Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >
May 4, 2011 01:48 PM

Coffee Talk [moved from San Francisco board]

We hit several cafes in SF over the last week on a visit and the SO (who's the budding coffee-file) found the (Four Barrel) capuccino he had at Jane to be the standout. He liked the crema on it, FWIW, as well as the flavour. I think he also enjoyed that the female barista sniffed his cup before handing it to him -- when caught to rights, she sheepishly and rather endearingly noted that that's how she knows she's pulled a good shot.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Crema is the layer of emulsified oils that tops a well made espresso, not the textured milk on a cappuccino. Once you've added milk to a shot of espresso, the crema is pretty much impossible to distinguish.

    17 Replies
    1. re: TopoTail

      So topo, what is the brown stuff on top of the milk foam? As I said, I know nothing about coffee, including what makes a coffee-file, or -phile. I am going to enjoy the smells around our house as he tries out the four pounds of beans he brought home, though (Four Barrel Brass Tacks, Ritual Spring Break, Sightglass Owl's Howl and De La Paz Perfume V).

      As for being caught sniffing, I don't think we've ever noticed a barista stopping to smell the coffee before. It was more her reaction to us noticing than anything else that was kind of amusing. Makes a lot of sense to take a sniff.

      He didn't try the syphon or any of the other "devices" -- between cappucinos and the odd straight espresso, he was pretty wired for the six days we were visiting. Next time...

      1. re: grayelf

        >>> what is the brown stuff on top of the milk foam?


        I always assumed it was some of the espresso that mixed with the foam.

        In the first photo, that is crema. The second cappuccino photo has some art done ... and it was done so well the design lasted until the bottom of the cup.

        Sorry, folks, not SF coffee, but just an illustration of crema

        1. re: rworange

          Yeah, I was assuming that the coffee on the left wasn't Berkeley Saul's

          1. re: wolfe

            Heh ... if it was that would probably be scum floating on top.

          2. re: rworange

            There is no crema in the espresso on the left, unless you count the tiny amount around the edges. If you can see the surface of the coffee in an espresso, you should send it back. If the beans are fresh and the barista knowledgeable there will be a thick layer of brown foam (crema) on top of the espresso such that if you add sugar the crema will support the sugar for a second or two before it falls through to the bottom.

            This is not negotiable! Crema is a sign that the oils in the coffee have been emulsified and if that doesn't happen, it ain't espresso.

            The photo on the right shows "latte art," which involves pouring properly textured milk in such a way that the milk at the beginning combines with the espresso and the last bit of textured milk doesn't combine with the espresso and retains its whiteness.

            Joseph John of Josuma Coffee explains crema's significance nicely here:


            1. re: TopoTail

              It ain't expresso. It was a regular cup of coffee ... weil, actually a Guatemalteco.

              It was an indication of what crema is like. I don't drink enough espresso to have a photo of one with good crema.

              Whether or not anyone agrees, from the minute number of quality coffee roasters here ... really, really, really minute .. processing a cup of Guatemalteco is similar to the espresso process so there is a crema on it.

              Usually a Guatemalteco will have more crema than the photo and the surface will be covered. It is just a lot thinner than the crema on espresso. I have a few photos somewhere but I haven't processed them yet.

              A Guatemalteco is NOT an Americano (espresso with water added). There will be both on the menu.

              As to to the details on how this is done ... my Spanish wasn't good enough. However, I've been meaning to stop by the one decent chain that makes these in Antigua, so I'll pay attention to the process.

              Nice link and photo of espresso crema.

              Also interesting about latte / cap art. I had never thought about why the foam was brown before.

              1. re: rworange

                Okay rworange, you got me. What is a Guatemaltico? Is it made with an espresso machine?

                Re latte art, it's a frill and doesn't affect the taste of a latte or cappuccino. But pouring latte art does require that the milk be properly textured, so that the steamed milk has been transformed into a liquid velvet with a uniform texture throughout. And proper texturing of the milk DOES affect the taste, or perhaps I should say the mouth feel of a latte or cappuccino.

                Sometimes you'll see baristas enhance the look of latte art by adding powdered chocolate to the mix, but the purists wouldn't go that route.

                1. re: TopoTail

                  What TopoTail wrote is correct. A few things to add: textured milk (microfoamed or stretched milk) should without a doubt NOT be like stiffened egg whites. That is just nasty. Properly stretched milk should have the natural sugars caramelized and have a velvety smooth texture. Lastly, a cappuccino should be about 6 ounces. Most cafes make cappuccino's in 10+ ounce cups. That's a fact, it is bigger than a latte so it is truly a latte (milk only) and not even a 'cafe latte.'

                  1. re: 12172003


                    I don't want to get off topic for SF. The original intent was just to give an idea of crema. As I said, I need to clarify this as my long conversation with a barista had gaps. When I find out, I'll post on the South America board and link back here.

                    I appreciate good coffee though I don't get too 'serious' about it. However, regarding the 6 oz cappuccino ... the photo below is what is served at the majority of Guatemalan cafes and restaurants when a cappuccino is orderd.

                    A damn coffee parfait.

                    Shoot me. Shoot me now. A year of this.

