When it comes to my espresso-based coffee consumption these days, I find myself drinking predominantly blends. There are a few main reasons, largely related to the challenges of consistent home espresso, however to be honest, I cannot say I’ve really missed chasing the next great single origin to any great degree.
I do like the inherent optimism in online dictionary definitions of blend, which go beyond the humble to mix:
to form a harmonious combination; to be an unobtrusive or harmonious part of a greater whole…
Sounds good to me, and that really is the key — while not all blends work, the ones that do result in something greater than the sum of its parts.
With every industry entrenched in social media and the internet these days, as coffee consumers we are often guided down the path of new and different. That’s often chasing a single origin, and increasingly these days it is produced using any number of unusual new processing methods.
While niche and interesting are great, and yes, I drink my fair share of those as well, might I suggest a well crafted specialty blend is equally as good, and in many cases better in certain ways than their component single origin parts. As always, flavour and enjoyment in the cup are paramount regardless, of blend or single origin coffee, however I think blends sometimes have an edge in getting there — particularly when brewing espresso at home.
The challenge of home
Brewing espresso at home is met with inherent challenges around consistency, particularly when the same coffee might only be intermittently consumed throughout any given week. It’s not so much the fact that a blend is necessarily more forgiving to dial in (though that indeed may be the case — even more so in a milk drink), rather the pattern of how I consume them.
As an aside, I thought this was a succinct and accurate definition of “dialling in” from Bean Ground:
Dialing in espresso is the act of calibrating your machine and grinder to follow a particular brew recipe. By manipulating the dose, time, yield, and grind size, you can align the parameters needed to pull the perfect shot of espresso with the coffee beans you’re using.
Sounds pretty straightforward right? Well maybe, maybe not…
So what does my typical coffee-day look like? It starts with one or two traditional cappuccinos before work, a pourover brewed into a Fellow Carter travel mug (for the mid-afternoon pick me up), and a trip to the office cafe mid-morning. Generally that’s a four day a week routine. Espresso? Well, apart from sneaking one in after work very occasionally, that leaves the remaining three days: a work from home day and the weekend when espresso itself is firmly on the menu as well. More below as to why this presents a challenge (though I also refer back to my intermittently consumed comment above).
The crux of the matter
Consistency, less waste, and no sacrifice in flavour or enjoyment. Noble aims in any coffee brewing endeavour. Thinking about my typical day above, being a milk is for morning type of drinker, a blend roasted for espresso lends itself well. The main development over the past year or so being I have increasingly used these blends for straight espresso as well.
Again it comes back to consistency, and the ability to tweak the grind and brew settings incrementally from day to day rather than having to dial in a single origin from scratch again on a Friday when I’d last done so the Sunday before. While aging is mostly the enemy here (the coffee, but ok… me as well I guess), other factors like the weather (I’m looking at you Brisbane humidity), and subtle changes in how the grinder might be behaving are at play. Depending on how those factors combine, that Friday can soon end up in the awkward: I’ve used more dialling in here than I’ve consumed scenario. Particularly when it’s taken three shots to dial in only to consume one, and repeat that over two or three weeks and watch that bag of coffee rapidly empty.
Now, although the espresso brew ratios differ for the morning cappuccino (1:1.8) and afternoon espresso (1:3), as the week progresses and tweaks need to be made with grind settings, by the time the weekend rolls around, I have a fair idea where to start once its time for one of those 1:3 lungos to exit the spouts. It’s an incremental adjustment rather than a baseline beginning from where I was a week before.
Consistency and less waste in brewing is one thing, what about quality and flavour? Well you’ll certainly find no arguments from me here. Of course, it depends on what blends and from whom you purchase them, however most specialty roasters are offering a number of blend flavour profiles, and its as easy as sampling each to find what you are looking for. Now although there is a view that a daily driver blend aimed at milk based beverages may not shine as an espresso on its own, I’ve generally found that not to be the case, and I don’t think specialty roasters really approach them that way either. To be honest I hadn’t really explored as many options as I should have prior to this point. There is something out there you’ll really enjoy, trust me.
