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By: Simon LeMay 14 June 2019
If you walk into any café, bar or restaurant, a cappuccino is likely to feature on the menu. This popular espresso-based drink is thought to have originated in Italy and is traditionally made with a double espresso and steamed milk. Its name comes from the Capuchin monks due to the colour created by mixed espresso and milk matching the colour of their robes.
Wherever you are in the world, you’re probably never too far away from a cappuccino!
But as discerning coffee lovers may find, ordering a cappuccino in different cafes can mean very different things. It has pretty much been open to the interpretation of whichever establishment it is served in with the size of the drink/how the milk is foamed (as well as how much milk is used)/served with chocolate or without etc all having a real impact on the experience of the drink. Many shops that open now are so confused about what each drink should be that they simply revert to two choices: espresso or espresso with milk!
So, for anyone ordering or trying to make their own cappuccino, it can be hard to truly know exactly what one should look like.
But fear not, we’ve pulled in the help of our experienced Baristas, resident Q Grader and coffee roasters to get to the bottom of how to make the perfect cappuccino every time.
A cappuccino is made with espresso and steamed milk. It should be smaller than a latte to deepen the flavour and the milk should be textured slightly more to create a unique mouthfeel.
As always, with specialty coffee, the aim is to celebrate the quality of the base product…this means no chocolate sprinkles or added syrups! The overall taste should highlight and showcase the true flavours of the coffee.
If you prefer your coffee sweet, then specialty beans are for you – with low bitterness and high levels of sweetness (thanks to the presence of acidity and inherent flavour) you should experience a smooth and rich taste with no need to add sugar. Colombian or Peruvian beans would make an excellent choice to start with, offering ample sweetness and flavour whilst retaining the crucial balance needed to pair well with milk.
Speaking of milk, it should be thick and foamy but still creamy with that crucial microfoam. Its role is to complement the espresso and not to mask the coffee which means the volume of it should be carefully considered. Sadly, many shops serve larger drinks to dilute the flavour of the beans they are using which tend to be lower grade and over roasted to mask any unpleasant flavours or taints. The result can often be that the milk dominates the end taste, hiding the bitter commercial grade coffee. In our opinion, this is the problem with many coffee menus which can appear to be over complicated as the difference between the many drinks available becomes less and less evident.
So, how do you make the perfect cappuccino? The first step is to select high-quality coffee. If this is your first foray into specialty grade coffee then start off with our house blend, The Docks, as this has been put together to provide a coffee with plenty of depth of flavour and balance with notes of chocolate, toasted nuts and stewed plums.
The industry recognised size for a cappuccino is 6oz and this combines a double espresso with textured milk and around 1cm of microfoam on top (around 1 third espresso : 1 third steamed milk : 1 third microfoam). Many on the high street will be much larger (often up to 10oz) but we find that at those volumes, the ratio of milk to coffee is too large with the flavour of the coffee drowned in the milk. This is essentially not a cappuccino.
As a result of the many different interpretations of what each coffee drink is, there is a lot of confusion about the subtle, and not so subtle differences between milk-based espresso drinks. Although cappuccinos, lattes and flat whites are all born from espresso shots with added milk, they are in fact very different drinks, with people usually having a clear preference.
If you prefer a larger coffee beverage then order a latte. This will give you the largest volume of milk to coffee and is essentially a double espresso topped with steamed and textured milk and finished with latte art. Lattes are generally served at between 8-10oz.
Cappuccino is generally served at between 6-8oz and is a double espresso topped with steamed and textured milk with around 1cm of microfoam on top – there should not be latte art served on a cappuccino as it is traditionally finished with a dollop of creamy microfoam known as a ‘monks head’. Crucially, if it is specialty grade coffee, leave off the chocolate sprinkles 😉
A flat white should be served at between 5-6oz and is a double espresso topped with silky textured milk finished with latte art – there is slightly less milk in comparison to a cappuccino with a flatter top to it due to less air in the microfoam.
