I guess the message I would want people to take away is to PAY ATTENTION to their coffee and to the places where they consume it. I would also really like it if coffee shop-goers paid as much attention to atmosphere and community as bar- and restaurant-goers do. The coffee shop is not just a place to fuel up on caffeine!
What are the defining characteristics of a good cappuccino?
I wrote a whole series of blog posts on this once, the most comprehensive of which is here.
But here’s the “short” version… A cappuccino is typically defined as a drink that is one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third foamed milk. I would argue that the perfect cappuccino incorporates coffee, air and milk into a few magical sips of something that is more than just the sum of its parts.
A cappuccino should feel dense and creamy in your mouth, but light and airy at the same time. You should not be able to perceive the separation of liquid and foam, at least not in the first few sips. I have heard this texture described hundreds of times by people in the coffee business as “velvety.”
This unique texture is produced by a substance that I’ve sometimes heard Italians refer to as the “crema del latte” – literally, the “cream of the milk.” Americans refer to this substance by the decidedly less charming name of “microfoam.”
Really good crema del latte is incredibly difficult to produce. But to me, it is what makes a cappuccino a cappuccino. In the course of making my documentary, I interviewed a number of baristas about producing the crema del latte, and the consensus seems to be that it’s all about heating the milk slowly and keeping it below the temperature at which milk starts to taste salty instead of sweet. It’s also about using the right milk. Milks with higher relative protein content – such as nonfat milk – will stiffen up much quicker than full fat milks, forming that horrid meringue-like substance that graces many cappuccinos in America. So when I hear someone ordering a nonfat, extra-hot cappuccino, I feel like they just insulted my mother. Blech.
Who makes the best cappuccino and why?
I’m happy to say that it’s no longer as hard as it used to be to find a good cappuccino in the U.S. In fact, there are too many places for me to list (although I would recommend using espressomap.com as a resource. That guy knows his stuff).
But if you add in the consideration of wanting a place that not only produces a drink that is technically excellent but does so in an environment that is authentic and is genuinely a “third place” (in the Ray Oldenburg sense of the term, NOT the Howard Schultz sense), well, then, my list of favorites is much shorter…
Can you make a cappuccino at home? If not, why?
You can make a crappy cappuccino at home, no problem. You can even make a good cappuccino at home if you are willing to invest a few thousand dollars in superior equipment and spend lots and lots of time getting it right (and some people do – check out home-barista.com and you’ll see what I’m talking about). But making a good cappuccino at home is really hard, mostly because making good espresso at home is so hard. Espresso is really finicky, and there are many variables that have to come together for it to taste OK (nevermind for it to taste great).
Does your obsession with cappuccino extend to American coffee, and if so what are your favorite brand blends?
No, it really doesn’t. I am a milk addict! I am fortunate that the head barista at my awesome neighborhood coffee shop (Bica Coffeehouse in Oakland, CA) regularly offers me tastes of the latest coffees he’s featuring, so I get to try a lot of them. But it’s not usually what I crave. And I don’t drink much coffee overall. So while I like trying little tastes of other things, it’s a rare day that I want a cup of drip for my morning coffee.
That said, when I DO drink “American” coffee, lately it has all been single-origin coffees roasted by some of the fantastic roasters near me in the bay area – Ritual Coffee Roasters, Verve, Temple, De La Paz and Four Barrel all come to mind.
In the documentary you note that cappuccino has caused you to question your community, country and way of life. But has it brought you any answers?
YES! In the process of making this film, I discovered a place that had a real sense of community. You walk in, everybody knows you, you sit down among friends for a long talk or you just stay for a minute to grab your coffee and BS with the guys behind the counter or the person next to you in line. But either way, you have this face-to-face social interaction every day. That place was the DoubleShot Coffee Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
I felt (and feel) that that kind of community is so special and so wonderful. I later read “The Great Good Place” by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, which perfectly describes the phenomenon I’m talking about – the “third place.” It’s not work and it’s not home – it’s something else.
It’s easier to feel a sense of ownership or a feeling of belonging to a place that is not antiseptic or cookie-cutter. And people’s behavior changes when they feel at home. The same person who ignores you in line at Starbucks might strike up a conversation with you if you’re sitting on “their” couch.
This is not to say that community can’t form at a Starbucks, but there are barriers to it – the airport security-style lines, the prescribed language for ordering your drink and the customer-is-always-right script you hear in return from the people behind the counter, the get-in-and-out-fast efficiency of the whole place… all these things offer a subtle discouragement to having a genuine interaction with anyone else. Learning all of the above was a big deal for me. It roots me in my community and my neighborhood. I feel very grounded in my “village” – I feel a kinship with the folks I know from my own third place, and that extends to a larger feeling of kinship with my community. I would love it if I could share that message with everyone.
What is the strangest place your search for the perfect 6oz of cappuccino has brought you?
That’s a good question. Tulsa, Oklahoma was pretty darn strange for me (I’m a Californian). But in a good way. It’s a city full of contradictions and surprises. I loved it.
Amy’s movie will also be screening at a festival, and here are the details on that:
What: The Perfect Cappuccino screens at the Oakland International Film Festival
When: Sunday, April 10 at 6:00 pm
Where: The Art Deco Auditorium in Alameda, CA
Thank you, Amy!