Also, to acknowledge blends also can have their downsides (hiding cheaper or lower quality coffee, some may be uninteresting, not all coffees work well together) however I think most can be avoided if you purchase well. You know what? Ultimately it comes down to personal preference and your particular taste, as it always does.
So have I moved exclusively to blends as a result of the high praise above? No, not entirely, but I’m certainly drinking more (and more as espresso) than I ever have in the past, and I’m thoroughly enjoying them.
In wrapping this up, all I’d really like to highlight is that a well balanced, rich and complex blend has a lot going for it. While we all like to explore the tastes and styles of single origins and left field coffee processing methods, often times good and consistent over interesting might be exactly what we are after.
After many years dutifully following the “don’t even bother with the single basket” mantra in my home espresso routine, I began to increasingly lament the wasted shot from the other side of the spout at every push of the pump button. To confirm, yes — I’m a single shot espresso drinker. Always have been, always will be. Of course, the term “single” is a relative one these days, however I’ll get to that later. Suffice to say, I felt something needed to change in how I approach things from a waste and cost perspective, while preserving the quality, flavour, and respect for the coffee and those who produce it.
That being said, if you are happily capturing the full yield from say, a 16 – 20 gram dose in your cup and drinking the entirety, much of what follows is moot. Simply to say I acknowledge none of what I’m saying here is groundbreaking, nor does it apply to the majority of full yield-drinking home espresso enthusiasts out there (as You Tube and Instagram would seem to suggest). At the end of the day, writing a blog is perhaps just talking out loud to yourself anyway, which is precisely the case here.
In any event I will press on, and although things will inevitably continue to change, I think stepping back and looking at a few aspects of my “why” turned out pretty well.
As a brief aside, discussions around equipment and tools are very much point-in-time aren’t they? To say things constantly evolve is perhaps an understatement, given 12 months ago this looked a little different, and by the time I get around to writing a planned follow up post it will likely be different again. Thankfully though, the topic at hand is more enduring.
My puck preparation involves grinding into the Niche dosing cup, flipping that into the filter basket, palm tapping the side of the portafilter, performing the Weiss Distribution Technique (WDT) with a single “needle” followed by a Pullman chisel distribution tool spin (my use of this varies — somtimes yes, other times no), and tamping. The more you play around, the more you realise puck prep is such an important part of the entire process.
I run the Dual Boiler anywhere from 93 to 96 degrees celsius for darker to lighter roasts respectively, with preinfusion set at 55% pump pressure for 5 seconds, though occasionally will play around with this as well. When running longer (ie greater volume), faster flowing shots (lungo and beyond, “coffee shots”, “turbo shots” — see links below), this may run as low as 91 degrees, however we’ll go into that another day.
Dosing, basket foibles, grams, and spouts
I mentioned in the introduction of taking my espresso by the single shot.
When talking grams, a true single is really a double, and standard speciality coffee establishments would typically serve a triple shot. Then again, what is “true” here? My terminology here assumes we are talking the typical Italian style dose of 7 grams as our “single” unit of measure. My “single” has evolved into 13-14 grams (aka a “double” by gram weight), and the typical cafe serving of around 20 grams give or take, therefore approximates a triple shot by gram weight.
The whole single or double reference however (at least in my experience here in Australia), has generally involved a split shot from a dual spout portafilter. That is, do you want both spouts of this 20 gram dose or “just a single”. I think you get my drift here. For consistency and clarity, henceforth I will quote the dose I use in grams as we move through the post. Thankfully most of what you view or read online now has adopted the same approach in terms of gram weight descriptions. Three cheers for standardisation and consistency in terminology!
