Sunday, May 20, 2007


A Coffee Vacation in My Hometown, part 2

So… as I mentioned in my last post, a big part of the fun of having Brian Franklin in town for a few days was getting to spend so much time talking about coffee. (Well, we also talked about beer, sausages, sidewalk stencils, why people don’t say “hi” on the street in San Francisco, and whether and to what extent the government has a right to legislate people’s personal lives. But I’ll stick to the coffee.) You can hear some of our talking-about-coffee on upcoming episodes of Brian’s podcast, AAcafe. But the conversation that seems most relevant to this blog centered around this: is it OK to put milk in coffee?

I know this has been a burning question for a lot of you, so I’m proud to finally get around to discussing it.

Brian’s position in the debate is pretty simple: adding anything at all to coffee is either a heinous crime (if the coffee was roasted by Brian) or a sad, sorry attempt to cover up the coffee’s defects (if the coffee was roasted by someone else). Brian frowns upon it in all cases. Of course this includes things like chocolate, vanilla, and caramel. But it also includes milk, cream and sugar. So Brian and I had a big debate about whether the milk in a cappuccino could be said to be “covering up” the coffee taste – which is a crime if the coffee’s really good and just plain pathetic if the coffee’s bad, and why are you drinking bad coffee anyway?

There. I think I have summarized Brian’s point of view fairly enough. Here’s the thing: I mostly agree with him. Let’s take caramel syrup. It’s my considered opinion that caramel syrup belongs nowhere near good coffee. I guess it’s your right to put anything you want into any coffee you want, but I do view it as something of a disaster when someone wants to put caramel syrup into a very fine espresso drink. And there is something sad about using caramel syrup to hide that black, awful taste of bad espresso, although I think we’ve all done it as a coping mechanism. And who can blame us? Bad espresso is everywhere.

So given that I generally frown on caramel and the like, why don’t I think the same thing about milk? It’s undeniable that milk changes the flavor of whatever coffee you’re drinking. Sometimes it’s for the better, sometimes for the worse. I like to occasionally order a cappuccino and a shot of espresso on the side so that I can taste them side by side, and there’s no such thing as an espresso blend that tastes the same in a cappuccino as it does by itself. Milk is not taste neutral.

(OK, that sounds like an obvious point to make. But it’s funny how often people think that adding cream to their coffee does not fundamentally change the flavor of the coffee. They’re dead wrong! Especially with some of the delicate flavors and aromas to be found in medium-roasted coffees. I did some taste tests here in the Ferraris test kitchen a while back. I added some half and half to a Yirgacheffe from DoubleShot and a Kenya AA from Ritual, and I was literally FLOORED at the difference. I thought there would be some difference, of course. But I expected it to be minor. Boy, was I wrong. The half and half changed the mouthfeel, of course, but it absolutely killed all these delicate, wonderful aromas that were present in the black coffee.)

Anyway, back to my argument. Talking with Brian, I realized that I do not view the milk in a cappuccino with the same coffee-snob-horror that I view caramel syrup. I view the cappuccino as being a little culinary specialty all on its own, a combination of two very wonderful substances. I think this is primarily because the cappuccino involves both taste and texture. It’s the texture of a cappuccino that makes it supremely unique.

But still. I see the inconsistency in my point of view. Why is one adulteration of coffee acceptable and another one unacceptable? Brian and I had a pretty lengthy debate about this, and he was pretty hard on me. And I have to say, I admire the purity of his position, but I just don’t share it. I have drawn a line (maybe it’s an arbitrary line) at milk and sugar. I don’t view milk and sugar as being as bad as adding chocolate or caramel or hazelnut syrup to coffee. So, we were having this discussion, and I suddenly felt like we were having the abortion debate: where does life begin? It was like, if it’s OK to change the flavor or your coffee by adding one thing to it – milk – shouldn’t it be OK to add any old thing you want to it? And if not, why not? And where do you draw the line?

One answer to all of that is, of course it’s OK to add whatever you want to coffee. The answer to that is that the culinary arts are based around all kinds of combinations of flavors – both natural and unlikely. And who are we to say what people should and shouldn’t like, should and shouldn’t drink?

Do you see why I’m telling this long, convoluted story about me and Brian arguing about milk? Because it raises a question that is of serious interest to me: why does talking about our tastes matter? Why does criticism matter?

