Coffee Quandary

Latte Thermometer Being in Mallorca, drinking very tasty coffee, brings one of our coffee quandaries into sharp relief. Here, as in virtually everywhere on the continent, baristas do not scald their milk. Coffees with steamed milk are served ready to drink, in terms of temperature, which is much cooler than you will find in most Irish cafes.

I have written about the temperature of steamed milk before, here and here. Yet the biggest cause of complaints in our shops by far is about the temperature of our coffees containing steamed milk. Although we regularly have people tell us our coffees are the best they have tasted in Ireland, just as regularly people (almost exclusively Irish and English) tell us their drink is “cold.” 

I assume it is mostly a function of us going from a nation of tea and instant coffee drinkers – both made with boiling water – to latte and cappuccino drinkers without understanding that the latter are fundamentally different drinks. The difference is the milk – overheat milk and there is a chemical change – the proteins and fat separate out and the result is watery, bitter, scalded. A latte in our shops will seem cold compared to tea, even though we heat the milk to a greater temperature than the Italians or the Spanish.

Our quandary, then, is this:

We believe that the way we make cappuccinos and lattes, using a thermometer to obtain an exact temperature that is as hot as possible while keeping the milk intact, ensures the highest quality. However, at the same time we want our customers to be happy, and a large number of them are not. It causes us great pain that people are going away grumbling about “cold” drinks. We will always (and happily) serve a drink extra hot if asked, recognising that people´s tastes differ.

My brother and I have spent hours on this issue, trying to find a solution. We have tried to ask everyone who orders whether they want it extra hot, but that hasn´t worked well, since “hot” is such a relative term, and people are usually just confused. We have written about it on our menus and our menuboards. We have tried to explain the issue to customers who complain (after heating up their drinks), that it´s not a mistake but a choice, but that isn´t always successful. The last time, the customer said, “Can you believe it? These guys serve cold lattes on purpose!”

I am at a bit of a loss. If we raise the temperature across the board, the quality will suffer. In my opinion, it´s the single largest reason Irish coffees are generally sub-standard. At the same time, keeping our customers happy is certainly much more important to us than whatever we think about the temperature of steamed milk. But is it worth it to lower the quality for everybody to pacify those who think our drinks are too cold?

Suggestions welcome!

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14 thoughts on “Coffee Quandary

  1. Hi Kieren, I’m so with you on this one. I’m always telling my staff they scald the milk, you can probably hear them in Dingle with the noise. I serve it the way they do in Italy, not too hot especially in relation to cappucino but then I’ve also had customers give their coffees back and ask for it to be heated up!! So you can’t win! I also make coffee quite strong so I ask now if customers want it strong or weak but then a lot of people look at me like I’m gone mad and just say “whatever”!

  2. Get a cappuccino thermometer (Comark is the only one we have found that reacts to temperature fast enough) and specify the exact temperature to the staff. We have found it´s the only way. If you steam the milk to one temperature and your staff steams it to another, then most of your regular customers will be unhappy at some point, regardless of what temperature they like it!

  3. Education, education, education. I think that’s the key. I don’t know how you can best do it, but in the meantime keep doing what you do. Make it the best way that you know how and reheat when asked.

  4. Do your menus display the specific (and distinct) temperatures/ranges in which you serve the two sets of drinks (i.e. the temperature of your quality drinks as opposed to the temperature of the hotter drinks — closer to boiling, presumably)? Perhaps your customers would be more interested to inquire on why the drinks are served at two distinct temperatures – and you could take the opportunity to educate them.

    I’m BY NO MEANS an expert, but for me, seeing two numbers and being able to draw comparisons would be valuable in helping me make an informed choice.

  5. Thanks, Gilly! We do have the temperature of what we serve (60C) but not the higher temperature. It might well be a good idea. Mind you, I´m not sure most people really can mentally turn 60C into an idea of how it it will feel on the palate.

  6. Folks !
    What is this all about?
    Simple,think out off the box.. Do you know that italians pre-heat cups before serving? coffee doesn’t ‘like’ temperature shock – it is when you put it in a cold cup.. Simple.

  7. One idea might be to have two versions on the menu: call your standard the “Continental latte” and the hot version the “Islander latte” or something along those lines. This would prompt more people to ask what the difference is, giving you the opportunity to enlighten them.

  8. American restaurants that specialize in steak or salmon dishes usually specify on the menus that they “cannot be held responsible for the quality” if you specify a doneness beyond medium, or even that they won’t serve it that way at all. It seemed pretentious at first, but pretty soon “everyone” now understands that connoisseurs of quality know how it should be done. . . . (I personally continue to ask for my salmon medium well — gauche or not, that’s how I like it — but I’ve been warned!) Maybe you can convince other like-minded coffee shops to join you in an educational cooperative? If people begin to see themselves as superiour for liking it a la Continent, it will probably catch on!

  9. Is it possible to specify the temperature of your boiler, when making the espresso? If you could raise the temperature there, then you may not need to worry about the milk being “cool” so much. That would also tend to give you a greater separation between the milk and the espresso, allowing for a more stratified presentation if you serve in clear glasses.

  10. That’s an excellent point, David! Unfortunately on our machines the temperature and pressure are the same, and if we raise the pressure it really ruins the coffee. However, there are machines where the two are individually adjustable…

  11. We have this problem in our restaurant, some customers prefer their latte so hot that it ruins the coffee/milk. We also have discussed this and so far have not found a sulotion. We work with machines where seperate adjustment of tempratures is also not possible. I will keep reading this forum. Hope some one will come with the a bright idea.

  12. I think i’d love your coffee! I lived in Spain for three years and loved my ‘cafe con leche’ …..the temp perfect to enjoy immediately. I’ve had arguments in places in Cork when i’ve asked that they not heat the milk too much. I was recently in Cork Airport and really gasping for a coffee… went to starbucks and asked for a latte with the milk just warm….they refused saying they had to boil it and that it was for health and safety reasons! In another cafe in Cork they told me it wasn’t possible to warm the milk that you absolutely had to boil it to make it frothy. So i said i don’t want a lot of froth and she had the nerve to tell me that it wouldn’t be a latte without froth and that i couldn’t enjoy it without froth! Another girl in a cafe told me she had to make it very hot as the machine wouldn’t let her do it any other way! I’ve given up.Ii now have my own gaggia classic expresso machine and no longer waste my money on burnt bitter coffee that you have to wait 10 or 15 mins to drink so that you don’t scald your mouth…. Keep up the good work!

  13. Wow! That shows some lack of understanding! It’s funny – our refridgeration guy is bringing in some automatic coffee machines from Italy. He’s having all sorts of grief because the machines dont do scalding – they serve a cappuccino the temperature you’d get it in Italy, and his customers are furious.

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