My filter baskets are of course matched to the relative doses, with a 14g (La Marzocco), 17-19g (Pullman) and 19-21g (Pullman) sitting by the machine. I must admit to keeping the ridged “single” basket which came with the machine from Breville, however it’s only use being to fit the blind filter attachment inside for cleaning. For a little further clarity, it is this ridged single basket that is the subject of derision and the “don’t even bother with it” mantra I mentioned earlier — not to be confused necessarily with a lower dose in a higher quality, gram-matched ridgeless basket.
To close this out: for years I’ve used a 19-20g dose and split the shot. One spout into my cup, the other discarded. More recently as part of this rethink, I’ve moved to a smaller 14g (ridgeless) basket, capturing the full yield into my cup. I’m now using this for both espresso (at 1:2 up to 1:4 brew ratio) and milk based beverages (usually 1:1.5 brew ratio) and couldn’t be happier with the result.
So there is the what, let’s get more into the why.
A changed approach
Waste. Cost. Conscience (though not entirely in a way you might think). The long term viability of this whole espresso set up. All of the above and anything else you might find in this post really. I guess it is sitting back and thinking about why I’m doing certain things and whether they can be done any better — or at least more efficiently, less wastefully, and with no loss in quality.
With a little thought, research and experimentation, the answer turned out to be yes.
The concept of wasting coffee is of course as much tied to cost as anything, however also bears an important discussion on its own merits.
I’m sure none of us set out to intentionally create waste in any aspect of our lives and this post is the outcome of realising I was essentially doing exactly that. Wasting a heap of coffee (and yes, money) with how I was approaching my espresso making at home. Arguably, the waste is a far more important issue, although sometimes it is the realisation about cost which nudges you to think just that little bit more.
While waste and cost may be inextricably linked, the moral to this story lies somewhere between experimentation, having an open mind, and questioning why you are doing what you’ve always done. Further, despite what you might think, your home is not a cafe – regardless of what you’ve spent(!) on equipment over the years. Generally, the only customer you might lose through experimentaton is yourself, and is a situation that should be pretty easy to turn around in a hurry…
It’s pretty clear that excess and mindless waste don’t quite fit in a world where sustainability and doing better for the environment are so important. As an individual, how much will my contribution of minimising waste make? Perhaps not much, I’d hope the little things do add up when each of us do our part.
A standard 250 gram bag of speciality roasted coffee. For arguments sake I’ll call it AUD$18.00 at current prices. If we are dosing our espresso at 20g then we are looking at 12.5 doses per bag. After dialling in and rounding, we are probably left with 10 usable doses per bag, or $1.80 per cup.
The key point to remember here is that for me, half of that 20g dose was going unused. My own fault entirely, however there isn’t another member of the household to utilise it, nor as I’ve said above would I typically use the full yield myself at any given time.
Well it’s sure cheaper than cafe prices! True enough, though a heck of a lot more goes into what you are served in that context, and it doesn’t absolve me from trying to do better at home.
Now, proceeding further into the weeds.
That same 250g bag of specialty coffee at doses of 13-14g will provide us with 17-19 doses. Give or take dialling in, lets say 15-18 usable doses per bag. Already we skip to 50% more doses, the entirety of the shot yield utilised, at a cost of $1.00 to $1.20 per cup. Nicely done.
What if we bought our coffee in a larger amount? Estimating costs for a 1kg bag of specialty at say $60.00 per kg we arrive at $0.92 per cup (at say, 65 doses after dial in). Finally, throwing in something from left field: Aldi’s Lazzio Medium Roast is $12.00 for a 1kg bag (There I said it. For milk based drinks, give it a shot. You might be surprised). That’s about $0.19 per cup.
It is here we proceed with a little caution. Should we be suspicious of larger scale production at cheaper, commodity level prices? What about sustainability, cheap labour and the like? All valid concerns, and I’m not about to propose any answers. To be fair, nor am I casting aspersions on anything or anyone in particular. These are simply considerations in this somewhat complex world we live in.
There is certainly a lot more to say about fairness in price in the world coffee market, however that is beyond the scope of this post.