            2. re: rworange

              Ha, even I know enough to send a cappucino back that has cinnamon added unbidden. I meant the brown slightly oily-looking stuff between the 'leaves' and around the edges of the art. Here's a pic of the capp at Jane I was talking about, just for fun.

              1. re: grayelf

                Crema shouldn't look like a scone either (sorry, couldn't resist that one. There is some coffee in the corner of that scone pic)

                Crema can form at the top of any coffee drink, in theory. In the case of coffee, it's usually left behind wherever it was brewed, and is lost on the way to the cup. With Espresso, the Crema is indication of technique that allows you to gage the shot you pulled. Crema isn't to be mixed up with the Capp on a Cappuccino, which is meant to have a practical purpose of sealing in the drink too.

                1. re: sugartoof

                  Heh, I noticed that the coffee gets cut in half unless you click on the pic, go figure. It was an outstanding espresso-based caffeinated beverage, no matter how poorly photographed. I do think the barista was a big reason why, as I have had Four Barrel elsewhere that we weren't too keen on.

                  1. re: grayelf

                    I agree about Four Barrel. It's one of the only roasters where I prefer their blends over single source when roasting at home. Brass Tacks is full proof, where the other beans are much harder to work with.

                    1. re: sugartoof

                      Since this got moved out of the San Francisco section, I felt I should qualify that comment is not geared towards the Four Barrel offerings outside the Bay Area.

            3. re: grayelf

              When I make my single-drip cups of coffee, most of the beans I use form a crema just from the vigorous pouring of hot water on the freshly ground beans. It breaks down over a few minutes and certainly is lost or left behind as the coffee passes through the grounds and filter.

              1. re: twocents

                Exactly If you stir, while giving quick pours and do it in sections pausing, it will usually create that crema effect. No idea if it's scientifically crema, but it's nice.

                1. re: sugartoof

                  If you heat water in a microwave for two minutes, then add Nescafe, you willl also get the crema effect.

          3. I don't know why one would be "caught" sniffing. You can't taste your finished work, and you need to know if it's right - a good sniff tells much of the tale. I was hanging out at Dogwood in Oakland last weekend, and the bartender sniffed every drink, instead of doing the straw-taste dance. I think it's a great process.

            4-barrel is very fine beans. Although, I might sniff down my nose at anyone who drinks capuccino and calls themselves a coffee-phile. Drawing shots for capuccino is just different, like enjoying bourbon neat vs bourbon ice cream.

            Did your SO do the syphon at Blue Bottle? I find the syphon to be sweeter and smoother, but arguably with less character - ie, the syphon stands on its own, and would get lost in a capuccio.

            6 Replies
            1. re: bbulkow

              Capuccinos are standard competition drinks at barista competitions where coffee snobbery is unmatched. Lattes get mocked, but it's difficult to pull a consistent capp.

              1. re: sugartoof

                I just said a cap is different, and I'm a huge fan of bourbon ice cream.

              2. re: bbulkow

                Real coffee-phile drink espresso, eh? That reminds me why I disliked this topic when it was first posted.

                As sugartoof notes, the barista world takes caps seriously. If you really wanted to use a correct analogy, espresso is bourbon neat, caps are bourbon on the rocks.

                1. re: rworange

                  Hi, rworange,

                  Maybe it was the wrong choice of me to title the thread "Serious" coffee. Coffee seems to be one of the subjects that seems to inspire a lot of tribalism about just what "coffee" is. Clearly my own focus is on brewed coffee; many mean espresso only; still others are focused on coffee+milk drinks. Even within the coffee we have fundamental differences on roast styles, etc.

                  The internet certainly does inspire a little more fussiness and attitude than real life, but I hope that this thread overall was worth it.

                  1. re: twocents

                    Yeah, there's lots of good info in the thread.Sometimes people take coffee too seriously ... though after a year in Guatemala, ironically, I'd kill for some serious coffee.

                    Went to a joint in Antigua this morning which occasionally imports the good stuff ... Four Barrel. A Stumptown poster was on the wall.

                    While I've never learned to appriciate black coffee, the Americano with milk was quite good ... and part of that was not only the bean but the way the guy pulled the coffee.

                    So as this thread has repeated, a good bean can be ruined by a bad barista and a skilled barista can get the most out of what they have to work with.

                    How desparate am I now for serious coffee? I had a mocha as well ... actually went thru the whole menu ... and raved about the chocolate. I asked what it was . It was imported chocolate syrup ... Hershey's ... with HFCS.

                    Time to come home. One of the first things I'm going to have is a serious cup of coffee ... though for me that means Graffeo ... then I'll revisit everyone else.

                    1. re: twocents

                      Yep, lots of styles of coffee, and a similar range of personal preferences to go with it. I can say for really elaborate coffee, rather than a grab and go cup, it's worth trying an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, where one gets to smell the aroma of the freshly roasted beans (sometimes with a hint of cardamom) before they're ground up and brewed in a clay coffee pot. (And no, despite the lack of time for de-gassing, the one example I had last year was extremely smooth and structured, without excess sourness. I suspect it's because of the oxygenation from the porous clay based pot, similar to what a purple clay/zi3 sha1 teapot does for an oolong, but it's only a guess.)