How fresh is your coffee? How was it processed? What’s the roast profile? I bet you can answer all these questions… but when it comes to milk, you’d probably have to check the label.
But coffee and milk blend together. In a cappuccino, at least two-thirds of your drink is milk. It deserves at least a little bit of the same attention as the espresso.
So I decided to run a little experiment with different milk types. But I’m not talking soy vs almond or full-fat vs skimmed (though these are worth investigating). Instead, I’m looking at milk processing: raw, pasteurized, UHT… Let’s take a look at the differences, and what tastes they accentuate in your cappuccino.
A barista pours latte art with steamed milk. Credit: Contrast Coffee
It’s time to get a little bit technical…
The least processed, freshest milk you can find is raw milk. This is unpasteurized and unhomogenized, i.e. it hasn’t been rapidly heated and then cooled to kill bacteria (pasteurization) and it hasn’t had its fat molecules broken down to prevent a layer of cream forming at the top (homogenization).
Because raw milk hasn’t been pasteurized and its bacteria destroyed, it’s controversial. The US Food and Drug Administration strongly warn against consuming it. In contrast, many of France’s cheeses use raw milk and the UK Food Standards Agency deems drinking it a “generally acceptable risk” for non-vulnerable groups, providing “appropriate hygiene controls” are applied. Critics of raw milk point to the potential for food poisoning; proponents argue that it’s tastier and healthier (although those health benefits have not been proven).
You can also buy unhomogenized pasteurized milk and (less commonly) unpasteurized homogenized milk. However, your average supermarket will be both pasteurized and homogenized.
There are many forms of pasteurization, but two of the most common ones are High Temperature Short Time (HTST) and Ultra High Temperature (UHT). According to the International Dairy Foods Association, HTST milk is heated at 72ºC (161ºF) for 15 seconds. It still needs to be refrigerated. UHT milk (also called long-life milk), on the other hand, uses aseptic processing. As a result, it does not require refrigeration.
So those are the main milk processing methods – but which ones are better in coffee?
A barista steams milk. Credit: Tony Pramana
First of all, every coffee is different and so is every milk. Different coffee varieties, farms, trees, and more will produce different flavor profiles. Different cow breeds, cattle management, feed, and more will produce different milk compositions and flavors. This is the beauty of third wave coffee: we pay attention to the nuances in our cup. We understand that different coffees really do taste different.
So when we experiment with milk types, we know that the results can’t be generalized. With a different milk brand and a different coffee origin, the results may change.
However, trying all these milk types can give us an insight into what some of the major differences may be. So I gathered raw, unhomogenized pasteurized, HTST, and UHT milk and made myself a tasting flight. I tried each milk cold, frothed, and in cappuccino.
As for my espresso, it was an Ijen from East Java, Indonesia. Its tasting notes are roasted peanut with strawberry jam acidity and a long aftertaste.
Here are my results:
Taste-testing different milks. Credit: Tony Pramana
I picked this milk up from a local farm in the Dago area of North Bandung, Indonesia. As I sat and watched the farmer, Mark, milk the cow, he told me about the cow’s feed – if direct trade coffee is seed to cup, this milk truly was cow to cup.
When I tasted the milk cold, it had a sweet, thick body. When steamed, the sweetness began to decline, while the buttery taste and heavier body became more prominent. And in a cappuccino, I noticed it had a silky body with a caramel taste and even a hint of banana.
Remember, there are many ways to pasteurize milk: this one was heated at 63ºC for 15 minutes. Drunk cold, I noticed a high level of sweetness but a thin texture. Steaming added some roundness to the mouthfeel but the sweetness remained. In cappuccino, however, some bitterness came up. It tasted over-caramelized.
So then I tried a second experiment: I used our filter roast for an espresso and tried it both with and without this milk. As a pure espresso, it tasted sour; as a cappuccino, the milk highlighted the fruity flavors of the coffee while adding sweetness. For me, this was the best option for a fruity cappuccino.
This milk is one of the easiest to purchase and also has a reasonable shelf-life, making it convenient for coffee shops.
Cold, I tasted creaminess, medium levels of sweetness, and a mouthfeel that wasn’t overly thick. Steamed, the sweetness increased – and in cappuccino, it increased even more.
However, you should keep in mind that this milk is my café’s typical daily milk. We’ve been using it for almost a year now, and our coffee profile has been adjusted to suit it.
For me, this milk has a long, creamy long aftertaste, but it’s also too sweet – kind of like it’s been canned. Steamed, it’s flat and creamy, without foam. In a cappuccino, we’re still missing the foam and the taste has become bitter and flat.
Barista pouring latte art. Credit: Anchorhead Coffee
No matter what milk you use, experimenting with different processes will help you to not just select the best milk for your café but also to better appreciate the impact of it on your drinks. It’ll help you to detect the varying levels of sweetness and caramel creaminess, just like how cupping different coffees improves your palate. So give it a go – try tasting different milks in your coffee, and let me how they taste!