Is this not the typical result of some type of existential thinking – bringing it all back to being about you, and whether “making a difference” is really just a way to feel better about yourself?
Yes and no.
Anyone with a passing interest in specialty coffee, let alone someone who might refer to themselves as an enthusiast, pays some attention to the plight of the coffee farmer, who typically is on the lowest rung of the value chain. Many are doing it tough, and climate change, fluctuating international coffee prices, and the effect of Covid certainly isn’t helping. As for the fairness in price issue? Another reason I’ve looked into utilising my coffee a little better. When you use a lot, it can get expensive, however cheapest may not always be the best option – particularly given this approach has its own issues as I’ve alluded to above. In view of that, I do try and support local specialty roasters who source quality coffee, which may be at slightly higher cost.
There we have conscience part one.
Part two? Well that relates to the guilt many enthusiasts, hobbysists, or whatever you may call your particular self may feel at any given time. None of this comes cheap, and we can, over the course of many years (or let’s face it – in an instant with a simple click), spend a significant amount of money on the “tools” that come with said passion or interest. That dedicated coffee bar; the need for an expensive grinder to do this espresso justice; the natural upgrade creep that occurs in rewarding your “skill” increments over the years; or just a shiny new thing that’s hot right now in coffee…
For some it might be jet skis, bikes, cars, or tech gear. Heck, it might even be some weird fascination with pens (go figure…). Suffice to say, that with every “yes” in this little world of my passion means “no” to something I could pay off faster, improve around the home, or visit with my family. Although, who is to say an espresso machine is anything other than a home improvement. Jokes aside, spending significant amounts of money affects more than just me, and is something which has weighed on my mind at times over the years.
The relevance of this sentiment here? Well, where opportunity exists to change things a little and the result is a more cost effective way of doing things, I see no reason not to try and do a little better.
Using it all
Use it all. Largely a message to myself. Do you need a fancy machine to experiment with dose, shot time and yield? Of course not. Remember most cafes you enter these days are still not pulling a minutely detailed flow, pressure or any other profiled shot. Some might be, they also probably have a better grinder, better water, and have dialled things in far better than our at home once or twice a day heat-up-the-machine-and-go approach. So many opportunities to improve if you haven’t got those things on point already…
So where did I end up? The turbo shot? Chasing the perfect lungo? Something in between? Well, any and all of the above. I’ll leave some links here, given the considerable discussion in the last 12-18 months about different approaches for both accessability (to newcomers in espresso), consistency, and as a beneficial flow on – sustainability (which is, well… for everyone’s benefit).
The links below contain information, concepts and ideas which mirror a fair proportion of where my experimentation took me, and I’ll have more to say in a follow up post. I’ve listed them here in the event they may be of interest, some of the videos are a little lengthy.
If I have learnt anything from this process over the past six months or so, it is to give yourself permission to do something different. The best part? At home, no-one can hear you scream, see your “that’s-lemon-juice!” face, or spit things out at the extreme under or overextraction that inevitably results from experimentation. Ironically there will be a little waste as you sort things out, the longer term gains will indeed be worth it.
Having written a couple of thousand words here, I do have more to say, and plan to run through a little more about why I’m particularly enjoying these new found brew recipes and approaches. After all, while less waste and saving money are indeed noble endeavours, they cannot come at the cost of taste and enjoyment, and it is here that I’ve had the most pleasant surprise…
After changing employers late last year and moving from Brisbane’s CBD, perhaps the only thing I’ve really missed (apart from long standing colleagues) is the abundance of cafes I no longer have daily access to. Although there is a cafe on site in the campus style suburban workplace I now find myself in, let’s just say it is likely not one I’d choose if my previous options were laid at my feet again. That said, I am appreciative of my mid-morning flat white (notwithstanding the inconsistency day to day), however truth be told the lactose free milk which sweetens the bitterness is probably what gets it over the line.
Being someone who typically prefers their brew unadorned with milk come the afternoon, the lack of available options leads me to roll my own. Enter the Fellow Carter Everywhere mug.
