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Milk as a coffee collaborator

September 10, 2012

You could be forgiven for making the assumption that our shop would be anti milk; indeed we do recommend our filter offerings without milk.  Steamed milk however, can work so well with speciality espresso.  Add to this the overwhelmingly large percentage of milk-based beverages that dominate the espresso driven café market and milk can actually become a complimentary partner for the bean.

This is not to imply that there are no drawbacks to a milk-centric approach.  A milk-focused approach can lead to the judgement of quality centring on the symmetry of a rossetta, as opposed to that of the entire drink, of which the pretty pattern is just a finishing touch.  This makes every sense, as in so many commercial environments there is little interest to be found in the preparation of espresso - a boring darker espresso is used, grinders come with a ‘do not touch’ warning sign and shot buttons are set with an encouragement to press and leave.  Even as one moves into a more craft based/artisan setting, the tradition and institution of blends, the “great espresso is one thing” viewpoint means that interest often shifts over to milk preparation.  Many people are then rightly surprised when I exclaim that espresso is ultimately far more challenging and rewarding (for me) than the perfection of the pour.

However, in commercial speciality coffee environments an ironic role reversal easily occurs where little is made of milks potential as a coffee collaborator. Focus can shift over to a sole appreciation of espresso qualities, with the role of milk ignored.  In this instance fresh cold milk is indeed carefully textured and heated to 65 degrees or lower* and combined with a carefully prepared espresso. The result is assumed to be successful as the espresso was well made and the milk well steamed, but a cocktail made of quality ingredients can fail to be of quality in and of itself.  It’s about ingredients that work together – it’s about synergy.

My first competition routines explored this concept.  I brewed espresso with coffees that were stunning when cupped or filtered but didn’t suit typical espresso brewing so well. Interestingly, this could actually result in a beautiful cappuccino that shows great flavour and character.  The main tenant was that when building a milk and espresso drink, the espresso needs to be considered as one half of the whole if the finished drink is going to display character and flavour that makes the most of both ingredients.  This isn’t just about using a single estate coffee that struggles to balance as espresso**.  It also means considering a change in the recipe of an already successful espresso to be more effective when combined with milk.

In our coffee house it is something we are very keen to consider and communicate, how does a particular coffee taste with a particular milk? It definitely doesn’t just taste like the espresso plus milk. The two ingredients can come together to create a flavour experience unique to their partnership, not a mere 1 plus 1.  On our menu we like to display a separate set of flavour notes to represent the different tastes that stem from these combinations.

The idea of pairing specific milks from different breeds of cow and feed etc with different espresso is definitely worth pursuing.  We possibly do this already when exclaiming that a particular coffee works so well in milk, or do we really mean that it works so well with that particular milk?

A complaint I often hear from people whom have tried various milk drinks in many speciality stores is that they often taste very milky.  This naturally leads to a suggestion that a darker roast will work better in milk, and a misunderstanding that lighter roasts cannot be flavoursome with steamed milk.  In these circumstances there may also need to be a reconsideration of the ratios being used with different coffees and approaches. Our Latte is a double shot in a 9.5 oz cup which is a far stronger ratio than that of an Antipodean style latte - 1 shot to a 7oz glass.

In fact, milk based drinks are arguably our most successful in terms of a realisation of the different flavour coffee is capable of  “wow, this has a very unique taste, I really get the nougat flavour and something fruity as well, where is this coffee from?” A dialogue often starts from this point and an interest in espresso or filter is ignited where there was none before, or there is just an excitement to taste a different coffee with milk next time.  Either way this is great, the interest is centred on the taste of the coffee!

Although we have been careful to make sure this dialogue is not skipped by not focusing on ideas about what makes a “great cappuccino”.  Dialogue needs to be shifted over towards a discussion centred around “how this espresso” tastes with a “certain amount of steamed milk”. This is where presentation comes into play (this requires a separate article).

I wish not to suggest that I don’t see real value in concept coffee stores that focus on black brewed coffee alone or say espresso alone.  I do however feel that milk will be a big part of speciality coffees’ future, and that there will be various models.  We can utilise milks partnership with espresso particularly positively, making speciality coffee as accessible as possible.  If it’s on our menus, if we offer this combination then we should embrace its possibilities.

* There has been much discussion that cooler is better with suggestion that 65 degrees is itself a commercial compromise on taste, that cooler milk will be sweeter and provide better texture and quality. I am not so sure, I feel that in my experience going below 65 degrees allows the milk to dominate, that the uniqueness of the two ingredients union is less successful.

 * * Since using the LaMarzocco Strada (Red) this doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue. There is less of a worry as to whether a great coffee works as espresso and an ability to let the coffee’s character shine without acidity, sourness or astringency dominating is becoming more readily achievable. Espresso for us has become just another brew method rather than alluding to a more narrow group of coffees and flavours than filter (there are still exceptions, but considerably less).  The way we are currently brewing espresso results in more positive combinations with milk than before. We do still use different recipes where needed.


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