The Cappuccino Conundrum.

Something’s been bugging me for some time about two of our favorite drinks, and the more I look into it, I am on the one hand comforted that at least I’m not alone or just being stupid, but at the same time, the more perplexing the issue becomes…

The debate about what the difference is between a cappuccino and a caffe latte, and the best ways to differentiate between them (and the related arguments of what defines each one individually, and how to best present/pour them) is as intriguing yet exasperating as any in the world of espresso.

We often go round in circles, with even the most single-minded baristas making a variety of claims for their case that can end up conflicting and refuting their own argument (as I am probably about to do myself!). I suppose it doesn’t matter if no firm conclusions are ever reached, as long as the debate is constructive and positive, and contributed to by people who are well informed and genuinely passionate about what they do. In the end, there are few definitive answers, and it of course comes down to personal preference and style – but trying to pluck some answers out of the foamy quagmire is certainly interesting, entertaining and even valuable perhaps – in terms of making our world less confusing and cliquey to our customers across the globe.

One way of trying answer the question would seem obvious – how do they define the difference in Italy – the origin of both drinks (although I’m a little dubious as to whether they really take caffe latte seriously as a drink there anyway), and the birthplace of the espresso cuisine? But even given Italy’s undoubted ancestral significance, espresso is now a worldwide phenomenon, practiced by knowledgeable and accomplished professionals – many of which may never even have been to Italy – and who are perfectly entitled to draw their own conclusions, regardless of how things are done in espresso’s home nation. Even within Italy, practices and styles vary from region to region and cafe to cafe, as they do anywhere else, and given the seriousness with which many of us now take the craft world-over, practices and opinion in Italy can probably no longer be the definitive benchmark for answering such questions (having said this, I’d love to go back to Italy knowing what I know now, and check out the different styles, cafe culture, quality, etc, and try to glean some tit-bits from their wealth of espresso knowledge. I always feel that the Italians adopt a very dogmatic approach to espresso, regardless of any measured overview or greater truth, which on the one hand is quite annoying, but on the other is comically endearing, and perhaps even justified).

I’ve heard various arguments as to how we should distinguish between cappuccino and caffe latte from the perfectly respectable:

– the texture of the milk

– the comparative size of cup to be used for each drink, both made with the same amount of espresso

– the ratio of espresso to milk, and/or of fluid to foam (or the measured thickness of the foam itself) 

– a subtle distinction in taste (more mild or strong, due to the ratio of fluid to foam, or due to using a different cup size) 

– the way the drinks are poured and presented

…To the downright cringeworthy (yet immensely popular!):

– the addition of chocolate dusting as standard for a cappuccino, and the idea that this is what makes it a cappuccino, and different from a latte (a practice I must admit we ourselves at the cafe where I work are also often guilty of for reasons I won’t bother to go into at present)

– the type of cup/glass used: the idea that a latte becomes a latte just because it’s served in a glass (with no other real differentiation from cappuccino) (again a practice our cafe is to some extent guilty of – although I personally always ensure there is a distinction between the two drinks, we serve cappuccino in nice, fairly traditional 6oz, thick-walled, rounded ceramic white cups, and latte in Pyrex glasses of a similar size (7oz), which I don’t like, personally – I would prefer the capp cups for both drinks)

So… where do I stand on the issue? I think the best way to differentiate between the two drinks is simply by the difference in the type of texture we achieve when steaming for each drink (here I’ll give credit to Schomer *we are not worthy!*, as this is very similar to the way he puts it in his wonderful book – although for all I know he may have changed tack by now). Of course, all milk used for speciality espresso drinks should consist of luscious, smooth, pourable microfoam that is not over-stretched in any way, but I would say that cappuccino texture is subtly yet significantly different from latte because it is stretched further, and has more air incorporated during the initial, cooler phase of steaming, creating a thicker texture, as opposed to the ‘harder’ texture used for latte. These two different textures of milk will subsequently give a thicker and thinner ‘head’ on each drink, which in itself will produce a different ratio of fluid to foam for each drink, and consequently a difference in strength and taste – without any need to use a different size (or style) of cup to distinguish between a latte and a cappuccino both made with the same amounts of espresso.

