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Say It Ain’t So, Australia: Caffeine connoisseurs say lattes are the cream of the crop

Posted by on 13 May 2008 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

The truth is out. What do die hard coffee drinkers in coffee-obsessed Australia really order?: Caffeine connoisseurs say lattes are the cream of the crop | Herald Sun. Yes, it’s the boorish latte. (And written by a boorish reporter: “Caffeine connoisseurs”?!? It’s been a while since we’ve seen the tiresome caffeine riff.)

Of course we’re being a bit facetious. But Australians are often cited as some of the greatest espresso connoisseurs in the world. And we at have heard a lot of smack talk from visiting Aussies, lamenting our national disregard for latte art and the inability to find a proper flat white (assuming anyone actually knows what one is).

The fact is — they’re right. Coffee standards are terrible in this country; they are one of the prime motivators that gave birth to five years ago this month. We generally serve over-extracted, bitter, watery dreck that is only made fit for human consumption after drowning it in gallons of milk and flavoring it with three kinds of syrup.

Even if that’s the rule, there are exceptions — and more exceptions thankfully appear around the nation every month. And while those exceptions are, say, easier to come by in towns like Seattle (which, as a rule of the masses, has generally terrible coffee standards as well), Australia has a coffee history and national obsession that makes these exceptions more commonplace.

But now we also know the “dirty truth”: behind every person who can drink a decent quality espresso in Australia, there are seven Aussies swigging down skinny/soy/chai lattes. Has the Australian coffee palate evolved much at all beyond our double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato? After reading this story, you’d be hard-pressed to say so.

So we asked our guest correspondent in Perth…

To get another perspective on this story and the “research” behind it, we asked Michael ‘Grendel’ Carroll what he thought about the Herald Sun‘s claims. Michael runs Cafe Grendel — a coffee review blog out of Perth, Australia. Granted, Perth is half a continent away from the Herald Sun‘s Melbourne, but at least they use the same currency.

Mr. Carroll first noted that the online poll associated with this Herald Sun story should be taken with a grain of salt. Given that the article mentions The Deck, better known as a restaurant, it calls the specialty coffee/cafe credibility of the Herald Sun into question. Mr. Carroll also noted, “It sounds to me as if (to use an Aussie slang) the owner [of The Deck] was ‘having a bit of a lend of himself,’ which is another way of suggesting he sounds a bit pretentious.”

And coffee pretentiousness is something of a problem Down Under, just as it is in very limited circles in the States. “While verbose descriptions of the various flavours and aromas have their place I think we may have taken it a little too far over here at times, and our coffee snobbery drifts to ridiculous levels,” said Mr. Carroll. “So much so that I and some fellow coffee snobs have a running ‘elderberry’ joke whenever we do a cupping.” Did Counter Culture Coffee recently open an office in Perth?

As in the U.S. as Australia, consumer knowledge and awareness of specialty coffee is spreading rapidly, raising consumer expectations for the coffee they drink. This in itself is a huge accomplishment. However, knowledge often inevitably leads to a rise in pretentiousness (see: the ever-popular wine analogy) — which can undermine more populist demands for better coffee. To counter this, Mr. Carroll wrote, “We will one day stop making rules for people, I hope, and allow them to enjoy coffee as coffee without placing too many subjective demands on the experience.” We could not agree more.

French coffee cuppers seem displeased with the San Ignacio Juana Mamami Huanca from Bolivia — or maybe they’re just being French.

Rating Flat Whites in Brisbane, Australia

Posted by on 15 Feb 2008 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew

Brisbane, Australia’s Courier-Mail ran an article today reviewing espresso drinks at various cafés in Brisbane’s James Street Markets: Fertile ground for battle of baristas | The Courier-Mail. They rated the flat whites at five cafés on a 10-point scale.

For those unfamiliar with the flat white, it isn’t just Oceania’s lingo for a (caffè) “latte” — the way the British say “biscuit” to the American “cookie”. The flat white is mostly steamed milk, but it has a higher ratio of coffee than a typical caffè latte (but much less than a cappuccino). And unlike either an American caffè latte or cappuccino, it has a minimal layer of milk foam — even less so than the Italian cappuccino or caffè latte.

Aussies and Kiwis love the stuff, and they frequently lament the lack of good examples of the drink away from the Southern Cross. (They also seem to have an odd preoccupation with latte art, but that may just be our observation.) The flat white is generally too much milk for our general tastes (it’s more milk than coffee, after all), but it’s definitely a step up from America’s preoccupation with the gargantuan cappuccino.