Why the Carter?
I must admit to being quite fond of many items in the Fellow range of coffee goods, which combine impressive aesthetics with sound, practical, and well researched functionality. My first purchase from Fellow was a Stagg stovetop kettle, which I enjoy using and gawking at each day, so when it came time for a travel mug, the Carter was always going to be a strong contender. After purchasing the Carter you see here about 18 months ago, I’ve been using it ever since.
When carrying a travel mug in my bag, I’m always a little paranoid about the potential for leaking disasters. To that end, one option of course is a full thermos, and one of the better ones I’ve kindly received as a Christmas gift in recent years is a model from the Zojirushi range. For reasons we’ll get to below, this does however create an additional step between carry and consumption, with my preference being to simply grab from my bag and get sipping.
Priority One: Heat retention
I’m sure I’m not alone in rating this aspect pretty highly when it comes to travel mugs. If I’m going to bother brewing a V60 during the pre-work rush hour at home, it needs to be hot enough to enjoy come the time for drinking. These days, this is anywhere between about 2:30 and 4:00pm depending on meetings. With brewing occurring around 7:00am, the heat retention requirement needs to span a good 6–9 hours or so. After that length of time I’ll say the Carter is hot enough without a doubt, and I’ve definitely been served batch brew at specialty coffee establishments which is cooler than what I am talking about here. If I was a legit coffee blogger, perhaps I’d measure the temperature and include it in this post, however I can say it is amply hot enough for me, though we’ll all have our own preferences here.
The Zoshirushi thermos I mentioned? Perhaps one of the only pieces of coffee consuming equipment I’ve ever burnt my mouth on a good 5–6 hours post brew. It is absolutely amazing, and if the sole criteria was heat retention — a winner hands down. The same goes for picnic trips in the car and the like. Though when we are talking priorities not absolutes, things become a little more competitive, bringing us to the next point.
Priority Two: Seamless utility
Right up front I need to include leakproof(…ness?!) here. As I’ve alluded to earlier the paranoia is real when carrying these sorts of things along with various IT Related equipment and a bag you are quite fond of. Secure seal over heat retention? Perhaps, however a nuclear seal with a lukewarm brew upon opening ain’t much good either. Here I get both anyway.
That “extra step” I referred to above? Well in the difference between pulling a travel mug (say the Carter) from my bag and getting down to it, versus a thermos which requires me to go to the kitchen to preheat a mug (yeah… I can’t not do it) adds enough of an extra layer to err on the side of the travel mug. Again, assuming priority one is met — it’s all good.
Sure, there are many questions as to why I won’t go the extra yard with a thermos arrangement.
How hard can it be? (Not hard, I prefer not to is all). Just use a small pour from the thermos to swirl and preheat the mug for the rest of the coffee! (Granted, a rational approach. However we hot desk and taking a mug is another item to carry each day – easy but doesn’t make the brutal necessity threshold when I have other options). Isn’t getting up from your desk and walking to the kitchen a healthier option? (Sure is, however I get up and walk at anytime, so refer to the answers to the previous two questions). Just drink from that well crafted mouth on the Zojirushi thermos! (Yes I could — but swigging from the thermos? I’m not an animal).
I have a million more of these which rolled through my mind prior to arriving at my current arrangement, and you’ll have a million more of your own. As you work through them I’m sure your final outcome will very likely differ to mine.
So to wrap up utility: I grab it, it hasn’t leaked, I open it, steam rises, I take a sip, and ahhhh… there it is, absolute bliss in a (travel, Carter Everywhere by Fellow) cup. Afternoon won.
Priority Three: Ease of brewing
Good old mornings before work. In the new way of working part of my week where my commute involves a stroll from the kitchen to my desk at home — no real challenges. Of course, those days don’t require the Carter at all, merely a few choices throughout the day between freshly made on demand (by yours truly) espresso or filter. On the other three days per week I do attend the office, an efficient brewing process leads to shall we say, a calmer mindset in the lead up to my morning departure. Although the V60 perhaps isn’t the ideal set and forget brewer (I’m in the process of investigating other options), for now it is the one tasked with the job.
