How many times have you heard someone say, “It’s a great coffee shop! They have latte art!”? We hear it all too frequently, and so, here’s our case for the promotion of good milk vs. latte art. The ability to identify “good” milk will progress your journey towards becoming a coffee connoisseur and help you discern a good shop from a great one!
While we are advocates of latte art, good, properly steamed milk is where it all begins. If you are served latte art in your drink at a local shop it usually means that they know what they’re doing, but that’s not the whole story. When milk is steamed it goes through several processes making its way to what we call “micro-foam.” In the hands of the barista there is a period of time where air is introduced into the milk via the steam wand, which can create some larger sized bubbles. The baristas job is to use the steam wand as a tool to whip those larger bubbles down into a silky looking, thick micro-foam. Chemical changes are occurring in the milk as well. The lactose and proteins in the milk are changing into different structures, one being the well-known sucrose, which helps the milk taste sweeter. If the milk gets too hot, about 170F, these changes turn into more sulfuric compounds, causing the milk to taste ‘burnt’. Once the milk is steamed to the perfect temperature and the perfect consistency, the barista can use the foam developed in the steaming process to make something extra appealing on the top of your beverage. However, what you may not know is that if the micro-foam is thin the barista can still pull off some great art. Sometimes it’s even a little easier to make extra pretty designs out of ‘thin milk’ since the foam will be easier to manipulate for the artist pouring it.
Above: Notice the milk on the left is thinner, has less foam, but still has a good consistency. The milk on the right is what we refer to as good milk, it has a the consistency of micro-foam with the proper thickness. Smooth and sweet!
So now that you’re informed take a deeper look next time you’re at your favorite shop. Does the art look good? Great! The next level to look at is the thickness of the foam. Make sure it’s nice and thick. An easy gauge would be the thickness of your pinky finger. If it’s only as thick as a piece of cardboard they didn’t quite nail it. Did they serve it to you in a glass? That’s even better! They’re offering some transparency for you to delve into the quality yourself. Look through the side of your glass and check the thickness of the foam in addition to the art. Lastly, remember to always be nice to your barista, they’re often trying to perfect their craft. We just wanted you to have a tool to weed out the ‘looks good’ vs. ‘is good’. Now go drink coffee!