Coffee Myths: Part 3

Text by Gwilym Davies, Images by Zack Rosebrugh

Although the coffee industry has changed a lot over the last decade, with specialty coffee cafés coming to dominate cities across the globe, we nevertheless still carry with us some myths from the past. In the third instalment of his three-part series on coffee myths, Gwilym Davies of The Naughty Dog roastery questions the unquestionable. Buckle up!

The cappuccino is Italian

To say that the cappuccino is not Italian is a strong claim, and the truth of the matter depends on the point in history to which you are referring; the cappuccino is not really one drink, but rather an idea that has evolved over time, such that many different drinks now bear its name. One thing, however, is certain: The first iteration of what could be deemed a cappuccino was very much not an Italian enterprise.

When coffee came to Europe in the 17th century, it was initially drunk black, but eventually, Europeans began adding milk or cream. For the French, this was simply called a café au lait, but the Viennese were more specific, coming up with different names, de- pending on the ratio and colour of the brew. One popular shade was thought to resemble that of Capuchin monks’ robes, and the drink was therefore christened the kapuziner.

This drink spread to other coffee-loving cities in the Hapsburg Empire, including some in what is now Italy. It wasn’t until the advent of espresso machines in the 1930s that the name was Italianized, but even those early vertical espresso machines were not capable of producing the drink we think of as the cappuccino; they made a sort of intense filter coffee, and the machines’ steam wands were used to warm alcohol.
Illustration by Zack Rosebrugh for Standart Magazine exploring the question 'is capucino is Italian?'It wouldn’t be until after World War Two and the production of the piston-driven lever espresso machine—capable of making what we know as the espresso—that we would see the development of a drink resembling to- day’s cappuccino. The National Institute of Italian Espresso defines the cappuccino as consisting of:

100ml of cold fresh cow’s milk (3–5C), with a fat content 3.2–3.5 per cent, steamed until a volume of approximately 125ml and a temperature of approximately 55C is achieved. The milk is then poured onto 25ml of Certified Italian Espresso in a white china cup of 150–160ml capacity.

To anyone who serves me: Please note that there is no mention of chocolate in this definition!

In the 1960s, the Italian espresso machine began to spread throughout the world and with it, the cappuccino would be adjusted to local tastes (and rents). With the rising popularity of espresso-based milk drinks came an apparent preference for cappuccinos with lighter and frothier foam. What now passes for a cappuccino is so far removed from the above-mentioned Italian drink and so varied that I know people for whom the cappuccino denotes a mixture of instant coffee, sweetener, powdered milk, and foaming agents poured from a sachet!

While the origin of the name is not Italian, we owe the development of this milk drink to their espresso machines. The cappuccino has evolved so that it is now many drinks with the same name, some of which I would happily call Italian, others not. I mean, there’s just something wrong about conflating a 16oz, 70C, low-fat, double-shot, dry coffee with cinnamon with the Italian cappuccino. Or perhaps I’m just a snob... 

Tamping coffee requires 15kg of pressure

In 2008, that year’s World Barista Champion Stephen Morrissey saw me tamping, and asked why I was going in with so much pressure. I happily explained what I took for common knowledge: that in order to resist pressure from the espresso machine and minimize channelling, I had to tamp with at least 15kg of pressure—and I was confident in my ability. Six years earlier, I had practised tamping endlessly on bathroom scales until I could hit that number every time. Imagine my chagrin when by way of a simple experiment, Stephen showed me that tamping pressure had little effect on brew time. Mind blown. Shortly afterwards, Scott Rao came to the same conclusion in his book The Professional Barista’s Handbook. He said that differences in time were due to larger headspace at the top of the basket, and water taking longer to fill that gap.

This was a good time for my mind to be blown because I was in serious danger of blowing out my wrist. I was routinely swap- ping hands to tamp, and some nights couldn’t sleep for the pain. I should have paid more attention to Illy’s 1995 book Espresso Science, which makes it clear that the difference in ‘resistance between a loose bed and a weakly compacted one is large, but there is only a minor variation between weakly or more forcefully compacted beds.’
Illustration by Zack Rosebrugh for an article in Standart magazine asking 'how hard should you tamp?'
When, armed with this new outlook, I won the 2009 World Barista Championship, I was given a platform from which to try to stop baristas from injuring themselves as I had, and others soon joined the chorus. With the help of his refractometer, Tim Wendleboe confirmed what I knew, and by the time Socratic Coffee ran their in-depth study of the effects of tamping pressure, it was indisputable. Their study confirmed that tamping pressure in the range of five to 20 kilos yields no significant effect on TDS or extraction. Nevertheless, despite this consensus, I regularly encounter baristas who have been taught to tamp with too much pressure. The myth still persists on the ground—and it has to stop.

