A d F o n t e s

(Latin: "to the sources")

A Brewing Crisis for Cappuccino Connoisseurs


I’ve noticed a growing problem. It is getting harder and harder to find a properly made latte or cappuccino. More and more, when I go to a coffee shop and dare to try the cappuccino, I get something that has two distinct qualities: (a) they don’t use espresso beans, but finely ground normal beans, and (b) a thick layer of burnt milk, not foam on top of the drink. Those of who have had a properly made espresso drink like a latte or cappuccino, you know that this is an atrocity. Anyway, this new phenomenon is disgusting. I suspect that’s a major reason why so many coffee shops have so many different flavor options, e.g. the cinnamon, hazelnut, etc. They realize the sheer unimpressiveness of the drink they’ve created, and therefore need to mask it with something that actually tastes good. This new “version” of espresso drink has become so entrenched in the American coffee palate that it’s now culturally acceptable, or even preferred. It’s hard to find a good espresso drink because people don’t even know what it tastes like anymore—if they ever did to begin with—much less how to make it.

At least in New York, one cause of this phenomenon is pretty easy to see. I make it a point to chit chat with virtually every barista I meet at virtually every coffee shop I visit. One thing I’ve observed is that a significant percentage of them are former Starbucks employees and that the coffee-making techniques they employ are those they learned while on the job there, and which in turn is what they teach others.

That makes sense, though I should emphasize Starbucks isn’t wholly to blame (and here I should state (a) my goal is not to bash Starbucks but to explain a phenomenon, and (b) in real life I am a loyal Starbucks fan with many friends who are employees). I’d heard before that often Starbucks stores pass off finely ground coffee beans for espresso beans since it’s cheaper and customers don’t know the difference. I definitely know I’ve tasted it: it’ll taste weaker than espresso, won’t smell the same, won’t have the same kick. And I’ve watched how Starbucks employees make foam: they dunk the whole steamer in the milk and cook it until burnt milk collects on the surface of the container. The taste here is also different: burnt milk isn’t as dense as foam, its kinda bubbly like soap, it tastes bad, and will collapse in on itself a few minutes after being poured into a drink. Part of the reason they do this, I think, is just because it’s faster.
(bad cappuccino)

What you’re supposed to do is barely touch the steamer to the top of the milk, and do so at an angle, which will produce a loud hissing sound. As the milk heats it will fill up and mix with the air, and will produce a thick foam that can float on top of the drink and stay there.
Good Cappuccino
(good cappuccino)

In any event, the bad cappuccino/latte technique spreads, and thus New Yorkers get used to it. It’s all there is.

I suspect this kind of phenomenon explains a lot about bad cappuccinos and lattes in the rest the US too, though Starbucks can only be partially to blame (most coffee shop employees outside places like NYC are probably not former Starbucks employees). But since they are so popular, I still think they play a role in forming the broader American coffee tastes. And those tastes reinforce the reproducing the technique, even if the origin is indirect. But also, I wouldn’t be surprised if some coffee shops that want cappuccinos and lattes simply imitate what they see at other stores (or Starbucks), and therefore make their drinks incorrectly out of ignorance. It’s not obvious that one should use a different kind of bean for espresso than for normal drip; and it’s not obvious that foaming milk takes more than just heating it with a steamer. The subtleties need explaining—and practicing: it took me a lot of practice working in a store before I could foam milk correctly.

In any event, and however one explains this problem, I’m bummed. I had a good cappuccino back in January in Chicago, when my wife’s friend took me to a good place near Northwestern. I haven’t had a good one since. For New Yorkers who starve for a good cappuccino , my advice for New Yorkers is to instead get café con leche from good Dominican, Mexican, or Puerto Rican restaurants. One of my faves is La Floridita on 125th & Broadway; and (surprisingly) Havanna Central on 114th & Broadway isn’t bad (I say surprisingly b/c its bad overpriced Americanized latin American food).

June 1, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Starbucks is not wholly to blame though…its their popularity, especially in a larger city. Starbucks stores in cities like NY or Chicago are always busy, the employees have only two options, really angry and impatient customers or lower quality drinks. And since, as you say, most people don’t know the difference, the baristas go for the latter course. They get yelled at enough by their customers already.


    Comment by mga318 | June 1, 2007 | Reply

  2. Not to be too harsh on you, but I think you need to get out a bit more and sample better coffee places – specifically, any of the Ninth Street Espresso locations. A place like Ninth Street will give your palate a better baseline towards understanding true coffee quality.

    One of the misperceptions fostered by many people is the “espresso bean.” There is no such thing as an “espresso bean.” “Espesso” is a brewing methodology and not a bean or a roast profile. Any bean (or blend of beans) can be used to make a shot of espresso.

    Additionally, if a shop is using equal amounts of the same coffee (i.e. arabica) the caffeine is the same. An dose of arabica does not have more caffeine than another, equal, dose of arabica. What you may be experiencing is the addition of the robusta bean to a particular blend of coffee. While a lower quality bean, the robusta has more caffeine than an arabica bean.

    Without a doubt, there’s a lot of bad technique out there. However, there are places for you to visit and enjoy quality coffee. Hope you’re able to find them.

    Comment by The Onocoffee | June 11, 2007 | Reply

  3. Thank you for the correction–I’ve always been told that the roast makes the bean espresso.

    Thanks for the suggestion about this Ninth Street place–I’d never heard of it before. I’ll check it out next time I’m in the area. Any suggestions for the Upper West Side by chance?

    Comment by JD | June 12, 2007 | Reply

  4. A major part of the reason that you can’t get “proper” cappuccino any more, is that the cappuccino machines themselves emit steam, and are dangerous, and lawsuit prone. Hence they are being replaced with what effectively amount to retrofitted hot chocolate devices. Vile.

    Comment by John Walthall | July 13, 2007 | Reply

  5. John,

    Real coffee shops still use the “dangerous” steam machines. For a skilled operator (and it does not take much skill) there is little danger of any injuries. In order to prove your assertion you would need to demonstrate actual instances of lawsuits resulting from manufactures’ negligence, and that being the specific motive to changing to the fake machines. I cannot say I have ever seen one of the fake machines in a real coffee shop, only in fast food establishments like McDonalds, Tim Hortons or Dunkin Donuts, where the staff does not have the time or the skill to operate the real cappuccino machine- and not supposed issues of safety.

    Comment by Keith | July 14, 2007 | Reply

  6. Oh Keith, Grow up.

    Comment by John | July 29, 2007 | Reply

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