Taste is a funny thing. When the Napoleonic wars disrupted coffee supplies, the French started mixing in chicory root. They developed a predilection for it, even when times improved, and coffee with chicory became the norm. Here, in Ireland, we moved so quickly from tea to coffee that, being used to tea, a standard latte seemed “cold” to the palate. Baristas started scalding the milk, and now many Irish people rate as inferior a latte or cappuccino that is not blisteringly hot.
“Don’t worry, darlings,” a woman consoled us recently in Dingle, after sending back her drink for a scorching. “I was just in Italy. So disappointing. They also served me cold cappuccinos my entire trip until I finally explained to them how to heat it properly.”
I’m amazed this didn’t cause a diplomatic incident, with ambassadors recalled and large sums paid over for rehabilitating the barista, who is probably still huddled in a corner of his bar, muttering to himself. An Irish person explaining to an Italian how to make a cappuccino? La discesa dei barbari!
I’ve written several times about the reasons for not over-heating lattes, cappuccinos, and any coffee drink containing steamed milk (here, here, and here). We’ve put up signs in our shops, made menus explaining the issues, and yet we still struggle with keeping customers happy.
What is new is that we’re also now getting complaints that our coffee isn’t “strong” enough. Our guess is that people who say that are mistaking bitterness for strength, as over-heating milk makes coffee bitter, not to mention that many cafes have their machine pressure too high to save time on frothing, which tends to burn the espresso. We take great pride that our espresso shots are smooth, but people seem to mistake that for being weak, assuming, perhaps, that a bitter coffee is a strong coffee.
Don’t get me wrong. Even with this ranting, we’re delighted when customers know what they like and dislike and speak up about it. We are in the business of pleasing people, and try our utmost to do so without snobbery or judgement, even if we disagree.
We also believe that there is a perfect drink for everybody. If it’s a strong coffee taste you’re after, a latte is probably not the right drink. A cafe au lait with dark French roast beans might be a much better choice.
However, although Ireland has come a long, long way in terms of coffee, I think we still have a long way to go before we can start lecturing Italians on how to make a cappuccino…