all that often in what passes for cappuccinos.) In the course of making my documentary, I’ve interviewed a number of baristas about producing the crema del latte, and the consensus seems to be that it’s all about heating the milk slowly and keeping it below the temperature at which milk starts to taste salty instead of sweet. One barista that I met in Italy – who made a truly exceptional cappuccino – showed me how he had closed off two of the holes in his steam wand in order to get what he deemed the right flow of steam into the milk.

It’s also about using the right milk. Crema del latte is produced when the proteins in the milk get temporarily emulsified with air, so milks with higher protein content - such as whole milk or extra-rich milk - will produce the best crema del latte. This is why I feel like somebody just insulted my mother every time I overhear someone ordering a nonfat cappuccino. Uck.

Now, in certain circles, the cappuccino that I have just described is known as the “traditional” cappuccino. This is a term that is used in contrast to the “American” cappuccino, which is usually larger and is basically just a shot of espresso (or two, or three, or – holy god – FOUR shots of espresso) topped with a cap of stiff foam and maybe some hot liquid milk. I have even met people who claim to prefer the American cappuccino, often made with skim milk, as this most easily achieves the meringue-like texture these people prefer. I’m just going to say it: I think that those people are crazy. Or, more likely, I think they have never had a properly made “traditional” cappuccino. I try to avoid wearing my conviction on this point out in the open, but in my heart of hearts, I feel sorry for those people. I feel sure that they are missing out.

But I digress. All of this is to say that to me the crema del latte is absolutely THE key to a good cappuccino. And I will admit to being further charmed by it because it’s the part of the process that just cannot be mechanized. There’s an X factor involved in making a cappuccino: human idiosyncrasy. Sorry to keep returning to the FLUID thing, but controlling the flow of steam into liquid is not a process that can be very exactly controlled or quantified. And even though there are “recipes” or “standards” for steam pressure and temperature and so on, there’s also the variable of how the barista works with the milk. So even though you get individual baristas who get pretty good at making a consistent product, the truth is that you never really have the same cappuccino twice.

This is the part of drinking the cappuccino that kind of blows my mind when I let myself think about it – the fact that each one is completely unique. And cappuccinos are not only unique in that they differ greatly from cup to cup, but they are unique in the sense that they differ greatly within the same cup. From the moment they are completed, they start to change. The liquid separates from the air; the foam gets lighter and stiffer. And of course the flavors of the coffee itself change subtly (or dramatically) as it cools.

So… that’s my deal. What I’m looking for in a cappuccino is not just something that tastes good or provides me with a dose of an addictive stimulant. I’m looking for something ephemeral, something that reminds me of the fact that the experience of being human is essentially fleeting and very difficult to trap, catalog, quantify or parse. Do I need to have this existential reflection every morning before work? No. But I would like to know where I can find it when I desire it. So I continue to search.

Next time: the cappuccino reviewing starts in earnest with news of an excellent cappuccino I discovered mere blocks from my temporary home in Santa Monica.

Bloggoccino! When are you going to take an East Coast tasting tour?
Hmm... not sure when I'll be making it back east. (I'm trying to combine the tasting tour with my tour of Brooklyn's most handsome garbage can enclosures.) You have any recommendations for when I do? I must admit that I can't remember ever having had a really good cappuccino in New York. I keep hoping it'll happen, but so far I have been underwhelmed. But I'd love to hear recommendations.
What about creating cappuccinos at home with fancy gear? Would I just be setting myself up for dissappointment? (I guess I'd have to spend a long time making the crema de la leche or whatever it's called... Can I get that at Trader Joes? Just kidding)
Just for the record, I'm embarrassed that I misspelled 'disappointment' in my last post. Why isn't there a spell-check on this thing?
I guess that in theory it's possible to make a really good cappuccino at home, but why would you want to?? Plus, it's a well-documented fact that the best espresso comes from machines that are in constant use. I think it has something to do with the machines getting up to (and staying at) the exact right temperature when they are in constant use. This is why most restaurant espresso sucks- they just don't make enough of it. (Well, that's one reason, I guess. It also sucks because most restaurants don't employ skilled baristas or buy good coffee.)

(PS - nice job pretending like you don't understand Italian, Aldo. I've seen you have entire seemingly-intelligent conversations in Italian with politically outraged emergency room doctors and the like...)
Ok, I'll throw in with the cappuccino conversation. Take it or leave it- I'm a guy who can't even drink one. But I have a technical correction. You say the crema del latte comes from the emulsification of proteins and air, thus milk with higher protein content will produce a better crema del latte. But I have a problem. Whole milk has a lower protein concentration than skim milk because whole milk has more fat. Take the fat out of milk and all that is left is protein (whey and casein) and carb (lactose). So I would have to say that either:
1. skim milk makes a better cappuccino, or
2. something other than high protein concentration creates great crema del latte.

