Most American cafés can't figure out how to make a real cappuccino

A cappuccino should be wonderfully light, composed of nothing but milk foam over espresso. A latté is heavier, containing a lot of steamed milk and a layer of milk foam over espresso.

Unfortunately, this meaningful difference is neglected at many of the rapidly increasing number of places that serve espresso drinks in America.

I’m not talking about those exceptional cafés around the country that have mastered the art of espresso drinks.

I’m also not talking about the thousands of Starbucks, which are at least moderately reliable — yes, despite its obnoxious sizes and sugar-bomb concoctions, Howard Schultz’s company (where I worked years ago) puts a fair effort into training baristas, including a certification test that involves making a cappuccino within precise weight and temperature ranges.

Instead, I’m talking about the thousands of other establishments ranging from mum & pop joints to casual dining chains that just pretend to know how to make these drinks. Most disappointing are the many artisanal or boutique or hipster coffee chains that use expensive equipment and obsess over foam art while screwing up the core drink.

Case in point, when I ordered a cappuccino at NYC-coffee chain Joe the Art of Coffee:

As you can see, under that design is just half-a-centimeter of milk foam and a cup full of steamed (and scalding) milk. Any time the steamed milk goes nearly to the top of the cup like this, you’ve got a latté, not a cappuccino, which is a frustrating thing to get when you order a cappuccino.

I had a similar experience at Fika, the Swedish coffee chain that’s spreading through the city. Likewise at ‘wichcraft, a hot chain started by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio. Likewise at hot British chain Pret A Manger.

This pet peeve will seem inconsequential to many, but it matters to some, and Starbucks’ ability to get it half-right through systematic training is one reason why the brand has been so successful.

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