Barristas, Hope Me! How should I ask for a cappuccino in the US?
November 9, 2018 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Ordering a cappuccino on the east coast of the US often results in delivery of a large mug with a small/medium-sized latte with a thin layer of foam on the top. What I really want is a double shot of espresso, with the same amount of hot milk on top, and some foam on top of that; and that's what I often ask for. For some reason, when I explain this, people can get upset, and give me the medium-sized latte. What am I doing wrong? How can I ask for a cappuccino and get what I want? Cheers!
posted by carter to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
You could try asking for a dry cappuccino, which means less milk and more foam. Apparently there is some disagreement in the US about what is a proper cappuccino.
posted by muddgirl at 1:12 PM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


I think you're going to get wildly different drinks unless you keep specifying exactly what you want.

You could try asking for a macchiato with extra foam. It's still going to vary, but I think most American baristas would come close to what you're looking for.

If you can become a regular somewhere, your best bet is to ask the barista how they would like you to order your drink, and then order it that way at that coffee shop.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:17 PM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


Depending on the coffee shop, in my experience of a small part of the east coast, asking for macchiato (sometimes saying "yes I know this isn't a Starbucks macchiato"), cortado, or gibraltar all give you something close to your description.
posted by skynxnex at 1:23 PM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


For some reason, when I explain this, people can get upset

Where are you ordering these, and how are you ordering them? Based on the small amount of info provided, I can envision the following scenarios:
  • Sir/Ma'am, this is a Wendy's Starbucks. The cafe can't or won't make custom orders, due to time constraints, automation, or something else.
  • The barista is a jerk, and won't compromise their vision of what they consider to be a cappuccino.
  • Somehow, you're coming across as a jerk, either not communicating what you want, or ordering it in such a way that they're passive-aggressively making you a latte.

posted by zamboni at 1:23 PM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


First let me talk about milk. Most specialty shops in the US will be serving you textured milk, rather than hot milk with a separate heap of foam on top. That means that, at the moment that they serve it to you, the foam and the milk will be all mixed together, and the foam will gradually rise to the top over time. It's good, I promise. However, if you prefer the texture of foam on top to the (silky smooth) texture of foam-in-milk, you can have that, too -- just give it a minute or so and it'll separate. At this time, the textured milk thing is a particular characteristic of the newer wave of espresso-focused specialty coffee shops; at more traditional places or bakery-type cafes, you will often still get the older style of hot milk + a separate heap of foam. Asking for a "dry cappuccino" lets them know you're specifically looking for this style with a minimum of milk, although some specialty shops just will not serve it this way.

Next, on beverage size/proportion: cappuccinos in the US will vary anywhere from 5oz (~150mL) to a baffling 20oz (almost 600mL). Am I right in thinking that you're looking for a beverage that's about 5oz total (about 2oz espresso, 2oz milk, 1oz foam)? If so, you may have better luck ordering a "cortado" or "gibraltar" if it's offered at the cafes you're visiting. Ask even if you don't see it on the menu -- it's sometimes served as a secret off-menu drink. If not, than try a "small cappuccino" or (at Starbucks) a "short cappuccino".
- A cortado/gibraltar will be about 4-6oz total, in approximately the proportions you're asking for. At this time, you'll probably only find this at specialty espresso bars.
- A small cappuccino will generally be somewhere between 6-8oz, with a little more milk and foam than you're asking for. Starbucks' "short cappuccino" is 8oz, which is more milk than you want. At some shops, asking for it in a ceramic (rather than a paper) cup will get you slightly less milk -- I often see places with the industry-standard 8oz paper cup using slightly smaller 5-7oz ceramic cups. You can also ask them to "pour it short", and indicate where on the cup you'd like the final drink to come up to. Be prepared to explain that you just prefer it with less milk (aka, you're not planning to dump in 2 full ounces of sugar at the self-serve creamer bar).
posted by ourobouros at 1:24 PM on November 9, 2018 [12 favorites]


Ah, I should explain about the macchiato, too. This one is tricky because it means very different things at different places.
- At Starbucks (and many other shops), a macchiato is a large, very sweet, predominantly milky espresso drink flavored with sweet syrups and often served with whipped cream.
- At specialty espresso bars, it is a shot of espresso "marked" with 1-2oz of textured milk (aka, equal parts milk & foam)..

