Beverage operators who want to be cutting edge may now have to understand such strange concepts as the flat white, long black, stumpy, and even the piccolo. Ian Boughton explains.
The modern coffee menu has undergone a seismic shift. Although it has taken long enough for many catering outlets to even catch up with cappuccino and latte, the cutting-edge coffee operators have now come up with some new drinks which really are catching on as a serious commercial prospect.
Attempts to develop the espresso coffee menu in recent years have not always been entirely serious or sensible, and have included the mochacino, lattecino, frappucino and the babycino for toddlers - a frothed-milk drink which may include no coffee at all. We have even seen the arrival of the doggycino, a pet drink featuring lactose-free milk and chopped liver.
But now, the bar has been raised a notch by the coffee bars in London's Soho, where the "coolest" cafés, those run by expatriate Australians and New Zealanders, have begun serving espresso drinks which are familiar from their own part of the world, including the flat white and the long black.
These are not new - it has simply taken a few years for them to achieve "cool" status. The result of this is that the beverage operator who wants to be seen as cutting edge may now have to go beyond the standard espresso menu and understand such strange concepts as the stumpy, and even the piccolo.
It is an interesting puzzle for the caterer who has already been required to bring his staff up to the standard necessary to produce a satisfactory espresso, cappuccino or latte, a standard which has now been recognised as a true catering skill with the advent of the City and Guilds VRQ in barista work.
These new drinks are not entirely easy, and Philip Pollen, head barista at Sacred Coffee in Soho, says that the flattie is one of the hardest espresso drinks to get right, but for the barista who is proud of his work, it is a satisfying achievement.
"The flat white is a drink designed to be enjoyed relatively quickly, sweet and strong, full-flavoured right to the bottom of the cup. You need careful dosing, a well-tamped puck, a slow and well-timed extraction, well-stretched and spun full cream milk, and a slow and steady pour."
The result, and the whole point of the new drinks from down under, is enhanced taste - the coffee quotient is higher and the milk is creamier than a conventional cappuccino or latte. In some of the Soho coffee bars, the new drinks are certainly made with a double espresso shot, and in some cases a triple. This is radically different from certain high street outlets, where the trend in recent years has been to produce over-large, over-milky drinks in which flavour has been lost. The new trend has impressed many in the coffee trade.
"Anything that moves us towards a range of drinks where the customer can actually taste the coffee certainly gets my vote," says Barry Kither, marketing director at Lavazza.
"I really think the flat white has potential, if it is marketed as a stronger, shorter version of the latte. On the same theme, macchiato could be described as a stronger, shorter cappuccino. Rather than trying to copy the branded chains, this might mean limiting the cup size you offer to a maximum of maybe 12oz, and then aiming to beat the big guys on flavour."
Dale Harris, in-house barista at First Choice Coffee, agrees that these drinks are essentially shorter and fuller-flavoured drinks.
"The flat white has a texture similar to a latte with a strength of flavour similar to a cappuccino, and is made by using smaller cups, more coffee and less foam. The stumpy, piccolo and also the cortado are variations on small 3-4oz espresso and milk drinks.
"A capable barista should be able to make any of them, and if the barista is unsure, this gives the chance to engage with the customer - asking them ‘how do you like that?' shows a customer that you're making something just for them, which gives them a reason to remember you and your business and encourages loyalty.
"But if you do want to offer these drinks, take a trip to some of the places that are already delivering it well and learn from their quality - it would be much more damaging for your business to offer terrible flat whites than not to offer them at all."
At Douwe Egberts, marketing manager Helen Cridge gives a typical guidance on the flat white. "The milk is the key, it needs to be creamy, not foamy. Don't let it sit in the jug, but pour immediately into a 215ml or 240ml cup (around 8 fl oz), pouring from the bottom of the jug which allows the creamy milk to come through.
