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Cappuccino Try-Outs

May 24, 2009

There is little I love better than a good cappuccino.  However, nothing can ruin my day faster than a bad cappuccino.

You can see how this might cause me some problems.

Luckily, over time I have developed a few guidelines and strategies for helping to increase my chances of getting the cappuccino I desire.  And not the one I despise.

Here is my checklist for a good drink:
Light creamy foam made entirely of teeny tiny bubbles.
Significantly more foam than steamed milk.
Rich, well-extracted espresso that tastes like the essence of coffee.
Served in a clean, warmed 8 oz. ceramic cup.

The modes of failure are legion:
Foam is frothy and made out of large bubbles.
Cup is heavy with massive amounts of steamed milk, with foam as an afterthought.
Espresso has been over-extracted and adds nothing but a thin and bitter coffee flavor.
Cinnamon, nutmeg or cocoa has inexplicably been dusted on the top of my drink.
The drink is served in a paper cup with a plastic lid.

The first rule is really more of a test.  It is similar to what one might do at a sushi bar to determine the skills of the chef.

RULE: Before ordering a cappuccino from a café, order an espresso.
At the bare minimum, the espresso should not be thin or bitter and have a thick golden layer of crema on top.

While a bad espresso is disappointing, it is not nearly as disappointing as a bad cappuccino.  Maybe it is because the drink smaller and less of a decadent treat.  For me, the espresso is more functional and the cappuccino is more of a sensory experience.

If the espresso is good, I will try the cappuccino.  That brings us to rule number two, which is surprisingly similar to my rule for ordering meat in restaurants.

RULE:  Order a cappuccino one degree dryer than desired.
Sadly, in most cafés when you ask for a cappuccino they give you a latte.  It drives me batty, but I’ll save the rant for another time.  So I order a small dry cappuccino.

Dry indicates that I want no steamed milk at all, only foam on top of the espresso.  This generally is a good strategy to keep me from inadvertently receiving a latte.  And more often than not, what I receive from the barista resembles a traditional cappuccino, a perfect blend of steamed milk and foam.

You can tell immediately if it has been made incorrectly when you pick up the cup.  If it’s heavy with milk, the drink is wrong.  Way wrong.  True cappuccinos are light frothy treats.  Creamy without being heavy.  Intense without being overbearing.  Simply, sublime.

Ultimately a good cappuccino has more to do with the barista than the establishment they work in.  So sometimes, depending on where you are, Starbucks may make a better drink than the independent coffee roaster.  Not because of the place or the people as a whole, but because of the specific person who is running the machine, and their comparative level of skill and desire.

I am well aware making a good cappuccino is not easy.  I make no claims that it is.  Which is why it is so remarkable to find a place that makes them well.  So far in Albany I haven’t had much luck.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jean Patiky permalink
    May 26, 2009 12:44 pm

    I LOVED this entry because I live with a man who feels the same way….he has found a solution to the problem by ordering the espresso and the foam and mil separately and mixing his own…..

  2. May 29, 2009 12:03 am

    Hmm.. enlightening. I think fear of cappuccino disappointment is part of the reason I never order them. It’s much easier to get over a bad cup of coffee.

    Coincidentally, I spent the rest of the evening (after meeting you) at Professor Java’s… very comfy indeed.

  3. June 1, 2009 11:35 am

    OK, so this is my problem with this post:

    Ever since reading it, I have pondered cappuccino’s and thought about how much I would like a good one, alas, as you point out, most are not good.

    Where can I go in NYC/SF/DC/Other places and get a good one? How should I order it?

    I was recently in Paris and had a delightful one. Been trying to recreate that moment ever since.

    Also: Is it heresy to try to get a decaf? Is it heresy to add sugar? Now we know how hard it is and what to look for, skip to the end and tell me where to get it!

  4. curlymoe permalink
    July 24, 2009 6:36 pm

    The Ultra Violet cafe next to the Spectrum theatre is the only place where I will order an espresso. Most of the employees actually seem to try pretty hard and 4 out of 5 times they are spot on. Of course the first time I ordered a double, I told them that I took my espresso seriously, so the emplyees know to give it their best. I always tip since I appeciate their efforts. I’ve seen the manager dump out a couple of shots on a day when he was having trouble getting the correct grind; he seems to set the tone for the place. That’s what I lke to see!
    I occasionally order a cappuccino and ask for all wet, sloppy foam which usually yields a little milk and the beautifully sweet foam I prefer.
    Opinionated cappuccino rant to follow:
    I HATE the dried up, all-the-life-cooked-out-of-it foam most places serve; IMHO cappuccino foam should be pourable and naturally sweet from proper foaming. I prefer approx 2 oz double espresso with 4 oz of thick foam poured over it in one of those heavy mocha colored 6 oz cups they use in Italy. Which means that most of my cappucinos are consumed at home.

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