If you want a drink that's 3-4oz total, then the second type of macchiato would be a good choice.
posted by ourobouros at 1:39 PM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


Where are you ordering these, and how are you ordering them?

I'm ordering in indie coffee shops rather than chains. I normally say something like, "I'd like a cappuccino, two shots, would you make it with equal parts espresso and milk, and then pour some foam on top? Thanks." Mutual cognitive dissonance then ensues.

Am I right in thinking that you're looking for a beverage that's about 5oz total (about 2oz espresso, 2oz milk, 1oz foam)?

Yup pretty much.
posted by carter at 1:41 PM on November 9, 2018


I think a cortado is what you want.

I think the reason you're having trouble is that the drink you're asking for isn't really a cappuccino, and in fact one of the main things that distinguishes a latte from a cappuccino is that a cappuccino should have more foam than steamed milk, so people are probably getting confused when you ask for a cappuccino with more milk than foam. Honestly, even asking for a short latte would probably do the trick.
posted by Ragged Richard at 2:11 PM on November 9, 2018 [9 favorites]


> "I'd like a cappuccino, two shots, would you make it with equal parts espresso and milk, and then pour some foam on top? Thanks." Mutual cognitive dissonance then ensues.

This is clear to you, but it is requiring the barista to do a lot of mental math to parse how what you're saying is different or not from the way that they typically make a cappuccino.
posted by desuetude at 2:31 PM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


A cortado is different again. What carter is describing is a perfectly normal, traditional cappuccino. A cortado is made with steamed, not frothed milk.

It's probably a fashion thing. Coffee, like everything else, goes through fashions. There was a movement for drier cappuccinos, then wetter (more like a flat white - which I'm pretty sure just evolved from being an especially wet cappuccino). The indies may have gone very wet to distinguish themselves from chains like Starbucks (which will be a few years behind) -- and if the baristas are young, they may not realize this is a recent fashion and think that this is just "the way it should be". That said, if you're dealing with actual baristas, I would suggest being very specific, maybe even more so than you have: "one third espresso, one third milk, one third foam", and they should listen to you.

As for whether Starbucks has actual baristas: it probably depends on which shop. They are corporate owned, so more standardised than other chains, but the managers set a real tone for the baristas. Everyone in my Starbucks knew perfectly well that an "espresso macchiato" was a shot (or two) of espresso with a dollop of milk froth - and it was priced that way on the till (same as an espresso, about 1/2 the cost of a latte). It's the caramel macchiato which is a flavoured, sweetened upside-down latte. But maybe other stores aren't so good on the training.

I will say this about Starbucks: we were told that it was company policy that if a customer doesn't like how we've made their drink, we're to remake it without question. I certainly did, and did so happily so long as the customer was nice about it. I cared about making good coffee and wanted to make it the way the person liked it.

This is clear to you, but it is requiring the barista to do a lot of mental math to parse how what you're saying is different or not from the way that they typically make a cappuccino

No, this is a standard way to talk about espresso & milk drinks (in ratios). That said, I would phase it: "I would like a double shot cappuccino, 2/3 milk and 1/3 foam" - which would tell me (as a barista) to pour the milk into the espresso to about 2/3 or 3/4 (to include the espresso), then fill the rest of the cup with foam.

That said, the shop may be somewhat "Starbucks-ized" by just making their cappuccino cups the same size as their lattes. In that case, I would be very specific and order a small/extra small - at Starbucks, what you would want is a "short [8oz cup], but only 2/3 full".
posted by jb at 2:43 PM on November 9, 2018 [4 favorites]


What if, instead of asking for it as a special cappuccino, or risking additional confusion with a cortado or whatever (because who knows what their interpretation of that might be), you just say "Two shots of espresso with an equal amount of milk, with foam on top, please." That way they don't have to figure out the terminology of what you want versus what they usually make, and thus you will probably get exactly what you want.
posted by ananci at 2:45 PM on November 9, 2018 [9 favorites]


"I'd like a cappuccino, two shots, would you make it with equal parts espresso and milk, and then pour some foam on top?"

