The shrinking of the American latte

With my business based out in the far suburbs of Houston I am on the front lines of modern American coffee. This puts me at a disadvantage in some ways, since a well-informed urban coffee drinker is going to feel instantly at home with my beans. At the same point, I love getting to be the one who guides someone out of the dark and sugary drinks into something more exciting. Or even enlightening those who resisted the Starbucks craze entirely and are still buying the red can at the grocery store.

So I thought I would write about the changes that have happened in espresso milk-based drinks in the last 10 or so years, and more importantly, why these changes have happened. A typical modern espresso drink is small, the espresso-to-milk ratio is higher, and often the shot uses more coffee than before. Starbucks uses 12-oz, 16-oz, and 20-oz sizes. A quality-focused shop is unlikely to have anything larger than 12-oz. The giant foamy lattes and cappuccinos have been replaced with macchiatos and cortados. The lattes and cappuccinos are still on the menu, but they have also changed to be more espresso focused. The other major difference is that there is much more care given to the quality of the steamed milk. It is a complicated subject, but in essence the focus is on using the mouth-feel of the milk to compliment and enhance the espresso shot, rather than hide it. This involves getting the foam on the steamed milk just right (it is also required to create good latte art).

A beautiful Cortado from Boomtown Coffee in the heights.

A beautiful Cortado from Boomtown Coffee in the heights.

But, why have espresso drinks started to evolve? I think the major reason the drinks have changed is because coffee bean quality has gotten better and the average American roaster has access to far better beans then they had 10-15 years ago. This change has allowed espresso roasts to evolve from dark and bitter to more nuanced and sweet. Also, the trend is to lighter roasts, which require more delicate preparation. In other words, the new espresso blends would get lost in a cavernous 2nd-wave latte (and yes, I know that calling a 16-oz [grande] cup cavernous is a bit ridiculous, but is shows how far we have come). Besides the flavor of the straight espresso is now exceptional so there is no need to hide it. The best espresso-based drinks are a marriage of milk and coffee that highlights both.

In preparation for our upcoming coffee shop we have been spending a lot of time with espresso. And I have been able to fine-tune my Handlebar Espresso Blend to work best in these smaller drinks. By far, my favorite preparation of our espresso is a double shot cappuccino. That is, a 2-oz shot of espresso with 4-oz of steamed milk. The natural fruity sweetness of the coffee blends perfectly with the sugars in the milk to produce an almost dessert-like decadence. I can't wait to share this with you when we open our shop. You won't believe that there is no added sugar in it.

To help you out, here is a brief glossary of espresso-and-milk drinks based on how we plan to prepare them in our shop.

1. Macchiato- a doubleshot with 1 oz of steamed milk. 2:1 ratio.

2. Cortado- a doubleshot with 2 oz of steamed milk. 1:1 ratio.

3. Cappuccino- a doubleshot with 4 oz of steamed milk. 1:2 ratio.

4. Latte- a doubleshot with 8 oz of steamed milk. 1:4 ratio.


Bryan HibbardComment