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A Good Cappuccino is Hard to Find

February 21, 2011

The standards are too damn high.

My grandfather who lived through the Great Depression thought I should be thankful just to have a cup of weak watery coffee. It’s hot and it’s wet. He used to look at me with disdain and confusion as I drew him diagrams that demonstrated the practical differences between a latte and a cappuccino.

And I’ll admit that my standards are high. But they have indeed been satisfied at a small handful of places around the country. So I know for a fact that they are not impossibly high. Still, I acknowledge that I am difficult to please.

Another reminder of that came from a recent trip to Boston and a cute neighborhood café in Charlestown. I walked away remembering how rare it is to find a reliably good cappuccino, and that one can get bad espresso drinks anywhere (AKA not just in Albany but even in a top ten DMA). I also left with a renewed appreciation of some of a bad cappuccino’s critical flaws.

1)  The café default is to use a paper cup

There is only one reason to use a paper cup, and that is if a drink is being ordered to go. Otherwise, coffee should be served in proper porcelain cup. Porcelain can be warmed to maintain the temperature of the drink, and it just feels nicer in the hand and on the lips than a papery disposable paper (or heaven forbid, styrofoam) cup.

The most delicious part of a cappuccino, its textured milk, doesn’t last. The micro bubbles that have been created with the steam wand eventually burst and deflate. Putting things like powders or syrups on top of a cappuccino exacerbate this unfortunate eventuality, which is just one reason such flourishes should be avoided at all costs.

However, if the expectation is that this drink will not be consumed immediately, there is no reason for the barrista to put in the extra effort to try and make an exceptional drink. It’s already doomed to mediocrity. Especially because

2)  The disposable cup comes with a plastic lid

When you suck your coffee through a hole in a piece of plastic, you can neither see nor smell what you are drinking. Nor can you really experience the mouthfeel of properly textured milk. Why should a barista take care to make sure the milk is free from large bubbles that are both unsightly and stiff?

3)  A small isn’t small

Much like there is a thing called a Martini, a cappuccino is something very specific. I’ll forgive an extra ounce or two, but the guidelines from the World Barista Championship place a cappuccino squarely between five and six ounces.

When one asks for a small and what you get is twelve ounces, you know you are in trouble.

Ultimately I think the food press is to blame. American consumers want big things that can go in their big cars. And businesses want their money. There are a precious few cafés that are brave enough to insist on not selling a cappuccino to go. And as far as I can tell, there aren’t a lot of voices out there trying to convince the public there is a better way.

At only six ounces, a cappuccino doesn’t take very long to drink. The entire point of espresso beverages is that they are quickly prepared and consumed. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t be civilized.

What I can’t abide is listening to people complain that the cappuccino prepared in their travel mug didn’t pass muster.

If you want to drink a sixteen-ounce cappuccino through a plastic hole while you are driving, more power to you. Just be advised, that rich milky coffee you are drinking isn’t a cappuccino. And if you don’t like it, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

As for me, I will try to do better at observing the warning signs at strange new cafés. I should have known better than to try and order the cappuccino yesterday. But sometimes I am a prisoner of hope. And now I’ll remember that one can have bad brewed beverages in Boston too.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2011 10:58 am

    I’m behind you 100% on this. After sampling real espresso and cappuccino from bars in Italy, it’s obvious that the majority of places that brew coffee in the states just don’t understand. I’ve given up and I stick to enjoying cappuccino in my home where I can put the proper care into making and enjoying it.

  2. February 21, 2011 11:22 am

    I agree, no one should ever order a cappucino to go. Lattes, fine. Cappucinos, no. And, don’t kid yourself that the latte has more caffeine than the traditional cup ‘o’ joe. Unless you get a double or a triple, that is …

  3. February 21, 2011 4:17 pm

    I’m not so sure a martini is such a specific thing…

  4. March 3, 2011 4:09 pm

    I don’t know that I’ve ever had a good cappuccino. Is there anywhere locally that comes even close so I can try it? Italian coffee bars are hopefully in my future, but not for quite awhile.

    • March 3, 2011 4:22 pm

      The best I’ve found locally is at Caffe Vero on Lark Street. When you try it, let me know what you think. Just please promise me that you will drink it there in one of their porcelain cups. A cappuccino should be small as it is intended to be consumed in a just a handful of wonderful, silky sips.

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