Because, really, on some level, who gives a shit? Isn’t it tiresome to put up with the coffee snob whose heart breaks every time somebody sips a caramel frappuccino? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as I’ve been editing my film and trying to synthesize my many years of cappuccino obsession into a relatively sensible 90-minute essay. Why do my tastes matter? I have spent the better part of my adult life in severe embarrassment over being “snobby” about the cappuccino. It’s an inconvenient curiosity to have when I am around just about anybody (except the fabulous Emily, who outdoes my curiosity and my drive to find a good cappuccino by a factor of 10, at least). And as I have worked on my film, I have often had to face this question of whether or not I am just being a wet blanket when I cringe every time I see someone ordering a white chocolate mocha. Or is there meaning behind caring about this stuff and discussing it?

I think there’s meaning behind it. At a minimum, criticism influences people. In my case, there is some hope (however unlikely) that if people start to understand what a good cappuccino is and can be, they will seek it out more actively. Consumer demand will grow. The market will respond. It will become easier to find a good cappuccino in the world. And I will be a happier person. That’s the selfish answer to why it’s important.

But are there larger reasons why it’s important? This is something I’m still chewing on. But what I’ve discovered, in the case of the cappuccino, is that there are all these real world consequences to settling for a white chocolate mocha instead of demanding a well-crafted cappuccino, or even a perfect shot of espresso.

Let’s start with you: a 16 or 20-ounce white chocolate mocha with whipped cream on top will clog your arteries and make you fat much, much faster than a properly-made traditional 6-ounce cappuccino will. But it won’t bring you more pleasure.

And then there’s the environment: a well-crafted cappuccino comes in a porcelain cup, so maybe we could cut down on using all those paper cups, plastic lids, stir sticks, sugar packets, etc.

And then there’s the fact that making a really good cappuccino takes attention and skill, two things that are usually associated with a well-trained, engaged labor force. The best baristas tend to be people who are in the coffee business for the long haul, people who are passionate about what they do. If we elevate coffee-making to a higher status – socially and financially – that has real meaning to people. It means that someone out there who loves coffee can actually make a real, grown-up living making it. And it means that their jobs can be sustainable for long periods of time, and less staff turnover makes it a little easier for communities to flourish in coffee shops. Wow. Imagine living in a community where you actually see the same friendly faces every day for years instead of months. Kind of unthinkable in our current world, isn’t it? I fantasize about it anyway, and I imagine (perhaps falsely – what do I know?) that this is what it used to be like in small town America, where there were certain people who were just fixtures – anchors in the community. I can dream.

And then there’s the coffee itself. There are real-world consequences to the way we consumers settle for drinking shit coffee all the time. The international coffee trade is a HUGE topic which I cannot even begin to cover in its entirety here, but suffice it to say that when we demand coffee that actually TASTES good without the addition of some kind of sugary syrup, we are subtly pushing coffee away from being a commodity and towards being a product in which quality has some relationship to price. And as far as I’ve been able to figure out, encouraging that relationship between quality and price has been the best way anybody has come up with thus far to make coffee cultivation a sustainable way of earning a living in all the poverty-stricken countries where coffee is grown. And, as I mentioned above, the collateral benefit is that we coffee drinkers get to experience pleasure on a more regular basis. And who doesn’t want that? (Well, OK, that was a rhetorical question. It’s my opinion that we in America associate pleasure with guilt and things that are bad for us and actually shun pleasure in all kinds of ways. And then we overcompensate for the self-denial and we overindulge. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

So there ARE consequences to ordering a fucking white chocolate mocha. And me wasting all this time talking about what makes a perfect cappuccino and bellyaching about the fact that it’s so hard to find one might actually add up to something more than the simple fact that I am a snob. Sheesh.

And don’t get me started on the dairy industry and the consequences of demanding better tasting milk.

I guess I’ve come to be one of those people who think that food and the physical pleasure it brings are so fundamental to the human experience that we ignore it – its meanings, its consequences, the role it plays in our lives – at our peril. So… I don’t know if Brian is right about milk and coffee or if I am right about it (although my taste buds tell me that I am right, and I will defer to them, especially since Brian can’t drink milk and therefore doesn’t have a rhetorical leg to stand on), but I do have a newly formed certainty that it’s a discussion that’s worth having.

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Single estate chocolate should be served with peanut butter, huh Ferraris? "Two great tastes that taste great together."

I still say I'm right.
You know that milk changes the taste of coffee. It kills it, as you have discovered in the test kitchen. Even in a cappuccino.
And when people distort the taste of an amazing coffee that people have worked so hard to deliver, it makes me sad.* Sad that people can't taste what it's meant to be, without the adulterations. And until we're able to focus on the taste of THE COFFEE, it's going to be hard to focus on the COFFEE FARMER- who I have grown so much to admire.
You're growing in your coffee tastes, Amy. Someday you'll agree with me and shun the cappuccino!