The key point here being the ease of brewing directly into the Carter with the V60 sitting on top. Even more important? Pre-heating the Carter to within an inch of its life to minimise any heat loss and maintain that smile on my face many hours later. The process? Adding boiling water and closing the Carter lid for several minutes before brewing; proceeding efficiently with the brewing once that water is removed; brewing with hot water immediately off the boil; and heating the lid of the Carter on the open kettle during the final draw down of brew water.
Very hot now equals well and truly hot enough later.
Priority Four: Style
Who are we kidding? This is really number one, however I’ve put it down here so you wouldn’t judge me… Well sort of but not really. I’m not going to lie, it certainly is an important consideration, however in all seriousness doesn’t rate above those I’ve already listed. Regardless of how something looks, if it’s not a seamless fit, loses heat, and might leak — its a non-starter here.
That said, I do like the minimal aesthetic of the Carter, and chose the matte grey over black or white for a softer, “blend in” kind of vibe. Upon checking the Fellow website, there are certainly a few more colours to choose from these days. Hmmm… don’t mind that green.
In my ideal world, the overall profile would be a bit slimmer, however did I mention heat retention being important? I assume the thickness of the walls has something to do with that.
Priority None: Miscellaneous
Just a couple of other points here.
The Carter has a removable lid and you drink from a mug-style lip. I prefer that. Although we’re all adept at drinking from spout or hole-style reusable or single use takeaway cups, it has never been my preference. Each to their own, however it was a consideration which placed the Carter in good standing when looking at my options. Of course, any travel cup option has a lid which can be removed, however the Carter is designed to be used that way and in my opinion is a better option if that is your preference. Less exit points also equals reduced bag-spill paranoia because I know that lid is sealed tight.
A word on size. The Carter is available in 12oz and 16oz versions — I have the 12oz. I have a preference for the more compact versions of these types of things, and would buy an 8oz in a heartbeat if it were available. That said, as I have mentioned above, there is a certain thickness to this mug, which I assume relates to the insulated wall, and an 8oz version is likely to have a similar footprint anyway. Sure, it isn’t the 5oz Not Neutral ceramics I have at home and nor should it be. Don’t make an 8oz version Fellow — there is no need.
If anyone is interested, I brew straight into the Carter with the V60 using 15–16grams of coffee to about 260ml (just under 9oz) water. The bloom is 45 seconds, I use two subsequent pours with a total brew time of approximately 2:45 to 3:00 minutes.
Amongst other options are some contenders depending your preference, and in certain situations I use the Zojirushi thermos every time. If you have a strange desire to surprisingly burn your mouth 6 hours after brewing, pop the lockable lid and go to town on the Zojirushi’s sipping-designed wide mouth opening. A nice touch rather than the usual thermos opening, though please be careful — the heat retention here is somewhat remarkable.
Others I have used and can recommend giving a shot are options from Sttoke and Frank Green. With so many options around these days I’m sure you’ll find something that suits, but for now I think I’ll sit pretty with my current arrangement.
Wrapping it up
So much for a brief post on what I use as a coffee travel/work option, though these posts tend to take on a life of their own sometimes. I am glad there are some great products these days to take care of things when your coffee DIY option is more enjoyable (and generally cheaper) than a cafe counterpart. When it comes time to get sipping, at least you know what you are going to get.
Among the many things which have become apparent about our somewhat fragile existence in recent months, is that a reliance on far reaching and complicated supply chains should probably be questioned. Sure, this year’s iPhone may make it’s release date, and while I couldn’t source one of those from a local producer adjacent to the NSW – QLD border (wherever that may end up…), coffee is a different story entirely.
A few years ago I did a little research into which varietal my humble backyard coffee tree might be. Yes it’s arabica (which is the species incidentally), however here we are talking variety (or varietal) — the sub-species if you will.
