Crossing the line

Why won't you serve me an extra extra hot hot chocolate?  (What temperature is that anyway?) Yep we were asked to do this last year and it's been simmering away in the back of my mind ever since.  You know me so you know that I gave a thoughfull and considered response.  Here is the background to that response and the research the forms the basis of the way we operate.

By the way, normally we texture milk to 65 degrees and pour it into a warmed cup or glass.  We will serve a hot coffee, just ask us.  We’ll make it hot by heating the cup with hot water and texturing the milk to 70 degrees. The drink usually arrives at your table at 60 degrees for a cup of cappuccino or flat white or just above 55 degrees for a latte.  Your hot chocolate can take a little more heat as the chocolate in the milk allows the milk to be textured longer without the milk cooking or the emulsion breaking down as quickly.  This is industry standard. Baristas I've contacted said that they do this too.  They also said that if a customer is demanding, they’ll cook the milk until it's boiling and burnt-so careful what you wish for!  Oh and by the way our interpretation of “luke warm” would be just above body temperature which when I last checked was 36.5-37.5 degrees.  Lastly if we have made a mistake and your coffee is too hot or too cold, let us know and we'll make it again.

So is it just me or are more people asking for extra extra hot coffees?  OK it could be the weather cooling down? Or maybe some other factors like being accustomed to boiling water from a kettle to make tea bag tea or Blend 43 coffee, or maybe we are used to the super hot coffee or hot chocolates that are dispensed into plastic cups from a one press vending machine or from fast food restaurants?  Or have our palatesbeen so abused with hot beverages that over time it has become desensitised to heat-just like the hands of a chef who has been working the pans all their life.  Maybe distance from Melbournes CBD makes people expect a hotter coffee? Please let me know why you think people are asking for hotter coffees.

So why do you want a hot coffee? Do you want it to last longer? Do you want to be able to drink it longer down the Hume Hwy? Is it because you would like to sit outside and still have a hot coffee on a freezing winter's morning? Or like the customer today that wanted a hot coffee to warm his insides! (I know, he should dress warmer:) Or it could be that as we age our threshold for pain increases and we become desensitised to heat?  Many people experience changes in the touch-related sensations as they age.

So anecdotally I’d say more older people order extra hot coffees.  There are benefits to aging as we are able to tolerate the stronger flavours and appreciated the nuances of a long black or espresso coffee or a full bodied shiraz or cabernet.  The bonus is long black coffees are delivered to the table at about 70-75 degrees.  It takes about 5-6 minutes to drop to a temperature of 65 degrees.  Problem solved.

Now let's get a couple of milk facts out of the way…  Why is coffee served at 65 degrees? Milk gets sweeter the warmer it gets, well up until 65 degrees. (That’s the Lactose solids dissolving in the milk). We like a sweeter tasting milk drink as it balances nicely with the acidity in coffee and with acidity comes flavour and a clean palate at the end of your coffee.  We also like the fat in milk as this not only helps balance acidity but fat carries flavour, assists with mouth feel and texture and helps with the absorption of some nutrients.  Fat also reduces the need to add sugar to your coffee. Textured milk is relatively stable at 65 degrees. The textured milk is really a fat emulsion, just like a hollandaise.  As the foam gets hotter, the bubbles become unstable, the liquid drains more readily causing the bubbles to join together and collapse creating a textual and visual let down.

At around 72-74 degrees milk begins to sour and has a cooked taste, apparently this reaction is called a maillard reaction.  It's a great reaction when you are baking bread or croissants but not in a coffee, or tea for that matter.  And at 80 degrees milk scalds, and begins to caramelise between 80-100 degrees.  Full caramelization needs time, about 30 minutes at 100 degrees (This would happen if the barista didn't rinse the milk jug each time they textured milk). You’d end up with something like Dulce de Luce if you did it slowly at the lower temperature or burnt caramel at a higher temperature.

So a quick summary why your barista won't heat your milk beyond 70 degrees

  • It sours and tastes burnt above 70 degrees
  • Will separate quickly in the jug so will not look aesthetically pleasing (remember nice or hot not nice and hot?)
  • Separated foam does not combine with coffee crema making the foam taste like a babycino(or fluffy if you’re from New Zealand)
  • Baristas take pride in the products they produce.
  • They are following instructions and procedures in their organisation.i.e. the boss said so
  • It's a slippery slope and the habit of texturing milk too hot could flow on to other customers.  Or as is the case of chefs, regularly burning your hand on the pans will slowly desensitize your hands to heat.
  • They know that waiters carrying a boiling cup of coffee through a busy cafe are a risk to themselves and their little customers
  • They increase the risk of scalding themselves. (hot milk at 60 degrees takes 1 second to scold you whereas hot milk at 50 degrees takes 10 seconds)


Here's a scenario that is all wrong…

Customer orders an extra hot latte… Barista pulls a ripper coffee shot then starts to texture the milk and as they get past 70 degrees a sound like a jet taking off reverberates around the cafe as the foam loses liquid - not a reassuring sound for others waiting in the queue!  Oh and then the coffee needs to look nice (we can do nice or hot but not nice and hot). In order to pour the milk into the cup, baristas usually do this by lifting the cup to get the angle right, then we'll lift the cup onto a saucer. Even me with chefs hands have come close to dropping a cup that is too hot.  How do I expect my staff to get around this?  Use a tea towel or oven mitt like you are pulling something hot out of the oven? Again, not reassuring.  
Say we safely landed the scalded milk into the cup and onto the saucer, it's next journey is through the busy Saturday morning cafe crowd by the junior waitress. She does a Maradona move around the kids playing with toys on the floor, opens the front door without being run over by the customers chatting as they race through the door to secure that last table.  Out onto the pavement and it's a free for all.  Dodge the BMXers and skateboarders jumping the gutter, swerve to miss the person walking and texting, note the dogs tied to the table legs, no don't put the coffee anywhere near that grasping two year old… Phew mission accomplished.  She does note that 10 mins later the coffee hasn't been touched as the customers are still deep in conversation.   

Yes you the customer are right.  Up to a point.  Or in this case to a temperature.  So you want a hot cup of coffee?   l’ll let you in on a secret, baristas don’t ever heat the milk beyond 70 degrees.  They’ll do everything they can to not do this.... They’ll heat the cup, and maybe even the handle.  That way when you touch the handle you’ll think it’s hot and when you put your lips to the rim and burn them, you’ll think the coffee is hot, and finally when you get to drink the liquid gold, it will still be at 65 degrees as the barista wanted.  They are protecting their product, their integrity and their safety, the safety of their colleagues and customers and that of the business they work for.

Now we have been talking about cow's milk only.  Soy shouldn't go above 55 degrees and it curdles, more so in more acidic or strong coffees, almond and lactose free milk I’ll get back to you on those. You want to bring your own goats milk in? Sure.  Coconut milk? Sure.  Cashew milk? Sure

Our focus is on producing and serving quality food and beverages.  Along the way customers come and go as our products evolve and we learn more about the needs of our customers. We reckon it is pretty special that the town of Wangaratta is happy to support the diversity that is Cafe Derailleur.  Having a robust debate online has made me look into every aspect of “extra extra hot milk”.  It has confirmed that we are doing the right thing.  We are listening to our customers and focusing on the quality of the product and that speaks for itself, on the reviews, feedback from our customers and in our hearts.  Needless to say that thriving in the hospitality game for six years says more than ever that by focusing on the things that matter to us will follow through to the bottom line.