"The piccolo is essentially a latte with less milk, so it tastes stronger. The piccolo should have a 1:2 ratio of espresso to steamed milk, be topped with a half centimetre layer of foam, and served at a size of about 90ml.
"For the long black, the cup is just over half-filled with hot water at around 80ºC, and an espresso shot poured in - this allows you to show off the crema, which is sometimes lost in an Americano. It is essential that the water is not boiling, as this will make the coffee taste bitter."
The difference, says Cridge, is that the long black retains the crema and encourages the full body of the flavour to develop.
San Remo, the UK company which provides machines for the current barista championships, likes the trend towards a more interesting modern menu, and has taken things a little further with the macchiatoni, a drink which many in the British trade say they have not heard of, although the company describes it as "a classic Italian beverage".
It appears to follow the same general idea as the flat white, but using a single espresso in a standard cappuccino cup, but far less cappuccino milk and foam. San Remo's managing director Andrew Tucker calls it "a rich, strong drink typically served after lunch. Some of our customers have started to serve it as a signature drink, giving it their house name".
Not everybody agrees that the new Australian drinks will become mainstream in the UK. The common attitude by the big coffee shop chains is to say they have heard of the drinks, but are waiting to see if any demand actually exists before putting them on menus.
There are others who believe that the progress of the coffee menu is not through espresso at all. David Cooper, of Cooper's Coffee in Huddersfield, says that trying to put the everyday hospitality-trade barista through advanced espresso drinks might be the route to disaster, and that the true modern coffee menu may lie in filter coffee.
At present, many caterers not set up for both espresso and filter coffee will serve a latte for a white coffee, and an American for a black - far more progressive and profitable, say many in the coffee trade, to devise a coffee menu of several truly great filter coffees and surprise the customer with the flavour you provide in response to the request for "a coffee".
And if you try to improve your range, says Cooper, watch the positioning of drinks on your menu. "We are often asked to position espresso at the top of the menu - yet less than one in ten people drink espresso. So use the top position for the more popular drinks, and for your new drinks use the specials board. This way you offer something new, but don't confuse the customer."
A curious aspect of the new espresso drinks is that the automatic machine makers have taken an interest, and now go so far as to argue that their equipment can handle the new coffee menu.
"Let's not underestimate the flexibility of the modern automatic and instant machine," says Martin Lines, at Nestlé Professional, owners of the Nescafé brand.
"I would go as far as to say that the only limitation in creating a modern coffee menu with an automatic or instant machine will come from the outlet themselves in looking at just how creative it wants to be."
At Fracino, the British maker of espresso machines which recently brought out an automatic bean-to-cup machine, the corporate opinion is that many automatics produce a froth which is neither latte milk nor cappuccino milk - judge the frother properly and the modern menu should be possible.
Melitta says its Alpha automatic machine will produce steamed and frothed milk in any combination required and, therefore, can handle a flat white. Indeed, says Melitta's Paul Hopkins, "our Alpha can make a flat white or anything else one cares to challenge it with".
The most dramatic claim for an automatic machine and the new coffee menu is a very new one indeed - it comes from James Nicholson, of Franke UK, who says that he is just about to introduce an automatic machine of previously unheard-of milk performance, which means it can be programmed for new espresso drinks.
"For some time, automatic machines have managed to produce good coffee drinks with milk which was acceptable, but not quite perfect. For the first time, I can now say, hand on heart, that the technology has got there - we now have a new milk system which is as good as an expert, qualified, tutored barista. I have never seen foam like this from an automatic machine."
The big advance, he says, is in adaptability. "A flat white has several specifications. You might like to serve it as a 30ml espresso with 80% flat milk and a tiny foam - there is no set recipe, and we all have our own opinions. The big change we now have with an automatic machine is that we can dispense in a vast number of formulations and in different sequences, and so we can follow your preference for the flat white.
"This means we are no longer offering the trade an automatic espresso machine and saying ‘this is what it does'. We are now saying - exactly how do you want it to make these drinks?"
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