by Bruce Milletto

I must give credit to the cappuccino for changing my life. In the late 80s, I was hopping back and forth between the U.S. and Italy. Each time I would arrive in this motherland of espresso beverages, I would anxiously await my morning stroll in whatever town or region I was visiting. Eventually I would wander into a "bar place" to have a wonderful pastry and the drink most patrons around me were enjoying—a cappuccino.

I was thrilled in the early days of the specialty coffee movement in the U.S. when I found an establishment—other than an Italian restaurant—that listed cappuccino on their menu. What I was not thrilled about was that each and every time I ordered one I was sorely disappointed.

Before I became involved in coffee, I assumed like most Americans that the coffee beans in Italy were superior. I was fully aware that the consistency of the milk in the U.S. was different and was usually prepared way too hot. But why was this drink so bitter here and so smooth and pleasurable in Europe?

In the early 90s, I began to import coffee and investigate and study American and Italian preparation techniques. What I discovered was the coffee beans in the U.S. were often of good quality. Young Seattle roasters such as Torrefazione and Caffé d'arte (then Caffé Mauro) were not overroasting the beans for flavor but were using age-old Italian techniques and blending to achieve the proper taste. At that time, many roasters had no comprehension of these techniques, and to compensate, they basically burned their beans to a crisp in their search for enough strength to hold up in milk drinks.

No matter how good the beans were in the early 90s, you still had about a two-percent chance of receiving a good drink–even in Seattle. If the coffee "pour" was not off (over- or under-extracted), then you could almost bet the steaming and texturing of the milk would be bastardized.

From my observations, I concluded that numerous factors are critical in the preparation of each and every beverage:

  • Beans must be properly roasted and blended to withstand the rigors of a professional machine.
  • The grind must be set so that the coffee does not extract either too fast or too slow. A proper pack in the portafilter is also necessary for the optimum 20- 25-second extraction.
  • Milk frothing (steaming and texturing) is a learned art. The person preparing the beverage must be conscious at each stage of the heating process to insure rich, wet creamy foam. Milk is generally expanded only to about 90 degrees; at this point the goal is not further expansion, but texture.

I still remember in the early days of our industry when a fellow teacher made the remark, "I would not feed that foam to my dog." I still smile when I think of this. It is because of the cappuccino that I saw an opportunity in the United States to help bring consistency and excellence to specialty coffee. Almost ten years later, there is still an incredible amount of work to be done. To order a cappuccino is still a bit of a crapshoot if you expect quality. However, the fact does remain that things are getting better here, and I must admit to some degree, getting worse in Europe. More and more superautomatics are being used abroad and our Big Mac philosophy of faster and cheaper has even touched the land of espresso and cappuccino purists.

I welcome the day when I can order a cappuccino without being disappointed or feeling the anger of having been ripped off. When the public becomes more educated and demands higher quality, I will no longer need to order brewed coffee.

Bruce Milletto is the president of Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup. He can be reached at ciao@bellissimocoffeeinfogroup.com.


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