For over a decade I’ve been in love with a drink. I’m not a coffee expert but I know what Love is. In the presence of this drink, my heart tingles, my eyes glisten and I revel in possibility. Ecstasy is evident to anyone watching. My first sip is a pillow of thick, heavenly wet foam lightly kissed by a soft and smooth espresso flavor.
No latte art, please, unless you’ve perfected this drink, which I have finally realized is actually a deep-wet-foam latte. I've been mistaken all these years thinking I was in love with cappuccinos! It is a latte due to the size of cup (8-12oz) required to create the right ratio of milk/foam/espresso, and to have space for all that marvelous foam. Only a few art patterns are commonly possible on this type of drink: 1) an apple with a stem, 2) a circle with a small “stem” or 3) a big billowing heart reaching out to the edges of the mug. Typical cafe drinks these days feature latte art and a bitter, highly unpleasant first sip. Latte art is about decoration and appeals to the eyes. While I appreciate the skill it takes to create it, I want to enjoy the taste and feel of my drink. In his article Does Latte Art Make Coffee Taste Worse?, Barista Hustler offers his insight.
Foam like this must be poured, not spooned. It's too thick, silky and glassy with bubbles too tight to be spooned. When I see foam being spooned into my drink I know it's not up my foam alley.
This isn’t about right and wrong. It’s about preference. Still I will admit to being slightly bewildered as to why more people don’t ask for a drink like this in cafes. I’ve shared plenty of these with friends who enjoy the drink as I do, even though they may not moan blissfully at the sight of it. Is it because there’s no good name for it? Are baristas just not trained to make it? Is latte art such a big trend that even those aware of the exquisite taste of this kind of foam find it too steep an uphill climb to bring it to market?
Living in Chico after college, at least two baristas could consistently make the drink I love. Anytime I walked into my favorite cafe of many years, The Naked Lounge Chico, and saw Sara Baxmeyer or Josh Gladfelder behind the counter, I knew I was set.
At the time, the Lounge was owned by my friend Colby Barr, who went on to co-found Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz. Now wildly successful, Verve has locations in Los Angeles and continues to expand. Knowing Colby had an air of excellence about him, I interviewed him for my Upstate Business Journal column and learned about the rigorous, lengthy training baristas received at his cafe. One barista told me he got two full days of training on the wonders of microfoam, including specific training on pouring it thick and deep into a drink like mine. No wonder they had such pride handing me my drink.
Here's one sipped to perfection, with a pillow of apple-shaped dee-lish remaining as the very last sip. This is why the drink is sometimes called an Apple Style Cappuccino.
Moving southwest to Sonoma County in 2013, I thought I’d find this kind of drink common. It’s a foodie region with plenty of stylish cafes with talented staff using high quality ingredients. I was mistaken. Some of the cappuccinos (or deep-wet-foam lattes) I’ve had here have been to my super-liking, and for a while I even tried to convince myself they were great. But this was more a case of giving up on a dream than telling the truth. Even in the most hip and trendy cafes in Petaluma and Sebastopol, baristas generally either don’t know how to make and pour foam this way, or they are unwilling. Don't get me wrong; there are lots of gifted baristas here. And plenty of friendly ones too who are willing to give it a try without ego getting in the way. Leo at Le Marais Bakery in San Francisco's Marina district made me the best foam I've had since moving back to the Bay in 2013. Yet some baristas are clearly annoyed when I ask for deep wet foam with no latte art, and I really think it’s because they don't know how delectable it can be.
Few people actually know how to make this drink, therefore not enough people have experienced it to raise demand and make it more common.
It can be frustrating to want something that seems so doable yet is so rare. I came close to surrendering and simply ordering light roast coffee (also less common, as apparently the darker the roast, the easier it is to hide imperfections in the bean) and adding cream. Or a mocha, or whatever.
Below: another exquisitely made drink, sipped to the bottom, pillow of foam remaining.
But before choosing to fully surrender, I decided to visit Chico last week and film Sara and Josh on the machine. On my first morning in town, as Sara made my drink, my eyes filled with tears.
What!? Why am I crying? It's about passion, speaking up about what we want, and authenticity.
Watching Sara and Josh, I discovered that, as with making a perfect poached egg, technique varies. While Sara likes her milk pitcher cold, Josh says it doesn’t have to be. While Josh lets the pitcher sit and settle after he’s made the foam, Sara thumps and swirls it, pointing to two “peaks” in the milk that are a sure sign of foam well made.
Here's the drink Sara made for me, below. See how smooth and soft the taste must be at the edges? That first sip? Pure pleasure. Those bubbles? Super tight and glassy. Divinity in a cup.
I dream of a revolution in foam. Where thick, silky, billowing, deep, wet foam has a place at the table more often, beside its cousins in the latte art world. Where those of us whose lips, tongue and taste buds prefer deep creamy foam over intense espresso flavor rimming our cup, are honored too. Where cafe owners are willing to step off the trend mill -- I know, this is risky business, I am an entrepreneur too -- into less-known terrain for the sake of introducing something that would be new and very pleasing to many cafe customers. At least in this part of the world. Are there cities or regions out there where all I’m writing about is jibberish because this type of drink is super duper common? Fly me there now!
Below are some tips on how to make a deep-wet-foam latte worthy of the Foam Queen within us all.
* First be sure your espresso machine is cleaned daily and serviced regularly.
* Use a milk pitcher that’s cold and clean.
* Fill pitcher with very cold, or at least cold, whole milk, leaving plenty of room for it to expand into luscious glassy foam. Both Josh and Sara used a larger pitcher and filled it about halfway, leaving the rest of the space for foam.
* Foam for only maybe 3 seconds at the top and then go straight into working the thick bubbles out the rest of the time. Or something like that. See Josh and Sara’s videos for some expert action and specifics on two different techniques with some variation. Foam, werk-it, pour, deliver.
THANK YOU Josh and Sara for excelling. For bringing me drinks that make my heart soar -- and you KNOW they do -- all these years. There's been a Mark Rozelle in there and a Kyle and there've been others, but you two have been my long standing foam masters. And I am so grateful. .
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a lifelong letter writer, a mother, freelance consultant and eternal fan of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. This deeply personal blog and our recorded talks and workshops are devoted to one of her great passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.