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January 30, 2017 /
Does Latte Art Make Coffee Taste Worse?

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 betrays 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.

If you have found this useful and want to enjoy delicious coffee with the rest of the community – register for our monthly Superlatives coffee subscription. Or if you just want to keep up with every thing Barista Hustle – sign up to the Newsletter.

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Linh Nguyën
Guest
Linh Nguyën

Perhaps there should be signs that say “mix well before consumption” heh.

Jason Card
Guest
Jason Card

I understand what this is trying to test, but most of our customers don’t drink without looking at the drink. What about the psychological effects? Does seeing a pretty drink dispose someone to like the taste of it more than otherwise? I used to have a friend that would tell customers “this is going to be the best drink you’ve ever had” (he had a charismatic way of pulling that statement off, I would feel like a heel saying that). I am convinced that it predisposed a lot of folks into believing the drink was better, regardless of objective taste.

Jason Card
Guest
Jason Card

I disagree. I understand the point, I’m just adding another way latte art might affect the perceived quality of your coffee.

Linh Nguyën
Guest
Linh Nguyën

You’re missing the point ofthiss hustle.

Christopher Peterson
Guest
Christopher Peterson

Wondering about how you feel about the “Kiwi” trick that Rao mentions in the PBH, where the barista pours an ounce or two of the heavier milk from the bottom of the steaming pitcher (while holding back the microfoam) into the espresso shot and stirs it around mixing the shot and milk completely and then finishing with whatever kind of pour the barista is feeling at the time. I try to do it in shop as often as I can and people can totally taste the difference, it seems to soften the first sips and allows the milk pouring machinist… Read more »

Iain Freeman
Guest
Iain Freeman

Great read. No i understand why the guys who taught me coffee always told me to pour fast and mix in the crema then get the latte happening.

Thanks for that.

David Baillie
Guest
David Baillie

Perhaps the experimental hypothesis could be refined by distinguishing “TASTE” from “ENJOYMENT”. Charles Spence and others explore theses ideas in a collection of papers published as
The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining
ashttp://au.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118490827.html

Roeland
Guest
Roeland

are we already sure the brown ring is crema and not just more concentrated coffee-milk mixture? As far as I can tell, the textures are usually the same, and different from crema texture. Also, it makes sense to me that crema collapses when exposed to the fat in the milk. I seem to remember something that stated much the same thing, but I can’t find it. Perhaps it was James Hoffmans ‘crema is rubbish’ video or a response to it, but those links are long dead.

Sam Trevethyen
Guest
Sam Trevethyen

Have you tried this test when mixing a little milk/crema before pouring, as mentioned by Scott Roa in his ‘The Kiwi Who Stirred My Latte’ tale?

Gregory Levine
Guest
Gregory Levine

Noooooo! My self esteem is completely dependent on my latte art. Don’t take it away from me! Haha.
My intention is to get my customers to pay attention to how their coffee tastes, something they might never do if their attention isn’t grabbed by latte art. Also, my tips are generally better when my art is good. Try this experiment: take two identical bottles of wine with a fancy looking label, and put one in a brown paper bag which covers the label. Then pour them out for a friend and ask which one tastes better.

Juan Ariza
Guest
Juan Ariza

Off topic – any words about the new MK peak. Have you tried it? If yes how does it compares to the EK.

Jack O'Keefe
Guest
Jack O'Keefe

There’s a nice middle ground. Mixing a bit of the milk in. Scott Rao (I think) had a chapter on it called “The Kiwi who stirred my latte” (or something like that) in Professional Baristas Handbook (I think).

A Critic
Guest
A Critic

The mound of sugar or Splenda usually helps mix in the crema, otherwise the straw does the trick. /customer

I personally like an espresso or espresso and milk drink with layers of flavor and texture and nuanced complexity rather than one homogenized coffee or coffee flavored milk. The crema is only as bitter as you make it.

hooshd
Guest
hooshd

Matt I’m starting to perceive a universal theme of ‘evenness’ in your analysis! In roast, grind, extraction and now milk distribution…

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

No! But I Imagine it has similar results.

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

You should see my sock drawer.

nicelyabel
Guest
nicelyabel

Great post! This reminds me of what I have been doing at my place called the 5oz Flight. I pour a Cappuccino, a Flat White, and Latte Art. Swirling the espresso then pouring for one, swirling then integrating a little milk before pouring, and then pouring into the espresso without swirling. Fun!

Jonathan Alepins-Pichette
Guest
Jonathan Alepins-Pichette

I think that over the years, coffee became a ”trend” and that latte art took more importance than the quality of the drink itself. I’ve been to so many coffee shops and ordered drinks that looked amazing but tasted like crap. I think that if you mix your shot with little steamed milk before pouring the rest, it really helps to even the taste until the last sip.

Keith
Guest
Keith

Hehe finally! I call this folding. It can be done through pour technique. That is, using the poured stream of milk as a ‘whisk’ to combine the milk and crema as you pour. You can certainly get away with latte art on top, so long as you’ve folded all the way through your initial pour. I’ve been pestering my baristas about it for months, nice to see it featured on the Hustle. Thanks Matt.