In some more traditional places, just asking for a "cappuccino" will get you exactly what you describe.

However, at the current wave of indie shops, some newer baristas might not be familiar with the traditional cappuccino style. The idea of pouring foam onto a drink will not make sense to them because they've been specifically trained NOT to do it the way you describe. Instead, they're texturing the milk, creating tiny bubbles that are folded into suspension with the milk. If you're curious, here's a video that shows exactly what they're aiming for.

This textured milk is the only type of milk/foam combo that can be used to pour latte art -- so if the shop you're at pours latte art on their drinks, I guarantee they're using this type of textured milk. Remember that the foam will naturally separate out after a few moments after they finish pouring -- so even if it looks like a latte while they're pouring it, just a few moments later, there will be distinct foam and milk layers in approximately the proportions you describe (capp milk is prepared with more air/foam; latte milk is prepared with a little less air for a thinner foam layer).

Some options:
- tell them you like "extra foam" or a "dry cappuccino" -- both of which will lead them to incorporate more air into the foam so it separates out more quickly
- find a more experienced barista and explain it to them exactly the way you explained it here -- they should be able to get that made for you, and tell you how to make sure it's made that way at this shop in the future
- find a more traditional, old-school coffee place where this is their default method.
posted by ourobouros at 3:10 PM on November 9, 2018 [6 favorites]


Indie coffee shops can be an array of style. In my experience, the third wave ones can be strict about what they make--maybe there is only one size cup, maybe drinks cannot be altered, there is likely no flavored syrup on the menu. Is this the source of confusion? A cappuccino (when they offer one) at a third wave place will have a specific style (temp/foam/type of espresso) that is not like the cappuccinos I remember from 10+ years ago.

Non third wave indie places are all over the map with macchiatos and cappuccinos--they all tend to have way more milk than I expect. I sort of gave up on that. If I'm lucky, ordering a macchiato will get me the sub-12 oz cappuccino I desire, but often it's still too much milk for me. I assume we have Starbucks to thank for the volume creep.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 3:27 PM on November 9, 2018


Thanks y'all, this is fascinating. I fully accept my complicity in this.

I would suggest being very specific, maybe even more so than you have: "one third espresso, one third milk, one third foam", and they should listen to you.

I do try this approach every so often, but it's my impression that mentioning 'thirds' can cause even more confusion than 'halves.'

"Two shots of espresso with an equal amount of milk, with foam on top, please."

I also try this too (see above), to the point of saying something like 'the same amount of milk as coffee that comes out of the espresso machine,' but again, this appears not to make sense to some baristas.

I'm going to add a Wittgenstein tag to this question.
posted by carter at 3:46 PM on November 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


Just a thought off the top of my head, following the general consensus that there are no rules or consistancy about coffee try just making up something a bit off the wall "a Moldavian macchiato" or a "Liverpool cappuccino" mostly to grab a bit of attention and let them off the hook if they have been taught "the correct way". Then give the instructions. Be ready to spin a bit of exotic foreigner story and have fun with it.
posted by sammyo at 4:11 PM on November 9, 2018 [8 favorites]


You’d probably have the best chance of getting what you want from me if you ordered a double shot cortado with some extra foam on top.
posted by Night_owl at 5:02 PM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


I used to barista at a couple French restaurants as part of brunch/breakfast service -- though it's been a couple years since I stopped, so I may not be up on the latest trends. FWIW, I would say what you want is a pretty classic double "wet cappuccino."

From the barista's perspective, making cappuccino foam is very different from making latte foam. Lattes use the textured milk that people wrote about above, but cappuccinos require stiff, airy foam. A lot of people have trouble steaming milk to get that stiff, airy foam because it requires a certain touch and some patience, and making it also requires cold milk being steamed in a relatively cold container (which are both difficult to get if the place is busy and the barista is making a lot of drinks).