Curiously enough, that Aussies and Kiwis have cultures deeply rooted in quality espresso, and no brewed coffee history to speak of, was once a source of (legitimate) pride. Now these cultural histories are something of an impediment for appreciating some of the outstanding, single estate coffees that have been coming out in recent years. As much as we love our espresso, it’s just not the best way to experience many of the subtle floral and fruity notes (coffee is a fruit, after all) that these coffees express under different brewing methods.

The 'flat white'

UPDATE: March 3, 2008
Sure enough, brewed coffee is making its way Down Under. From today’s The Age: Brewing a big hit – Epicure – Entertainment – Apparently there are now two Clover brewer machines in service in all of Australia — the machine having been discovered by an Aussie while in the U.S.

Trip Report: Caffè San Carlo (Torino, Italy)

Posted by on 25 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew

Our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series continues with a return to Torino’s Piazza San Carlo. Caffè San Carlo may not be among Gambero Rosso‘s top 18 cafés in all of Italy, but they rated it with a very respectable 3 tazzine and 2 chicchi in its 2008 guide.

Chairs in the piazza, in front of Caffè San Carlo Entrance to Caffè San Carlo under the porticos

With so much competition on this piazza, it may be a little surprising that the Caffè San Carlo holds its own. Its espresso may be weaker than its neighbors’, but they offer the best pastries and best milk-frothing for cappuccini on the square. It has seating out front on the piazza and decorative touches inside, with a small mirrored bar with a monstrous glass chandelier. In the morning, they set out their great pastries in the middle of the place.

Breakfast pastries at Caffè San Carlo The four-group Faema at Caffè San Carlo

Using a four-group E92 Faema, they pull espresso shots with a thin layer of a lighter brown crema speckled with dark brown. The pour is relatively large for the region, and thus not very potent. Still, it’s pretty good and comes with more of an herbal flavor of cloves and spice. Served in delicate IPA cups with the Caffè San Carlo logo.

The Caffè San Carlo cappuccino The Caffè San Carlo espresso

When it comes to cappuccini, there’s no real latte art beyond a basic swirl. But their milk frothing and consistency in their cappuccini is perhaps the best on the square — earning them something of a bonus score. Still a pretty good deal at €0.90.

Read the review of Caffè San Carlo.

Ceiling inside Caffè San Carlo Chandelier in Caffè San Carlo

Madison, WI: In search of a good (small) cup

Posted by on 05 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

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.”

As for the five local cafés that made their cut: Mother Fool’s, Ancora, Espresso Royale, Ground Zero, and Steep & Brew.

Trip Report: Caffè Al Bicerin (Torino, Italy)

Posted by on 01 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew

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 Piazza della Consolata and Caffè Al Bicerin Façade of Caffè Al Bicerin

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.

The cramped quarters inside Caffè Al Bicerin The serving bar inside Caffè Al Bicerin

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.

Bicerin Al Bicerin The Caffè Al Bicerin espresso

Lynchburg, VA: Whole lotta latte

Posted by on 16 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew

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!): | Whole lotta latte.

Coffee Fest, Seattle: Give me a ‘real’ barista contest

Posted by on 12 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista

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.

Do this with milk foam and win a prize!Top honors and $5,000 of prize money went to Layla Emily Osberg of Vancouver, BC’s Blenz Coffeewhere 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.

Where’s the coffee?

Posted by on 19 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends

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?”

Clara Peller famously asks, 'Where's the beef?' as part of a record deal Clara Peller as immortalized in an episode of The Simpsons

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.

The rise of coffee-flavored milk

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.

The Peet's Coffee & Tea medium cappuccino: 'Where's the espresso?!' For size comparison, an Intelligentsia cappuccino cup with a double shot of espresso

UPDATE: Feb 23, 2008
Even as far away as London, coffee experts are lamenting the comical, standard sizes of American coffee drinks: Foodie at large: The dark art of coffee making – Times Online. To quote how the situation that depresses London area roaster, Jeremy Torz:

“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.

Aussie cappuccino king says coffee art not all froth

Posted by on 16 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk

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.

'Doog, why are you drinking that?! You've seen his rosetta!'

Toronto’s love affair with espresso bars heats up

Posted by on 18 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

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): – 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.

101 Ways to Make Your Coffee Unrecognizable

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.

Is it really so hard to understand? Coffee is not wine. It is not a martini either.

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