Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Today’s Isthmus (Madison, WI) published an article discussing the classic Italian espresso, its merits, and how most of its American purveyors fail so miserably at it: Isthmus | The Daily Page – In search of a good (small) cup.
Going on a cappuccino crawl among twelve Madison, WI espresso bars, the article started with the local Starbucks‘ cappuccino standard: “no ceramic cups”…”12-ounce ‘tall’s”…”this is a latte”…”the milk was scalded”…”the color was like dishwater.” Surprised? Hardly.
The article pointed out how a proper cappuccino should be a mere five ounces — a point duly noted here before. Also noted by the author is our long-time lament about the importance of cups: “Indeed, the problems of American espresso have much to do with cups.” … “The smallest available cups were much larger than five ounces, and the baristas filled them to the rim.”
Our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series next takes us to quite a historical café — and the closest thing to a tourist trap in Torino this side of the Holy Shroud. Caffè Al Bicerin was founded in 1763 as an apothecary shop and later remodeled as a café. But over the centuries it has remained a tiny, dark place with simple furnishings of wooden tables and benches.
We first wrote about this café for the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. And it is no stranger to accolades — winning the coveted Gambero Rosso award for the best bar in Italy in 2000. In the Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso 2008, however, it rates 3 tazzine and 2 chicchi — dropping it just out of their top 18 and reflecting an absolutely justifiable downward correction on their espresso quality (though I would even take it a step further).
The most recent proprietor of Caffè Al Bicerin is Maritè Costa, who represents the latest in a series of women who have operated this café since it was first opened by a man. But this café owes its notoriety to its namesake drink, the bicerin. By around 1700, you could easily argue that the bavareisa was the official breakfast of the Torinese — a fashionable drink served in large glasses and consisting of coffee, chocolate, milk and syrup. (Chocolate was exclusively a beverage until the Torinese later popularized it in its present day solid form in chocolate bars, etc.)
Traditionally, these three ingredients were served separately, and the bavareisa initially combined them in three different variations: pur e fiur (today’s cappuccino), pur e barba (coffee and chocolate), and poc ‘d tut (a little of everything), which mixed all three. This last formula quickly became the most popular combination. A century later, this hot drink was named for the container in which it was most commonly served: a small glass with a metal base and handle known as bicerin. Though today it is served in small glasses throughout the city without handles.
Today the bicerin is served as a hot beverage with layers of coffee, liquid chocolate, and fior de latte (€4,50 at Caffè Al Bicerin) — the latter of which is much like the cream on the Irish Coffee at Buena Vista (but with better coffee and no booze). Although here they suggest that you do not stir (girare) it much, if at all, you’ll end up with a chocolate bomb at the bottom.
As for the space itself, it is in an odd piazza — just behind the impressive Basilica della Consolata and just a couple blocks south of the shady street urchins along Corso Regina Margherita. The café itself is incredibly tight on indoor space — a few tables in a wooden, mirrored, cramped room — with more spacious outdoor seating under a couple of parasols in the pleasant piazza.
Using a new, two-group Faema at the bar/register, they serve espresso with a medium brown crema — mottled with a darker brown and with white heat spot. The resulting cup is a bit thin and tastes a little scorched (along with its relatively hot serving temperature). It tastes a little watery too, but at its base it has a pepper flavor with a slightly ashy edge. Served with a slightly large pour with a chocolate square on the side. A highway robbery at €1.70, since it also rated as one of the worst espresso examples we had in Torino — let alone Piemonte.
Read the review of Al Bicerin.
The News & Advance of Lynchburg, VA recently published a brief review of the area’s independent coffeehouses. Like many smaller towns in America that have come to similar conclusions about themselves, “In the past two years, Lynchburg has become a mini-mecca for coffee.”
But unlike many articles of its kind, the author doesn’t dote over the ambiance of these various coffeehouses — nor the baked goods and sandwiches they serve. Instead, she focuses more on the coffee — albeit using a rather unscientific approach with the caffè latte as the yardstick (please reserve your sexual stereotypes!): NewsAdvance.com | Whole lotta latte.
Seattle’s Coffee Fest trade show ended yesterday. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an article announcing the winners of its “Millrock Free Pour Latte Art competition” (isn’t that a mouthful?): Artistic cup of joe brings home $5,000 prize.
Top honors and $5,000 of prize money went to Layla Emily Osberg of Vancouver, BC’s Blenz Coffee — where I first discovered that the default “macchiato” can be colloquially defined as something far scarier than I ever imagined. (Second place for “Draw Tippy the Turtle in milk foam” went to the award-winning Canadian barista, Colter Jones.)
