How to Make the World's Best Cappuccino
By Don Holly

Almost every time I turn around I see something claiming to be The World's Best: The World's Best Burger, The World's Best Amusement Park, The World's Best Cheese Cake. I would like to go on record with a sure-fire method for creating The World's Best Cappuccino.

To make The World's Best Cappuccino, you must start with an orchestra of coffees worthy of playing the melody of your drink. And, like the conductor of an orchestra, you will need to decide which coffees will play. There are several coffees in my inventory that want to perform, and they deserve to be a part of The World's Best Cappuccino. One of them is a Costa Rica Tarrazu, which offers a marvelous range of bright notes and balance. Also playing first chair is an Altura Mexico, an outstanding contributor to the base section. My Brazilian coffees really want to play, but every time I give them a chance they skew the rhythm, so I'll just have them sit out for now. There is a Zimbabwe that offers a wonderful quality--if used sparingly--and a Sumatra--usually a problematic coffee for an espresso blend--which really shines when brewed solo. It, too, will be asked to play.

After you have chosen the coffees for The World's Best Cappuccino, you must roast them with concentration and determination. I think it is best to start the process with a sacrificial roast. For this purpose, I use coffee that has been sitting forlornly on the shelf in an un-marked sample tray. As soon as the roaster is preheated, I pour in the coffee and roast it just beyond the second crack. I then drop the roasted coffee into a cooling tray. I control the temperature of the roaster with one of Carl Staub's little black boxes and set the temperature for the first phase fairly low, roasting the beans until they begin to turn yellow. For the second phase, I raise the temperature depending on the degree of roast I desire--the higher the temperature the darker the roast. Throughout the roasting process I carry on an internal dialog, attempting to guide each of the coffees toward its highest performance. I coax each one until it expresses its fullest potential, trying to give it the confidence to display its range and depth of character. I scold the coffee too, when necessary, reminding it that while it is important by itself, it must play in concert with others.

The order in which I roast the coffees varies from day to day. I know it is important to be consistent, but each day tends to suggest its own natural organization. The roasting process is like a dance, and I must follow a defined series of steps: measuring the coffee, loading it into the roaster, adjusting the temperatures, dropping the coffee into the cooling tray, and then, as soon as it cools, blending it with the other roasted coffees. Introducing the new coffee to the already blended coffees has become somewhat of a ritual for me. I have a tendency to be ceremonial, and when I merge the new roast with the awaiting coffees, I always stir a few times this way--then that--finally putting down the mixing container until the next batch is ready. The life force in the container becomes tangible--the anticipation I experience is similar to what I feel when I listen to an orchestra tuning up before a concert. I know I am finished when the tension is at its peak, and everything gets quiet.

Now go to your espresso machine with your newly created blend. Remove all the old coffee from your grinder, wash the hopper, dry it, and then pour in the coffee. Grinding a little coffee to season the burrs and freshen the grind hopper is another necessary sacrificial step. It also provides a good opportunity to check the grind. Making The World's Best Cappuccino requires you to employ the leveling method for measuring to distribute the dose of coffee into the filter basket evenly, so grind just enough to fill a double filter. Make at least two shots before tasting the coffee and setting the grind.

To make The World's Best Cappuccino, your equipment must perform at its optimum level. It should be sparkling clean--inside and out. The water should be fresh and your espresso machine at the appropriate temperature. Tamp the coffee firmly and uniformly, pull a shot and taste it for flavor. Use all of your senses to evaluate its worthiness for use in The World's Best Cappuccino. Remember that to be considered the very best you must meet high standards, so use criteria of the most exacting caliber for judging your espresso. In a great shot of espresso I begin to see the divine--all of nature's wonders at their most passionate and intense. If your espresso expresses itself in this way, then you are ready for the next step in the preparation of The World's Best Cappuccino.

Before the performance begins, you must reflect on your audience. You have constructed a blend of coffees that you think is best suited for the task of satisfying them, but at this point their interpretation is a critical issue. What you do and how you do it are not static phenomena; they are dependent upon who will drink the beverage, and under what conditions.

With this in mind, take a small pitcher firmly in your left hand and fill it with just enough cold, sweet milk to make The World's Best Cappuccino. Clear the steam wand of condensation and place it just beneath the surface of the milk and open the steam valve. Allow the milk to gather the air introduced by the steam vortex at the surface, lowering the pitcher as the milk volume rises. Then, when the pitcher begins to feel warm, submerge the wand so that the milk continues to rotate vigorously. This will mix the air into the milk, resulting in tight, silky foam. Do not heat the milk to a temperature at which you can't hold the pitcher anymore.

Quickly, extract the perfect shot of espresso. This should be easy. You have already built-up your confidence with your earlier work and made sure that the coffee and espresso machine are ready for their performance. Prepare the shot directly into a clean, warm cup--one designed specifically for holding The World's Best Cappuccino. Watch the espresso collect in the bottom of the cup, cheering it on as it spins its own designs and textures. Swirl the foamed milk in the pitcher --once, twice--and pour it into the center of the espresso. Let the milk dance upon the surface, forming a pure and pretty design. With pride and humbleness of demeanor and expectation, place the cup in front of your audience of one--the person you deem worthy of drinking The World's Best Cappuccino.

You will know you have made the World's Best Cappuccino when she says, WOW!, and hums while she drinks. The light in her eyes and the smile on her face are also sure indicators. Another good sign is seeing her lick the foam out of the cup (although it is a little embarrassing to witness this in a public place, no matter how gratifying). Of course, the highest praise comes in the form of a simple statement: "Do it again!"

Don Holly is the Administrative Director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. He can be reached at dholly@scaa.org

 



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