In order to avoid any confusion, and to give customers something more visually tangible, I would also advocate pouring/presenting the drinks differently – reserving latte art for lattes, and serving cappuccino with a classic, pure white dome, fringed with a thin ring of crema – but I am aware this is a highly debatable distinction, and one that I may at some point reconsider. For example, I’m currently contemplating entering the 2008 barista championships …and how do you show-off the skill and beauty of your latte art if you don’t pour it on capps, and they don’t assess lattes?

There is a another, more creditable reason for this stance on presentation though – which is that I feel latte art is perhaps intrinsically more suited to caffe lattes than cappuccinos because the thickness/texture of foam required to make what I would call a cappuccino does not really lend itself to pouring the best, most intricate latte art – whereas the ‘harder’ (yet still velvety) milk with minimum air injected that I would steam for a latte is far more suited to pouring beautiful, finely delineated designs. But, as I said, I realise this is a very debatable point, and it comes down to how much foam-to-fluid ratio you think a cappuccino needs. (this is also partly why I like to pour my lattes in ‘cappuccino style’ cups – not only do I prefer the look and mouthfeel of these cups – they lend themselves better to pouring latte art, due to the rounded shape and wide mouth. A possibly nice compromise would be glass cups made in this bowl-shaped style – anybody seen any good ones?)

capp08b a)    classic latte b)    HEADER2 c)

a) How I currently present my cappuccinos – with a gently domed, pure white cap, edged with a little crema colour (ideally with or without chocolate, according to the customer’s preference!).

b) What I would serve/instruct as a ‘standard’ presentation for caffe latte: without any real latte art – just a majority of crema encircling a small circular crown of foam. This is ideal until the barista grasps latte art.

c) A latte presented with latte art (note the crema-white ratio is still similar), which I feel requires a ‘harder’ texture of milk than is ideal for cappuccino.

However, following my preferred method of serving both drinks in the same size and style of cup does walk a knife-edge, with a risk of falling into a grey (or a least cappuccino coloured) area – a slight error in steaming could give your latte extra foam, or vice-versa, therefore perhaps cancelling-out the differentiation. I was fearful of this possibility occurring already without my being aware of it – so I did a test. Using one of our latte glasses (so as to be able to see the results) I steamed for a cappuccino, and made one in the glass. I was pleasantly reassured to see that the level of foam in the glass when settled was substantially greater than for my lattes. In the glasses (which are 8.5cm high) the cappuccino foam measured 2.5cm to the rim, with an additional .5cm of dome – 3cm in total (and because the glasses are wider at the top, this means the foam took-up well over a third of the volume – something in the region of 40%); whereas my lattes normally only have .5 to 1cm of foam on top (with about 1.5cm being a maximum that I would be a bit unhappy with). So, even with a margin for variance and error, I feel this amounts to fairly substantial difference in foam, ratio, and therefore taste…

There’s a possible problem with my position though, that could throw everything off-balance. When you pour most latte art (or a ‘standard’ latte as I would call it, with a predominantly crema-brown surface that just has a small, neat, round circle of white atop) the first thing you tend to taste each time you sip is the strength of that crema in the head – which is lovely, of course – but if I reserve this for lattes, and serve capps with a predominantly white-foam head, the risk is that the taste sensation of the crema will perhaps give the drinker the impression that the latte is stronger (or as strong) as the cappuccino, even though the differences in ratios of fluid to foam in the two drinks mean the cappuccino is  still the strongest under the foam. So the matter is full of pitfalls!

Splitting hairs? Good god. If I haven’t managed to contradict myself, I’m certainly beginning to bore myself now, which takes some doing when it comes to coffee (now I know how my girlfriend feels!). So I’ll leave it here. …One last thought on the subject though: I have toyed with the idea that if ever I had my own coffee bar, I might do away with lattes altogether, and simply try and promote the idea of cappuccinos served wetter or drier, with less or more foam depending on the customer’s preference, and with varying latte art executed accordingly… But my better half insists this would be commercial suicide – and she’s probably right!

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