*not as much in capps or lattes, I must admit (probably, as you say, because it actually takes skill to commit these adulteries)
OK, Brian let me clarify a few things...

Milk does not "kill" the taste of coffee. In my little taste test, adding cream to some press pot coffee killed some of the more delicate aromas, to an extent that surprised me. But it was still really good coffee - just very different than it was without the cream. So milk alters the flavor of coffee, no doubt. But it also adds some wonderful flavors and textures of its own - especially in a well-made cappuccino. So... (to quote my friend Alessandro), I think the probability that you'll one day get me to shun the cappuccino is zero.

Can I not enjoy coffee both ways? Can I not appreciate espresso for what it is and then ALSO appreciate it for the (different) way it tastes when I have it as part of a cappuccino?

My guess is that the reason you look on this as a "distortion" instead of a new and interesting combination to be celebrated is because not enough people out there understand what the coffee is, in and of itself, before they go combining it with other things. Am I wrong? That's definitely why I cringe when people want to put hazelnut syrup in your espresso - because I suspect they haven't ever tried it any other way, and I think that's a shame. And because I know from personal experience that when the coffee at a coffee shop is crappy, you gravitate towards the syrups and the sugars and the additions as a way of making it more palatable. And that is creating a whole new segment of the population that has a different definition of what "normal" coffee is - one that includes all kinds of non-coffee substances.

But I don't know. Are we supposed to only eat and drink things in their "pure" form? Chocolate's a good example. It's sad that most people don't understand what it is, where it comes from, how it's grown and processed (and who suffers for that dry, milky bit of chocolate-esque crap that coats the outside of a Reese's peanut butter cup.) But does that mean that when I get my hands on some really, really good chocolate, all I'm allowed to do with it is eat it plain? Sure, I enjoy eating it plain. It's wonderful plain. But do I have to be a chocolate puritan for the rest of my life? If I bake a cake with it (maybe even a cake that highlights certain wonderful, unique attributes of that particular chocolate) is that cake really no better than a hostess ding-dong?

I think this is part of a larger discussion about appreciating what we're eating in general - not only where it comes from and who produced it but also WHAT IT REALLY TASTES LIKE, in and of itself. There are ways of cooking/preparation that highlight an ingredient's qualities, and there are ways that bury them. So I guess I'm advocating for the ways that highlight, not bury.

(hmm... I think I just positioned the cappuccino as a perfect expression of California cuisine...)
Again. I disagree.

You conveniently left out "milk" when disgussing all the things people do to crappy coffee to disguise it. Milk is at the top of the list. People like milk. In general, people don't like (or even get a chance to like) coffee. I'm just saying that the more you know about coffee, the more you know that getting a REALLY good espresso or a REALLY good cup of drip or pressed coffee is rare. It takes a lot of care and understanding at so many steps of the way, that it hardly ever happens. It's a scarce and fleeting experience. In fact, if you tasted every single cup produced in the U.S. this year, you'd probably be stretching it to say 1% of those cups were palatable. By itself. Therefore, as you say, killing "some of the delicate aromas" and flavors in one of those exceptional espressos is... a shame. You killed it.

Why don't you go kill an elephant and put its head on your wall? Sure, you kill some of its delicate aromas and behaviors, but in a new way you get to experience the grandness of the elephant.

By the way, thanks for the birthday gifts. I'm planning to take the bar of single origin Ghana chocolate and make a cake out of it. Don't worry, I'm sure I'll still be able to taste its nuances amongst the flour, eggs, shortening, sugar, milk, and various other ingredients.

I hereby declare good coffee an endangered species!
One more thing (for now).

Why don't they make single-origin or single-estate MILK chocolate? It's always DARK chocolate with a certain (fairly high) percentage cacao content.

Doesn't milk in chocolate just accentuate different, interesting characteristics of that particular chocolate?
Just found this blog so it's a late chime in. Sorry Brian, the capp is a extremely legit drink and one that should be savored when it's prepared well.

Would I personally use a great single origin espresso for a capp? Probably not. But would I use Black Cat or Toscano for a capp? Absolutely. Those blends work extremely well with milk and are all but created with the expectation that milk will be added.

So then, is the crime actually being created by roasters like Intelly and CCC who are subverting the culture by encouraging the use of their (wonderful) espresso blends as a base for 4+ ounces of perfect milkfoam?

IMO, dogma is not a good thing in either religion or coffee.
I like cheap Baltimore beer better than coffee. So my question is... are aware of what beers may have a coffee flavor... or, I suppose, if there are any coffees that have a nice beer flavor?

I also want my picture on your blog.

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