Now I generally find it difficult to get excited about latte art — or even the US Barista Championship these days. However, the best suggestion for any kind of barista competition came from April Pollard, a finalist from Seattle’s Espresso Vivace with “real world” sensibilities about the spectacle. From the article:
She compared the event to a “beautiful baby” contest, and she added that a “real barista contest” would include having 10 customers in a line, one person being a jerk, something going wrong and a person a wanting a muffin while talking on a cell phone.
“They should make it like a normal day,” Pollard said.
Bravo, April. Now we’re talking. Oh, but wait — I first gotta take this call.
Back in the 1980s, Wendy’s fast food restaurants sponsored a highly successful advertising campaign featuring a diminutive elderly Jewish woman (Clara Peller, she quickly became a cultural icon from these spots). When presented with the hamburgers of Wendy’s competitors, she famously asked, “Where’s the beef?!”
These days, it seems like we need a similar campaign for the coffee content in most cappuccinos and lattes. Because whenever I buy milked-based espresso drinks in this country, my reaction is almost always, “Where’s the coffee?”
To understand why this is the case, you first need to understand that milk is the new coffee flavoring. Back in the 1990s — when the coffee business was lamenting a decades-old decline in coffee consumption combined with a dearth of new, young coffee drinkers to replace the aging ones — the industry introduced coffees with spray-on chemical flavorings. This desperation move hoped to entice young, flavor-variety-seeking consumers to put down their Diet Cokes and, for the first time in their lives, consider coffee as an alternative. Hence the era of “hazelnut French vanilla creme” coffee was born to appeal to the millions who simply did not like coffee. (“It’s, like, not even coffee.”)
The flavored coffee fad lasted only a few years. But following closely in its wake was the popular rise of Starbucks and the proliferation of milk-based espresso drinks. By “cutting” the coffee, these drinks also offered something to consumers that the flavored coffees did not: appeal to the insatiable American appetite for 44-oz Super Big Gulp®-sized beverages. (Americans may love their caffeine — but not that much caffeine. At least at once.) Ironically, the story of specialty coffee’s booming success in America is really the story of the dairy industry’s revival. Our coffee houses have literally become milk bars.
Milk has become flavored coffee’s new flavor of choice. But given the volumes of each involved, it’s actually the other way around: we are a nation of coffee-flavored milk drinkers. And it shows in what passes for a typical cappuccino or latte. There is so much milk, our typical cappuccino would be considered a caffè latte in Italy; I often find myself ordering caffè macchiatos to get something close to a legitimate cappuccino. (And a legitimate macchiato is almost unheard of without playing backseat driver to the barista.) Newly introduced mutants like Gibraltars are typically interpreted just as variations on how much milk you want to wallow in.
Compare the photos below. The first is a photo of a medium cappuccino recently purchased at a downtown Peet’s Coffee, served, by design, in a Peet’s 16 oz. mug. Now contrast with the second photo of a regulation Intelligentsia 4.75 oz. cappuccino cup, which meets the Italian standards for a single cappuccino. (Note the foreground penny and quarter for comparisons.) Poured inside the Intelligentsia cup is a double shot of espresso (about 2 oz.) — twice the amount of espresso designed for the cup and the amount contained within the Peet’s mug — and yet there’s still plenty of room for milk. Even if you double the regulation cappuccino size to about 10 oz., what’s with the Olympic-sized pool that Peet’s is serving as a medium cappuccino?
Unless I’m planning on a “to go” cup for scalding reckless bike messengers who cut off pedestrians in crosswalks, I don’t understand why my medium cappuccino has to be such a gargantuan soup of steamed milk.
“Quality shot up in the Nineties, but the American market has commercialised it,” he says. “It would be difficult to sell a small 6oz cappuccino, the traditional Italian size, for much more money, so to make a viable business out of it, they started to make the drinks bigger. And how do you do that without overdosing everyone on caffeine? You add more and more milk.”
So we entered the Alice in Wonderland age where the smallest latte you can buy in Starbucks is the “tall”. “What should be a silky textured, sensual drink has become a 32oz big gulp suited to the movie theatres of middle America,” says Torz scornfully.
Jack Hanna of Canberra, Australia is the reigning world champion of latte art — at least according to the recent World Latte Art Championships held in Belgium this past May: Aussie cappuccino king says coffee art not all froth | Lifestyle | Living | Reuters.
Australia has won the title two years running. (No surprise, given how much Australian tourists seem to obsess over latte art when visiting America.) And although Mr. Hanna received some stiff competition from the usual assortment of European representatives this year (from Denmark, Russia, and Iceland), it may come as a surprise to some that the Italians came in last. In fact, the Italians always seem to fare poorly at this competition.