David Duhalde Rahbæk
Guest
David Duhalde Rahbæk

Guess I will be stirring my milky drinks from now on. If i’m in a place without a skillful pour over barista.

I think a future periscope session is a great idea. Tim Wendelboe and Rene Redzepi are currently embracing the Q&A type of direct conversation this gives. It’s great.

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

Scott knows what he’s on about (I think)

🙂

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

Been on bar at St Ali for months. Love it. And that’s the prototype – production are even better. Much easier than EK to make traditional espresso.

Danny Lewis
Guest
Danny Lewis

I saw your post on this and tried it, it’s pretty interesting. I found less difference in flavour, but a noticable difference in texture and mouthfeel between each technique.

Scotty d'Angelo
Guest
Scotty d'Angelo

Sensationalist titling.

There is a difference but not good or bad is up to the individual. Coffee is subjective. This author purports to establish who others might taste. First mistake. Actually that was the second. I already mentioned the shifty title.

Today’s Links | BLOG INSPIRASI SIRSAK
Guest
Today’s Links | BLOG INSPIRASI SIRSAK

[…] Does Latte Art Make Coffee Taste Worse? What if pouring a beautiful design on the top of a milky beverage actually reduced the quality of flavor? I know my answer, but I’d like you to find out for yourself. […]

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

I tried rather hard to promote personal experimentation as the best way to approach this.

I will, however, take full responsibility for sensationalist titling including but not limited to poor phrasing and hyperbole.

Friso van der Mei
Guest
Friso van der Mei

Fun test this one! I always teach the new coworkers to “not make it a latte” just because of the art (preparing cappuccino). The balance of espresso/milk/microfoam is wat “makes” the drink. Also last year in the dutch barista competition I wanted to focus on the cappuccino course a bit more and add some sensory experience. After evaluating foam depth and first sip. I asked them to stir the beverage so all flavours would mix and promote a more balanced cup. Darker flavour moves to the back and the fruity flavours are more pronounced. Sadly in the scoreSheets they didn’t… Read more »

Jonny Langmore Gagel
Guest
Jonny Langmore Gagel

Hey Matt, Just a quick question. What on earth is an extraction profile for espresso? Is it all based around Extraction Yield % (The whole TDS thing) or just the Extraction Yield (mg of liquid in the cup). Could you pleasssssse do A hustle on What an extraction profile is and how is fits in with TDS and Extraction Yield % and that whole vibe. because it is utterly confusing when some people ask ‘Whats your yield’ or ‘Do you have any extraction profiles’ ahhhhhhhhhhhh.

Thanks man

Jonny

Carlo VB
Guest
Carlo VB

This is an interesting issue to think about. To be honest I’ve made up my mind about this quite a few times when drinking cappuccino with latte art decoration. But that’s what latte art in my opinion is all about: DECORATION… In the end it’s up to you whether to mix ever part of a cappuccino – espresso, crema, microfoam – before drinking it (that is what I mostly do) or simply take the cappuccino to your lips, drink you’re cappuccino and see the latte art sink to the bottom of the cup. So my clear answer is: NO! Latte… Read more »

Scotty d'Angelo
Guest
Scotty d'Angelo

Personally I don’t think anyone would argue with me in that visual presentation lends to a better tasting experience if anything psychologically. The mere belief that something tastes good may very well make the difference between a “good coffee” response and
“amazing coffee”.

As a wouldn’t trade that for a cup of visual bleh even if it meant a technically better tasting drink. (Unless I was blind I suppose) After all, feeding the eyes is almost as important.

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

Boom! Ahead of the game as per.

Dan Kennedy
Guest
Dan Kennedy

Latte art does espresso (and the specialty coffee industry as a whole) a serious injustice. It hides an inferior shot with potentially amazing frothing and pouring skills. If a latte is your go to drink you’re really not a coffee lover, you’re a coffee flavored milk lover. It seems, from comments and the articles on the site, that no one really likes a straight espresso. Everyone talks about bitter and sharp first taste, crema being gross and the like. I think the third wave has taken the roasting too light and emphasized aroma as an end all making most espresso… Read more »

Trent Funke
Guest
Trent Funke

I love this! What a great experiment. Great discussion as well. All you senses have an effect on how something will taste. A long time ago I read a experiment where people were blindfolded and got to smell an apple. The blindfolded said it was an apple, and while the apple was by their nose they gave them a piece of potato to eat. A huge majority said they were eating an apple as their smell sense overpowered the weak tasting potato, cause of similar texture. The long short, if the latte art will visually make you think the drink… Read more »

Arthur Pach
Guest
Arthur Pach

Wouldn’t you crease it if you fold it?