Originating from a coffee plantation not far from my parent’s home in northern NSW, many of the varietals grown there were of the SL (Scott Laboratories) type. Trying to match my own tree aside, at that time from my reading, the local coffee production didn’t seem to be in what you’d call a buoyant phase. Although things seem to be changing, according to this article in Perfect Daily Grind, it seems an overall awareness issue remains:
Australian coffee has something unique to offer, but the local supply chain is somewhat disconnected. Many local coffee shops and consumers are unaware it exists in the first place, while buyers and roasters don’t know what production costs or the quality of what is produced.
Buy (and try) local
Of course we are not all home roasters seeking green coffee from local plantations, and to be honest, it’s easier to support local growers through local cafes, where retail stock may be on offer in addition to what you are sitting down to drink.
Easier again are the many more online options, for example the True Brew 100% Australian grown offering from Moonshine in the Byron Hinterland:
True Brew is a naturally (dry) processed coffee from the Mountain Top Coffee plantation, Nimbin NSW. Spray and pesticide free and low in food miles this is a coffee that tastes as good as it makes you feel.
(Incidentally, seeking Moonshine in person doesn’t require a trip to Federal in NSW — for those in Brisbane, you can find it at their new cafe under the Story Bridge).
Although much of the awareness of locally produced specialty coffee relies on cafe’s actually serving it, the only way that will happen is if we as consumers get behind it when it is on offer. So, on the rare occasion some Australian specialty is on the menu at your local — give it a try, I’d love to hear what you think.
Failing that, perhaps stay at least a little more local, and try coffees from Papua New Guinea or Indonesia (you won’t be disappointed with either). My standard home-roasted blend these days nearly always has a PNG sourced green from my local roaster as part of the mix, which also appears in many of their roasted blends which you can purchase online.
In describing what is far and away my favourite espresso-based milk drink, it would be easy to begin with recipes and numbers, and in beginning this post, is exactly what I did…
Five ounces — maybe six, of dense, textured silk on an espresso base.
I then went back and reviewed a few random notes I’d made upon thinking of writing about what I often find in my cup. Pragmatic and entirely logical they were not:
An angel in a cup guiding you to the bottom without ever letting go.
Unchanged from the first comforting sip to the last. A state of being momentarily removed from the world, or at least resolving any imbalance within it.
At its best, transcendent. An embrace of your very soul which leaves you buoyant, balanced, and with momentum to carry on.
Overstating things a little? Completely over the top? More than likely, however I’ve occasionally made reference to the simple philosophy that every day is simply a series of moments strung together. Life. The ultimate long-term project, with successful navigation reliant not upon completing each stage because they’ll fly by regardless — more so doing or being your best in each, and preparing as well as you can for the next.
In preparing for the next, sometimes a moment of escape and recharge is best found in a cup.
Humble? Yes. Standard issue — certainly no. I am talking here of the traditional cappuccino, what used to be the competition cap or indeed — as one favourite barista refers to it — the cappuccino Milano.
This particular cappuccino you see, has a dusting of nothing other than perhaps something a little magical. No chocolate on top. Espresso. Milk. Perfectly combined. That’s it. The very fabric, character and soul of the traditional cappuccino are in its simplicity. Thicker and creamier than a flat white by all accounts, denser and more compact than a caffè latte.
An Origin Story
The origin of the cappuccino? Here is where things can get a little hazy. The similarity to the hoods of the capuchin monks is probably the most often heard. The most accurate? Well it depends on how far you go back with your origin story. James Hoffmann, writing on the cappuccino (also with a certain fondness), points to the work of Professor Jonathon Morris and his research project The Cappuccino Conquests.
