Does Latte Art Make Coffee Taste Worse?

May 17, 2015

What if pouring a beautiful design on the top of a milky beverage actually reduced the quality of flavour? I know my answer, but I’d like you to find out for yourself.

Latte Art has become sacrosanct in the vast majority of Specialty Coffee venues. It’s non-negotiable. You almost never see a specialty milk coffee set down on your table without a tulip, fern, heart or monk’s head on top. I’m mostly ok with this. Art belies a certain amount of skill, attention to detail and commitment to quality that few other visual clues can.

This isn’t a post against or even about Latte Art (for the record I rather enjoy it). It’s an exploration of critical thinking and blind experimentation to help you understand the effects of Latte Art on taste.

The three most common commandments of Latte Art are contrast, symmetry and central placement in the cup. This trio, by their nature, result in a bold ring of crema around the edges of the drink. Whether this ring is made of pure crema, brown coloured milk, or a mix of the two is up to your coffee and technique. What’s certain is that this ring is intensely flavoured and definitely impacts your perception of the drink.

The first sip you take of a coffee plays an important role in your overall perception of the drink. This is common theory and practice, and is what I have always been taught. The argument goes that if you first experience a pungent punch of coffee flavour, you’ll think the drink is stronger; if your first sip is milky and soft, your view of the drink will lean towards weakness. "The ring of crema is vital for the customer to enjoy the drink and perceive it as satisfying”

Some recent experiments have left me thinking otherwise.

Crema is really different to espresso. On its own, crema tastes kind of terrible (really, try it.). Mixed with milk, it adds welcome depth and intensity. What if all that crema sitting on top of the milk is more valuable when mixed evenly throughout the whole drink?

We’re going to remove the psychological effects of aesthetics and just focus on flavour with a simple experiment. It’s super quick, and a little fun.

You’ll need:
- an espresso set up
- a willing assistant
- a blindfold

1. Make two identical espressos. They can be split by portafilter spouts, or made one after the other if you use naked portafilters.

2. Steam two identical jugs of milk. Or steam a larger jug and split it into two jugs with equal amounts of foam.
Whatever’s more consistent for you. Make sure to steam 100ml more than you need.

3. Pour two cappuccinos/lattes/flat whites/cortados with delightfully perfect Latte Art. (Thanks Ben Morrow!)

4. Defile one of them with a spoon, mixing the whole drink top-to-bottom. Make sure every speck of crema is equally distributed.

5. Pour a third cup of steamed milk only.

6. Don a blindfold.

7. Get someone else to randomise the two cups and serve them to you simultaneously. Place the cup of milk in the middle.

8. Drink each beverage a few sips at a time. Make sure to taste the foam, milk, and both together. Take your time and voice your opinion as you go. Your assistant should record your thoughts as they happen. This will prevent mind-changing later.

9. When switching cups, take a few sips of plain milk to reset your palate.

Questions to ask yourself:
- Which cup has the best first impression?
- Which cup has the best foam flavour?
- Which cup has the best liquid flavour?
- Which would I prefer to drink?

You might be surprised!

The effect of beauty on taste is well documented: a human’s objectivity is crippled by visual prejudice. By removing vision from the equation, we’re eliminating Latte Art’s trump card!

The ring of crema creates an intense first mouthful. It’s pungent, bitter and most definitely “coffee”. This has two effects on the rest of the drink. First, there’s not much crema mixed into the drink, it’s all on top. Second, your palate is shocked from the experience which will reduce its sensitivity. This combination will make the rest of the drink seem much less flavoursome. It'll also leave you with a bitter, unpleasant finish.

If this is your preference, then Latte Art is on your side!

Mixing the crema into the drink will soften it’s impact on your first sip. It will also spread that intense flavour throughout the rest of the drink, making the milk/espresso mixture that little bit stronger and richer. The start is more mellow and the finish is cleaner.

If this was your preference, then perhaps Latte Art is working against you!

It’s important to understand that there’s no right or wrong here. This experiment isn’t designed to paint Latte Art as a hero or villain. Whatever your preference, you’ll now know wether Latte Art is helping or hindering your goals.

 

Thanks to Ben Morrow for pouring deliciously pretty chinos. If you like the look of those, you'll love his Instagram:

Instagram

In unrelated news, Instagram's share price just went down a little.

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