Latte Art Changes The Taste Of Coffee | Centives
Guest
Latte Art Changes The Taste Of Coffee | Centives

[…] Read more here. […]

Dan Kennedy
Guest
Dan Kennedy

You’re dead on Jason. Most people need to be told what to think. Package it right and you can sell anything. Personally when someone tells me something like your friend says I think the opposite (and it is a douchy move)

Scotty d'Angelo
Guest
Scotty d'Angelo

I couldn’t disagree more. I can look at a free pour and tell right off if the drink is a sinker or something worth imbibing. There is a quality to latte art made with perfect microfoam that lends to that oh-so-creamy smoothness sought after in an excellent latte. As a barista it’s easy to see, as a customer, it might not be. Coffee flavored milk lover… that’s a good one! 🙂 I pull straight espressos most of the time as they are my preferred drink. SO’s are completely over-rated, IMO, but I suppose nowadays it’s de rigeur of the ever… Read more »

Scotty d'Angelo
Guest
Scotty d'Angelo

Disagreement is what makes life interesting. I suppose the stronger your conviction in the more credibility it lends! 😉

Dan Kennedy
Guest
Dan Kennedy

A sad commentary on the average person and their inability to discern things/think for themselves. The apple/potato analogy isn’t really applicable. People being told they are eating an apple and only smelling one isn’t thought suggestion. Humans only taste salt, sweet, sour and bitter. We smell the aromatics that are in an apple or flower or chocolate, enzymatic, sugar browning . . . If you blindfolded someone, gave them a potato, said it was an apple and had them eat it they would call you on it. So from your perspective it’s really about marketing and not the product itself?!?… Read more »

Dan Kennedy
Guest
Dan Kennedy

I couldn’t disagree more. I find many shops that have great latte art and bad drinks. A pretty picture on a capp does not make a capp ANY better.

Trent Funke
Guest
Trent Funke

I agree! People ARE stupid and lazy! haha. That’s the phrase I needed to say earlier. :p I believe taste and smell are link. They are their own receptor organs but linked when you are tasting food and drink. There is lots of science to back that up. Or just remember the last time you had a head cold and couldn’t breathe. Everything tasted bland because you couldn’t smell.

Dan Kennedy
Guest
Dan Kennedy

the senses are not tricking us in taste vs smell experiments such as this. We smell the apple when put under our nose plain and simple. We taste the potato when we bite, chew and ingest it. Most people don’t have a discerning enough palate to be able to differentiate differences in taste unless they are drastic as taste is divided into only four aspects. Our sense of smell, on the other hand, has the ablilty to differentiate a near infinite amount of scents. It is much more powerful a sense if only due to it’s discerning ability. People see… Read more »

Trent Funke
Guest
Trent Funke

Your senses play tricks on you. The fact that you have this over powering smell of apple hanging at your nose as you eat a potato, similar in texture, blindfolded, they thought it was an apple. Your sense of smell and taste are linked. A raw potato not having a lot of flavour, the apple came in on top. Your eyes do the same thing, if something looks pretty, its suppose to taste better right? You’re right, it does sound like I wrote it about the marketing and not about the product itself. Did not intend for it but it’s… Read more »

Dan Kennedy
Guest
Dan Kennedy

Hahahaha! Possibly, or just that much more set in our own beliefs anyway. Love your profile pic btw. Squidward is a favorite of mine

Trent Funke
Guest
Trent Funke
Dan Kennedy
Guest
Dan Kennedy

You are confusing “the experience” of drinking with the sense analysis of drinking. Visuals, tastes and aromas are all an integral part of “the experience”. Analyzing the quality of a drink, visuals are completely irrelevant and taste and aroma are separate factors that have no bearing on each other. Evidently you have never done any analytical coffee cupping as with that not only are taste and aromatics separated, they are broken down into very specific taste and aromatic components. Each components perceptibly can be masked more or less by other components but the more one cups and develops their discernment… Read more »

Miguel Manrique
Guest
Miguel Manrique

I´m Miguel Manrique professional barista from Amor Perfecto Café (Colombia), as a matter of fact, we´ve worked in this issue before; maybe cuz in Colombia some customers prefer sweetness more than bitterness in their cappuccinos. I don´t want to sacrifice latte-art; in fact, for us every decision must be focalized in customer service and definitively latte-art is one way to connect with them. From the important customer point, I decide to keep preparing the cappuccinos decorated but including a transcendental step before deliver the cup to the client (Obviously knowing the customer preference and evading the “Mix it first, please”).… Read more »

Miguel Manrique
Guest
Miguel Manrique

I´m Miguel Manrique professional barista from Amor Perfecto Café (Colombia), as a matter of fact, we´ve worked in this issue before; maybe cuz in Colombia some customers prefer sweetness more than bitterness in their cappuccinos. I don´t want to sacrifice latte-art; in fact, for us every decision must be focalized in customer service and definitively latte-art is one way to connect with them. From the important customer point, I decide to keep preparing the cappuccinos decorated but including a transcendental step before deliver the cup to the client (Obviously knowing the customer preference and evading the “Mix it first, please”).… Read more »

Dan Kennedy
Guest
Dan Kennedy

Tolling?
Other than my incorrect usage

Gansos in my coffee?! | PicOfTheDay
Guest
Gansos in my coffee?! | PicOfTheDay

[…] task in itself and requires skill to mix crema (the foam of the coffee) and the foam of milk. Some say it influences the taste, but unless you do a blind fold experiment you will never know the […]

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