So: how hard should you tamp? Well, the actual pressure might not be so important; rather, focus on consistency, and making sure to break clumps on the surface and create a flat, level bed of coffee so that there is enough resistance to hold back the water until it fills the headspace between the coffee bed and the group head, before the espresso machine pump evenly pushes water through the coffee puck. Bonus words of warning: Trying to correct the angle of your tamp once you have already applied pressure may force grounds to rear- range and thereby create an uneven density, while pulling your tamp out too quickly can create suction, causing similar unevenness. Tamping technique is best when kept simple. Go in straight, come out slowly, and be gentle to the coffee—and to your wrists! 

Espresso must be drunk immediately

Long-accepted dogma dictates that filter coffee tastes better as it cools, but we have yet to consider whether the same is true of espresso. When we third-wave baristas started to realize that our hot espresso, drunk fast with crema intact, was disappointing in comparison to filter, something had to be done.

Ripples slowly began to form: When calibrating grinders, baristas would wait for espressos to cool for clarity, even pouring them into larger cups to dissipate the crema more quickly. In 2010, James Hoffmann wrote a blog post advocating letting espresso cool and soon, it was commonplace at barista competitions for competitors to ask judges to wait a while before tasting and evaluating an espresso.

It is difficult to pin down exactly why temperature affects the experience of drinking espresso; coffee is complex, and reactions are manifold. While being too hot or too cold can obscure some of an espresso’s subtler flavours, the increased sweetness and fruitiness we detect as it cools is probably not so much due to our taste buds adapting as to the evaporation of various volatile compounds, creating the impression of increased sweetness.

But it’s not all fun and games; a cooled espresso may divulge less desirable details, such as lower-quality green coffee, uneven extraction, or roasting issues like underdevelopment or baking. Sourness and astringency also intensify as coffee cools, so if those characteristics are present in your espresso, allowing it to cool will highlight them.
An illustration in Standart magazine by Zack Rosebrugh, asking the question 'does espresso need to be drunk immediately?'
I am not suggesting that a straight espresso should sit around and cool before reaching the customer. My expectation when I order an espresso is that it arrives promptly, and it is then my choice whether I drink it immediately or wait for it to cool. (Pro tip: if you expect an espresso to taste bad, it’s better to drink it piping hot!)

For how long should you let espresso cool before adding milk? The old rule was 10 seconds. I’ve no idea where it came from, and I shudder to think how many perfectly good espressos I threw away whenever there was a delay at the milk station. Now, I prefer it to sit for longer. I discovered this while training and judging barista competitors who would simultaneously pull four espressos, but steam and pour milk for two at a time. The second set always tasted better. Sweeter. Smoother.

'Her espresso sit for over two minutes, prior to pouring the milk. The drink was delicious. So much sweetness was coming from the coffee, and it had an enhanced clarity that shone through the milk.'

My preference was cemented when I judged the 2016 World Barista Championship, and French barista champion Charlotte Malaval let her espresso sit for over two minutes, prior to pouring the milk. The drink was delicious. So much sweetness was coming from the coffee, and it had an enhanced clarity that shone through the milk.

While I am sure that customers would enjoy milk drinks to be cooled for similar lengths of time, consistency of cooling time and speed of service would become difficult to manage. And besides, one of the lovely things about espresso is that it was made right there and then, just for me. It makes me feel loved.

Explore the world through coffee-tinted spectacles

Awarded 2017, 2018 and 2019 Best Coffee Magazine*, Standart is a well-curated, independent print publication that explores the beauty and diversity of coffee culture. 

It started with a simple goal in mind: to celebrate the culture of specialty coffee through a marriage of thoughtful writing and beautiful design. 

Every issue has 15 articles, stories, interviews or essays from some of the brightest minds in coffee, and beyond.

Subscribe now and receive samples of coffee from some of the world's best roasters with every issue. 


*, Sprudgie awards.