It is here we find the most likely origin of the beverage, which was the Kapuziner — coffee with cream and sugar (and perhaps spices) which existed in Viennese coffee houses in the 1700’s. As far as the modern iteration is concerned, things are well summed up on History of Coffee:
Cappuccino, as is written today, appeared for the first time in northern Italy in the 1930s. At first it was made in “Viennese” style – with a whipped cream which is sprinkled with cinnamon or chocolate. The steamed milk variant appeared later. The real espresso machines became widespread only during the 1950s and people started making cappuccino with espresso instead of standard coffee. In this form, cappuccino is known around the world from that moment on. “Kapuziner” still exists unchanged on the Austrian coffee menu.
So whether you take the view the original cappuccino was the first one made with an espresso base, or something much older (and perhaps closer in form to the chocolate dusted version of today) is up to you. Upon reading the post I’ve quoted above though, it does bring back childhood memories of Vienna coffee being on the menu of many a late 70’s and 80’s cafe I visited with my parents.
So why the love?
Firstly, it isn’t about the caffeine. This is simply my favourite drink to greet the day, of which I’ll consume one each weekday morning and the occasional cappuccino riot on a weekend may be a few more than that, because… well… it’s the weekend. Some of this will be tweaking grind settings or recipes, and/or simply because “that was so good I think I’ll have another”.
I must admit to occasionally utilising another power of the espresso based milk drink — certainly not unique to the cappuccino — which is for the late afternoon snack replacement. A strategy not designed as part of any fad diet (nor am I recommending a cappuccino fast). You know, the workday is nearly over, you’re a little tired, perhaps slightly peckish, and it’s just not worth going out and buying food — and besides I don’t know what I feel like eating anyway… At that particular moment, a good old cappuccino (or similar) will at worst significantly improve your situation, or at best definitively resolve it.
A One & One with a traditional cappuccino at Strauss in the Brisbane CBD
So is it really any better — or much different you might ask — to a flat white or latte? If either of those drinks is your preference then no, however for me, there is something unique about both the expresso/milk ratio, and the texture offered in a well made cappuccino compared to the others. Mainly the texture. You will find any number of recipe guides and infographics online, however I’d agree with James Hoffmann, in that many of these are perhaps a little misleading and the specifics probably technically incorrect. On this point I’d encourage you to read the post, for only one of us is an expert on these things, and it certainly isn’t me.
Ask any barista how they make their cappuccino, and you will likely get subtle variations based on preference, philosophy and the particular coffee being served as the base for the drink. Ask any amateur, and you may get a certain answer, with additional variation in technique consistency and perhaps equipment compromise.
Any given morning at home
In any event, my personal brewing technique involves an espresso made to approximately a 1:1.8 ratio (18–20 gram dose; 34–36 gram yield), splitting the shot with one side into a demitasse espresso cup and the other into a 4.5 or 6 oz cappuccino cup. I’ll usually consume the espresso as well (yes, my favourite one and one combination), or at a minimum, taste it to assess how the extraction went.
Although I do love great espresso as much as the next coffee nerd, I guess my fondness for the cappuccino is all about what comes next (assuming of course we’ve done a decent job of that initial extraction), with the densest, creamiest, silkiest milk I can muster. This of course, is the key to the kingdom. The doorway that opens up milk beverage nirvana. This is not a flat white with a little more foam. This is a thicker, well mixed crescendo of espresso and milk, the density of which increases towards a good centimetre or so of dense capping with enough thickness and surface tension to provide the hint of a dome on top of the cup. Those hollow frothy mountains were indeed left behind some 15–20 years ago (mostly).
The exact recipe is not really important – what makes it up in its entirety is. I know I’ve been successful if the density and mouthfeel of that creamy espresso and milk mix is carried right through until the last sip.
As I’ve mentioned, I love my espresso as much as the next guy at the bar, however I find there is nothing quite as comforting as the humble — yet well made — cappuccino.
Writing here, I share a few things I enjoy and perhaps poke fun at myself a little while doing it. Perhaps I’ve laid it on a bit thick in the early stages of this post, however when all is said and done, there really is something to be said for the simple things we love and why we love them.