Great blog, Amy. Love a passionate coffee blog!
ps. You are insane. :)
OK, I'm looking into this whole protein/fat/air emulsification business... will publish an update soon. (thank god I have a family full of chemists I can ask about this stuff...) Looking back over transcripts of interviews I've done, I guess I have heard both explanations - I have heard crema del latte described as the result of fat content and protein content. I don't know which is correct. Maybe both?

What I DO know is that cappuccinos made with skim milk taste about as creamy as styrofoam peanuts, and there would seem to be no disagreement on this point among baristas I've spoken with: you can't make good crema del latte with skim milk. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future I will understand WHY that is.

This brings up another question: what does the "extra-rich" refer to in extra-rich milk? Protein? Fat? All-around milkiness? I'm gonna have to look into that too...

Thanks for commenting, Brian. I think you calling me insane is a little of the pot calling the kettle black, though...
The kettle IS black though!

Speaking of black... you should try coffee without milk sometime Amy. The way the gods intended it. No cows were mooing around in the fields waiting for Kaldi to make a pot o' coffee.
Hey, ever tried a cap with goat milk?
Uh... which gods would those be?

Would it shock you to know that I regularly drink just good old espresso with no milk? I love espresso. I'm just not obsessed with it to the point where I have to make an ass of myself on the internet over it. (I would suggest, in turn, that you should try coffee with milk sometime, because you are missing out on one of life's truly sublime pleasures. Only I know you can't drink milk. Is that really true? Or is it just a handy excuse you use to avoid ruining your girlish figure with too much fat? I have often wondered...)

Meanwhile, I'll start the search for a barista kind enough to make me a capp with goat's milk just for kicks. I'll let you know how it goes.
Ci vuole AMORE!!!

So, currently unemployed, I finally have the great pleasure of spending some time with your blog. God I miss you H and our coffee adventures.

A long time ago, in Bologna, when I didn't know what a cappuccino was I started drinking them everyday, accidentally really at a bar called "Incontri" (translated as "Meetings", I guess). I bet you remember that place. It was there that I developed a deep and true love for a warm, sweet and very cremoso cappuccino where the coffee was not in the slightest bit bitter and maybe even tasted like chocolate (imprinting me from there on out to always look for that slight chocolate flavor in my coffee--like at our boyfriends and at Tazza D'oro). I don’t know, but I definitely agree with you that it is basically ALL ABOUT CREMA. It just is (well, that and coffee that isn't burnt, and the secret crack aspect to it). And the plump lady behind the counter at incontri, who sang out a rather nasal "buona giornata" to me every morning had conquered the crema del latte in the cappuccino.

Can I say something stupid that I realized just now(?)...from the Incontri lady to my beloved Pablo at the grove--they all swirl before they pour the milk. Do you know what I'm saying here? Is this obvious? Do the champion baristas all do this? In that one second between leaving the steam thingy and pouring the milk they swirl the two together to encourage the marriage and deepen the love between the milk and the foam...I guess I'm saying that one MAJOR flaw with most American baristas is that they hold that bloody blasted spoon to block (and in effect separate) the milk from the foam instead of swirling them together with affection in a timely manner. Those fucking amateurs.

I was in Sonoma a few weekends ago and went to Pete’s with hope in my heart and of course missing you and the barista put the spoon up to block the foam and all the hot sour overheated dead milk rushed into my big cup and I knew it was over. It definitely can’t be fixed by adding foam at the end, and that’s really sad. It's all about integration with the cappuccino and people are actually encouraging seperation with their spoons. What is that?

I love your blog and especially the snowflake entry. I'm still curious with you H. Ov.
Hurst, you are sooooo right about the spoon!! And the swirl too! In fact, all those Lavazza trainers that I interviewed back in Torino were pretty big on the swirl. It kind of made me laugh at the time - codifying the swirl. Like, one of them went into this whole thing about how it took a certain "morbidezza del polso" (yes, that basically translates to having a limp wrist) to properly do the swirl and pour. But he's right! A really good cappuccino should be poured, not scooped!

I feel certain that one of my Italian ancestors rolls over in his grave every time I gaze upon a barista plying his craft with a spoon. In fact, Brian and I recently had a little email chat about this, and I think he described a barista using a spoon to scoop foam as "disgusting."

But I guess everyone's entitled to like it how they like it, right?

And H, of course I remember Incontri! I only regret that we didn't take any coffee pictures there. (Hmm... maybe I have to blog about the coffee pictures...) In any case, I can't wait to get back to SF and more coffee tasting with you!
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