Given how seriously Italians take their coffee and design, it might make you question where latte art sits in the hierarchy of Italian art appreciation — relative to the likes of Giotto, Caravaggio, and Titian. It ranks somewhere alongside the works of Delpino — as in Vinnie Delpino, of Doogie Howser, M.D. fame.
Not that the Italians are always right when it comes to espresso; they certainly have a sameness problem, and they clearly lack examples at the top-most quality end. But while latte art is aesthetically pleasing and is a nice indicator of a café that cares, it is more about milk than it is about coffee. All things considered, I’d take great microfoam over latte art any day. Which makes latte art nice, but but about as relevant to quality espresso as birth control is to Neil Patrick Harris.
Today’s Toronto Star featured an article on the growth of Toronto area independent coffee shops (many of which call themselves “espresso bars”, per the article): TheStar.com – living – Toronto’s love affair with espresso bars heats up. Toronto now has a mixture of established independent espresso bars and a growing array of newer ones. (A little over a year ago, we wrote about a Toronto local who lamented the common over-extraction problem. Hopefully this new crop of indie espresso bars has helped.)
While some credit Starbucks with paving the way for consumer interest in these indie coffee shops, the co-owner of one of them notes, “They’ve [Starbucks] taken away the art of the barista with what I call their robo-espresso machines.” The article suggests that much of the success of these independent espresso bars comes from how they cater to a customer’s desire for “individual service and wanting to feel special”.
Me? I don’t need to feel special. I just want good espresso.
On that note, the rest of the article tours a number of Toronto espresso bars with Susan Zimmer, a Calgary-based author of a new book called I Love Coffee! Over 100 Easy and Delicious Coffee Drinks. Which leads me to another observation. Despite the specialty drink “ring” of the three-ring circus that is the barista championship, I have yet to meet a coffee expert with an opinion I respect who focuses their energies on the variety of coffee drinks rather than the quality of the coffee per se.
Sure, a single espresso every time might sound like a monotonous death sentence to some people. But who in their right mind needs over 100 coffee drinks? That smacks of Starbucks’ coffee-flavored milkshake approach, primarily aimed at people who really don’t like coffee but still want to play along as if they do.
And while I’m sure Ms. Zimmer knows her stuff — even if her other book has the red-flag title of Cappuccino Cocktails & Coffee Martinis — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed by coffee books that suddenly turn into pages and pages of recipes by the end. These books are no more about coffee than The Betty Crocker Ultimate Cake Mix Cookbook is a book about sugar.
This week, The Guardian (UK) posted an article on the elusive quality cappuccino: How’s your crapuccino? from Guardian Unlimited: Word of Mouth. While the Brits may disparage the “dirty dishwater” that is American coffee, even in London you’re helpless to find a cappuccino that isn’t served in a gargantuan bowl, filled mostly with milk, and gurgling with immensely sized bubbles (and yes, he includes Starbucks Coffee in this category).
The author suggests that home brew is the best option. But given the paltry pressures most home espresso machines can generate, I find good milk frothing to be one of the hardest things to produce at home.
Starbucks Coffee announced today that it is changing its dairy standard for all of its espresso-based drinks, switching from whole milk to reduced fat (i.e., 2%) milk in all Starbucks stores in the U.S. and Canada by the end of 2007: Daytrading, Eminis, Forex trading, Swing Trading BREAKING NEWS – 559959 – Starbucks Coffee To Switch From Whole To Reduced Fat Milk In All Espresso-based Drinks By FY07 End. (Here’s a take on the same story from the Chicago Sun-Times and San Jose’s NBC11.)
Perhaps after all the criticism over it’s calorie bombs, Starbucks is trying to do its part for the war on obesity. But curiously enough, earlier this month scientists in New Zealand reportedly bred cows that naturally produce low-fat milk: Udderly low-fat milk – News & events – Taste.com.au. This news was soon followed by the announcement that naturally caffeine free coffee trees were about to be introduced in Australia: Caffeine-free coffee trees on their way – News & events – Taste.com.au.
If this sort of “boiling the ocean” problem-solving approach has any legs, here’s to hoping that Starbucks soon stumbles upon genetic research that enables them to grow double-espresso-competent baristas from Petri dishes.
Drinks Business Review published an article yesterday noting the top ten most often used flavors in new coffee worldwide: Coffee: top flavors in new products – Drinks Business Review. Of course, as might be predicted by Denis Leary, “coffee-flavored coffee” didn’t make the list. But disturbingly “cappuccino” did at #5. Is that like anchovies made to taste like Cesar salad dressing?
I suppose that if, in the South, “barbeque” can be both a noun and an adjective, anything is possible. However, don’t even ask me what “sweet” is doing listed as a flavor — and why it’s different from “sugar”. I am much too afraid to find out.