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Definition of Cappuccino

July 28, 2010

Jeffrey Steingarten wrote a magnificent piece called “Explaining Espresso” that can be found in his second book, It Must’ve Been Something I Ate.  In it he writes, “Espresso experts are more obsessive about everything than I have ever been about anything.”

That is an amazing statement for a man who has tortured his family and tested the limits of his own body in the pursuit of delicious things to eat.

Just yesterday I suggested that just perhaps I am impossibly fussy on a handful of matters.  If this is true, espresso and cappuccino are high up on that list.  A good bit of that revelation stems from my recent trip to Washington, D.C. where I stopped into the Illy Café on a couple of different occasions.  People love this place.  Love it.

Me, I thought it was just okay.  Better than Starbucks.  Not as good as Peet’s.  And not even in the same league as Cartel Coffee Lab or Blue Bottle.  At least when I ordered a cappuccino, they actually made me a proper cappuccino.

Speaking of obsessive, here is a great working definition of the drink, in seven parts, from our friends at the World Barista Championship.

A. A cappuccino is a coffee and milk beverage that should produce a harmonious balance of rich, sweet milk and espresso.

B. The cappuccino is prepared with one (1) single shot of espresso, textured milk and approximately 1 centimeter of foam depth (assessed vertically).

C. A traditional cappuccino is a beverage between 150 to 180 mL in total volume (5 to 6 fl. oz.).

D. The cappuccinos may be served with latte art or traditional style.

E. The cappuccinos must be served in a 150 to 180 mL (5 to 6 fl. oz.) cup with a handle.

F. Any additional toppings, sugar, spices or powdered flavourings are not allowed.

G. Cappuccinos must be served to the judges with a spoon, napkin and water.

I love the term “textured milk” because it better captures the consistency of a cappuccino than steamed milk or milk foam.  The most obvious flaw of the vast majority of cappuccinos, besides their comically large size, is their foam.

The WBC contends:

The foam should extend at least 1 cm into the cappuccino to achieve a score of very good (4) or higher. The foam should be smooth, silky and consist of only micro-bubbles.

Micro-bubbles are key.  Large bubbles make for a stiff, unwieldy foam.  When executed correctly, a pitcher of steamed milk froths up into a supple and velvety texture.  It still pours, like untextured steamed milk would, but ultimately it’s lighter than milk and can be held up on a spoon.

Far too often cappuccinos are a blend of espresso, hot milk, and stiff large-bubbled foam.  Unless you ask for a dry cappuccino you are lucky if you get any significant amount of foam at all.  In my experience most coffee joints try to pass off lattes as cappuccinos. 

The other problem of course, lurks below the drink’s surface in the espresso itself.  The harmonious balance is difficult to come by when your espresso is either under-extracted or over-extracted.  Pulling a beautiful shot of espresso is exceedingly difficult.  If it were easy, everyone would do it.  We can talk more about this later.

Which is generally why I put cafés through a rigorous screening process before I even attempt to get a cappuccino.

Despite all of this, there are brilliant cappuccinos out there.  And given that I had one recently at a small funky café in a strip mall in Tempe, Arizona gives me hope that the form can have a home outside of a top ten DMA.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2010 10:34 am

    Espresso and cappuccino are so worth being “fussy” about. In fact, you must be; bad espresso can be so so bad, and a really good espresso, as you suggest, is a work of art. The mechanics of the process might suggest that anyone who can read the instructions and can afford to purchase decent equipment can make that happen on the first try. Aficionados know that this is most definitely not the case. There are so many moving parts in the process that it truly is more art than science. The quality of the coffee, the fineness of the grind, the amount of pressure applied when packing the grind, the water pressure, the shape of the milk pitcher – all can and do change the finished product. My benchmark for the prefect espresso is made by one George Peroni, who has waited tables for fifty one years at the Ship Lantern Inn in Milton NY. There are dozens of other staff people who use the same equipment, but only George can pull it perfectly. My goal is to someday approach his cup of coffee. I have not come close.

  2. Stevo permalink
    July 28, 2010 11:46 am

    I too can be fussy about some things.

    It’s incredibly fun and also incredibly frustrating to have a vision of perfection, and strong desire to achieve said perfection, for something you enjoy. But it’s mostly frustrating. More often than not, that thing falls short of perfection, usually far short. Ah, but when perfection is achieved, what a glorious treat it is indeed.

    Cappuccinos aren’t my thing, but I share your joy and I also feel your pain.

  3. John H. permalink
    July 28, 2010 12:50 pm

    This is an important topic. I wonder if the WBC cappuccino definition contemplates 2 shots of espresso? With a one and a three year old boy, one shot is just not enough. How would you adjust the definition, Profussor, to meet my need for two shots?

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