You’ll need the following equipment:
The two skills you need to perfect in order to make a cappuccino are pulling espresso shots and foaming milk. Both the quality of the espresso and the way the milk is steamed will influence the overall taste and texture of the cappuccino.
To make the best cappuccino, the espresso shot needs to be accurate and well dialled in. Grind your beans and weigh them. It’s always worth using digital scales to help weigh your coffee. Although this may seem a bit excessive, the tiniest of differences in the amount of espresso will have a big impact on the final taste. Considering the espresso will influence the taste of the drink, we need to do everything we can to maintain the highest quality (oh and it is not as hard as it sounds!).
Carefully measuring and weighing your ground coffee also means you can control consistency – something really important if you’re serving cappuccinos in a café.
Now it’s time to pull your shot of espresso.
Place the portafilter (filled with ground coffee) into the espresso machine.
Depending on the espresso recipe you are following, the time to pull the shot will vary. This is really important as this massively impacts the rate of extraction – too long and your espresso will be treacle like with heavy bitterness throwing off the balance, too quick and you will have a watery espresso with heightened sourness and a lack of body.
There’s no blanket rule for how long it takes to pull the perfect shot of espresso and it will differ from coffee to coffee but you should be able to see visually how well the shot has been pulled – if in any doubt, have a quick taste and you will soon know. Generally speaking (and this varies for the machine you are using) a double espresso shot with a starting weight of 15-19g should be pulled in around 25-40 seconds yielding a dose of 30-40ml espresso.
So, you should now have a great shot of espresso.
Steaming the milk (to create the thick, foamy texture) is a skill that will likely require a bit of practice.
Fill your pitcher to the indent made by the spout and place the steaming wand just below the surface of the milk. Turn on the steam and keep the wand submerged before carefully starting to move the pitcher down the wand to allow the tip of the steam wand to sit on the surface of the coffee. You should now hear subtle and gentle hissing noises – this is air being added into your milk. Submerge the wand into the milk again and keep there until the pitcher has reached the right temperature (between 55 and 65 degrees C). You will see the volume of the milk will have doubled and should appear to be glossy with the viscosity of white paint.
Before pouring your milk into the espresso, tap it on the counter to release any bubbles, delivering a smoother texture in the cup and give the jug a swirl to combine the microfoam and the wet milk. The milk should have a beautifully shiny surface (another reason not to put chocolate sprinkles on it!)
Once you’ve steamed your milk, it’s time to pour it over your shot of espresso to create the classic monks head design.
Watch the video below, illustrating the steamed milk being poured onto the espresso.
Tip – Before you pull your espresso shot, pour hot water into the cup that you’ll be drinking from. This will warm the cup up and mean that you don’t need to heat the milk excessively to maintain a hot drink. This means we can keep a lot of the sweetness in the milk, improving the final taste. Over-heating milk to create a hotter drink is likely to impact taste (burnt milk isn’t the best taste when you order a cappuccino).
Check out the video below showing a cappuccino being made at the café in Leeds Docks.
To make a cappuccino at home, you’d simply follow the same steps above. Ideally, you’d need an espresso machine. Creating strong coffee shots using something like an AeroPress could be worth a go, but it’s never going to be the same as a true espresso-machine made cappuccino.
Although there are many bean-to-cup machines available for home use, sadly you don’t have the same control over grind size that you would by having a separate grinder and espresso machine. You will also find that the pressure created in these machines does not match that of a commercial style machine meaning it is really hard to replicate your favourite coffee drinks from your local specialty coffee shop. To do so, the La Marzocco Linea Mini really is the best machine on the market for making espressos and milk based coffee drinks at home. The technology and build of this machine mimics that of some of the best commercial machines available whilst being an appropriate size to sit on your kitchen worktop.
If you have any questions about the cappuccino or any other coffee drinks/espresso machines then don’t hesitate to get in touch!