Today I am pondering this wonderful creation, the cappuccino. In case you didn’t know, (and if you rely on coffees from Nescafe vending machines, you won’t) a cappuccino is traditional quite a small drink, mostly a double espresso shot topped up with foamed milk. Anyone wanting a longer drink should have a latte, the same thing, but with more milk added. A cappuccino will cost you anything between 55p in a sincerely dreadful vending machine at Doncaster train station (these are the lengths I go to under the name of research – or possibly caffeine addiction) to the £2.65 Grande-mug-with-extra-shot at Caffe Nero. (I would quote Starbucks prices but haven’t yet swallowed my pride enough to dare go in there). I will cover why I need an extra shot in Nero’s coffee later.
I spent happy afternoon the other day, being instructed in how to make the perfect coffee at a rather obscure little factory in Blaydon in the outskirts of Newcastle. This would be Pumphreys Coffee company. They have been importing, roasting and selling coffee from there since 1750, and are now running Barista training courses. This is because, as our instructor, Stuart tells us, he hates seeing all the hard work that so many different people put into to producing the coffee, ruined at the last minute by untrained, or often plain lazy baristas. The commodity chains involved in producing a cappuccino are infinitely long, and necessarily global. The coffee growers, graders, buyers, shippers and importers, roasters, packagers, marketers, salesmen, distributors, and coffee shop managers; not to mention the dairy farmers, people who pasturise milk, bottling factory workers, health and safety regulators, supermarket or dairy buyers and even milkmen have all had some involvement in your cappuccino, then there is the designers of the espresso machine, the maintenance man who adjusts it for you, the cardboard cup manufacturers, brand designers and so on, have all contributed something too. And then a bored, underpaid, dispassionate and usually part time barista, screws it up. And still charges you £2 for the privilege.
At Pumphreys, we’re taught how to make an excellent espresso base (and even with a fully functional espresso machine and perfect ingredients and equipment, it can still go wrong very easily.) You then froth milk – and this is equally as important and as skilled as making the espresso. It should be heated to about 55 degrees centigrade, or 131 farenheit, and no more. You need a bit of air in it, but not a lot, no huge bubbles. The end result is velvety smooth throughout, the same consistency all the way through the jug, and is shiny and filled with tiny microbubbles. If you can pour it on top of your espresso, and if you are very artistic, you can make fabulous patterns with it. Here is Stuart creating “Latte Porn” – sure he won’t mind me borrowing it.
For the record, not only do these coffees look great, they taste fantastic. So, if given the opportunity to train, why aren’t all cappuccinos like this? Where I used to work, at the Voodoo Cafe, (an independent and very unique place!) we took the time to learn properly, and although ours were never that pretty to look at, we invested in very high grade luxury coffees and then practiced making them properly. We had a whole range of different coffees to try; different espresso bases in different varieties of coffee. We also tried to keep the prices competitive. Our 12-ounce cappuccinos were £1.50. Even taking into account my bias, compared to the competition we made some of the best coffees in town. However, I am informed that this cafe is sadly facing closure now, mainly because it is not making enough money.
Compare this to life at Caffe Nero. Nero is a big brand. It is the 20th fastest growing company in the whole of Europe, and currently has over 330 stores in Britain. And every single one is identical. This means that whichever store you go into from Brighton to Glasgow, you know that there will be brown leather armchairs, little circular tables, the coffee bar usually in the middle, a fridge full of cakes (the same cakes…) the same rather dated pictures on the walls, and even the same music playing at the same time of day in each store. You will also know the prices are the same throughout the country with the exception of those in central London and at airports, and that your loyalty card will work anywhere. If you pay attention you will notice that the staff will even say more or less the same things to you; the Six Service Steps we are all obliged to follow. You will be very familiar with the Nero logo, which is plastered all over each store, all over your cups, plates and bowls, the take-out cups, the take-out sleeves to stop you burning your fingers on the take-out cups, the take-out bags, the t-shirts of all the staff, the retail bags of coffee, containing the secret Nero Blend, all the cake wrappers and sandwich boxes, and even on the napkins.
(This film, incidently, was made for another coffee-related ESRC sponsored PhD project… I am not alone!)
The other thing that is identical in every Caffe Nero is the coffee – supposedly. Each new employee has to undergo “weeks of intensive training before being allowed to serve an espresso” (from their promotional leaflets). However, this intensive training does not include actually tasting the coffee. We are taught that if the right amount of ground coffee goes into the handles, and it pours for the correct length of time (a full ten seconds less than Pumphreys recommend), and it has a good crema on the top, then it is a good espresso and can be served. This is not a good argument however, because espressos can look very good but still taste awful. In my experience at Nero, I am in the minority because I actually drink the coffee there. Most do not touch the stuff.
With an not-so-great espresso base, the next step is the milk. In Nero, this is heated to 60 degrees centigrade/ 140 farenheit. We pump a lot of hot air into it, until in separates, with thin but very hot milk on the bottom, and a raft of thick, dry foam floating on the top.
From this, the cappuccino is made, to the Nero Way: 1/3 espresso, 1/3 hot milk, 1/3 foam. The foam is occasionally so thick it has to be spooned into the cup. It is then topped up with the hot milk until the foam bulges out of the top of the mug, in the trademark dome shape Nero prides itself on. Think muffin tops. I always ask for an extra espresso shot, because with this level of milk, it is often not possible to taste the coffee at all.
If the cappuccino does not look right, we are not allowed to serve it. I have actually had someone complain that she did not have enough froth on her cappuccino and I had to make her another one, heated even higher and with even drier foam. By this time, even I could smell that the milk was burnt, but this is what she wanted.
Overheating the milk is a cultural phenomenon, it seems. Try as we might, in this country we are still very much tea drinkers. When we drink tea, we make it with boiled water, then sit, chat and stir it until it is cool enough to drink. When we make coffee, we expect it to behave the same way. But it doesn’t. Tea needs the heat to infuse properly. Burning the coffee by brewing espresso at too hot a temperature makes it unplesantly bitter and metallic tasting. Heating the milk until is separates for a Nero cappuccino makes it smell of baby sick (yes, I have been able to test and research this claim as well recently) and lose its natural sweetness as well. Cappuccinos made at 50-55 degrees centigrade – which is the optimum temperature for both espresso and milk – is designed to be drunk as soon as it is made. Of course it goes cold quickly, but better that than burning it?
As I’ve already pointed out, Caffe Nero is a success story, it claimed record profits this year and has made a serious amount of money, very quickly, and all apparently by creating generic stores selling underextracted espresso and burnt milk drinks. But there is no denying that they “look” like good cappuccinos. Large chain and branded coffee have created this image of what an ideal coffee looks like in the UK, and if anything deviates from this, customers will not recognise it, and it will not sell, even if it tastes better. Which is what may have been happening at our independent cafe. For all the authenticity Caffe Nero claims: “The best espresso this side of Milan” for instance, or “A True Italian Coffee” they are still buying in to, and perpetrating this ideal of image and appearance over taste and quality. For as long as we consumers continue to buy these imitations, nothing is going to change. Which I think is quite sad really.