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Cappuccino Commotion

February 11, 2011

Taste evolves. As a kid you discover chocolate, and it is good. At some point you discover better chocolate. Should chocolate become a driving passion, you may get immersed in couvertures, single-origin cocoa beans, and the finer points of tempering.

I have been nurturing a love affair with cappuccino for a long time.

And in the almost two years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve had some taste-changing experiences. I discovered the deep dark realm of double ristrettos. But more importantly, I’ve learned a lot more about steamed milk. After all, by volume a cappuccino is more dairy than coffee.

Yesterday I revisited one of Albany’s newest espresso bars, and I was struck by something disturbing. I really, really like the place. In fact, I think it could possibly be the best café in Albany County. What’s disturbing is that I feel this way despite the fact that every single cappuccino they’ve made for me has more closely resembled a latte.

In the past I used to recite the mantra that a cappuccino is a third espresso, a third steamed milk, and a third foam. But even then I had an appreciation for the different qualities of milk foam. Small micro-bubbles are sublime. Large bubbles make for unpleasantly stiff foam that is suboptimal.

Going to places like Blue Bottle, Cartel, and Stumptown, however, made me realize the error of my ways. Thinking of the dairy component of a cappuccino in terms of steamed milk and foam as two separate entities is wrong. During the Barista World Championships I ran across a term that I thought beautifully expressed the true nature of what one should look for in a great cappuccino: Textured milk.

Because the truth is that when done right, tiny air bubbles permeate the entire cup.

A great cappuccino is not just a milky espresso in the bottom of a cup, capped with voluptuous layer of foam. Rather, the best cappuccino is a light and airy commingling of deep dark coffee and sweet creamy milk. Finding such a treat is a rare feat indeed.

Café Vero in Albany has failed to make me a great cappuccino or macchiato on multiple occasions. Ordinarily this would cause me to shun an espresso bar mercilessly. Their milk isn’t fully textured, which results in drinks that are weighed down with too much steamed milk. This makes a cappuccino drink more like a latte, and in this past I have written that this is completely unacceptable.

Yet not only do I continue to go there, but I make it a point to bring others there as well. Their saving grace is two fold: Rich, well extracted espresso, and delightfully small bubbles in their milk.

On one level, it’s a matter of weighing flaws. I would much rather drink a cappuccino that had a solid espresso base, small bubbles and too much milk than a cap with an over-extracted base and large bubbled foam in proper proportions.

On another level it’s about standards. Looking around at Café Vero it is apparent that someone there knows what they are doing. The café au lait colored walls are covered with gorgeous pictures of latte art and an absolutely pornographic shot of rich golden crema oozing from a filter basket.

But more importantly the baristas start every drink with fresh cold milk, poured into its own clean pitcher. Every pot of milk is mindfully heated, tapped, and poured with a latte art flourish. This flourish cannot even be attempted with inferior large-bubble foam which is the scourge of lesser cafes everywhere.

On top of everything, each espresso based drink is made with double ristrettos.

All of this tells me that more than anyplace else, Café Vero is at least trying to make a stunning cappuccino. They haven’t nailed it yet. But I hope to be there when they do. I also hope the café gets enough support to stick around. Because while I was there yesterday between 11:30 and 12:15, the place was pretty much empty.

If you live within spitting distance, you owe it to yourself to go. What they make may not feel like a cappuccino, but it looks like one, and more importantly it tastes great. Plus they bring in pastry from The Chocolate Mill, which is really good stuff.

For all they do right, for their high standards, and for the lack of a better local option, I can overlook this one critical flaw. But I do hope to see them improve. Because I can be patient, but I can’t be patient forever.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2011 11:20 am

    You say we should all go there and try it, yet you do not tell us where it is besides in Albany.

    I know, I know –

  2. February 11, 2011 11:30 am

    Lunch is only tricky because it’s rushed, and then stressful. I’m too low on the totem pole to disappear for hours just yet. Early evening or weekend is preferred! Thanks for the sushi tip. I’ll be in Boston eventually and my sister has a great sushi place that she loves.

  3. February 11, 2011 12:33 pm

    This was something I had been curious about. A few weeks ago I went in, ordered myself a cappuccino, and was once again thoroughly confused. It seems like every place has a slightly different definition of what one ought to be, and I have no idea what I’m suppose to be concentrating on making at work :p

    But it was really delicious.

  4. February 11, 2011 1:53 pm

    On the rare occasion I stray from my standard regular coffee, I’m a latte drinker. I had a latte from Verro when I was back home in december and was impressed at the precision and care. I’m not sure of some of the details but I do know it was definitely the best- tasting latte I’ve had in the area – and the prettiest.

  5. February 11, 2011 9:05 pm

    So who DOES have a “stunning cappuccino” around here? Or isn’t there one? It occurs to me that I’ve never actually had a cappuccino, just lattes, and I feel like after reading this post, maybe I should remedy that.

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