So in other words, what you want is normal, but it's also relatively difficult and time consuming to make (relative to a latte, anyway). Even if people are understanding what you want, they might not really be able or willing to get it to you.

Personally, if I were you, I would ask for a wet cappuccino with not much milk but like an inch of very "foamy," stiff foam. I don't know if that'll help, but it might get you closer.
posted by rue72 at 5:03 PM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


>A lot of people have trouble steaming milk to get that stiff, airy foam because it requires a certain touch and some patience,

Yeah, this.

Indie doesn't necessarily mean experienced. Barista is a job with high turnover and many baristas are young, their experience limited to drinks that are currently in style. I don't know why this style of cappuccino has fallen out of style - but it definitely seems like it has. I also have trouble getting one.

Making a good cappuccino requires a different technique than a latte, so a barista who hasn't been trained to do it is likely to have some trouble even if they understand what you want. To be honest, though, despite being an experienced barista who loves this style of cappuccino, I can easily imagine your description throwing me for a loop - especially in a noisy or busy environment. It's just phrased in a way that's hard to parse.

Another strategy is to ask for a smaller cup size. If they carry 8oz or smaller, this will limit the amount of milk they can give you. Don't be afraid to be redundant or take your time: "I want a traditional style cappuccino... how do you make yours? Oh, okay. I want it a little different. I want two shots of espresso and then the rest to be half milk and half airy foam. I don't want a lot of milk, what's your small cup size?" Keep in mind that they don't know what you want, may not have made this drink, and are also - because it's the nature of the job - probably multitasking... or not even making your drink themselves, but passing it on to the person on the machine. Give them some space to process your request instead of just throwing it at them.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:26 PM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


As you can see by the responses, people have very different ideas of what a cappuccino is. However, I have three different sources for what a cappuccino should be: a book from the 1970s, my experience as a barista in the 90s, what the average cappuccino form indie Bay Area shops is. They all agree that a cappuccino is 1/3 espresso, 2/3 foamy (textured, un-layered) milk. That's it! It's not wet, it's not dry; it's not more than 6 ounces. This has been the norm for decades and it's pretty much what Wikipedia says a cappuccino should be. However, as someone who only drinks cappuccinos, I can attest that getting anyone in a cafe to make it this way when they already make it some other way is nearly impossible. I usually say "I'd like a cappuccino in your smallest cup, with a double shot of espresso and about twice that amount of foamy milk." Sometimes it works.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:33 PM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


Also: wet=no foam; dry=all foam. If the barista asks if you want your cappuccino wet or dry and doesn't understand if you say "neither", then your chances of getting a decent drink are probably shot.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:38 PM on November 9, 2018


bj''s "I would like a double shot cappuccino, 2/3 milk and 1/3 foam" is how I would most like this described to me to be able to give you exactly what you want (which is... a cap, but let's roll with it.) Yes I texture your milk but there's plenty of foam in there; it just has smaller bubbles.

Thinking about it, you could ask for "extra air"?
posted by DarlingBri at 9:03 PM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


I think some of these suggestions are attempting to solve the wrong 'problem'.

It's impossible to preempt that at least one person will misunderstand/be confused. It just isn't, no matter how conscientious or careful you are. Embrace that and be prepared for it. Now, you can try to reduce the percentage of times it happens, and that's what I think you're doing here, but I don't think you can eliminate it entirely.

And, some baristas get their shop's menus and 'formulas' so well ingrained in their brains, that any deviation is discombobulating.

Also, using a label (cappuccino) and then continuing on to describe what you mean by that term - which does not appear to have a universal definition - could be giving rise to some confusion. I'd drop the term, say the rest, and be patient when you have to repeat it.

Mr Leaves has a similar issue, and made up a little laminated wallet card with both the words and a visual -- a clip art drawing showing the ingredients and proportions. "A picture..."
posted by dancing leaves at 5:54 AM on November 10, 2018 [3 favorites]


What about "espresso, milk, and foam, 1 to 1 to 1"? Like a cocktail. Might be worth a try.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:25 AM on November 12, 2018


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