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Getting Steamed Up Over the Best Milk for Coffee

Inspired by a recent Grub Street article listing American cafes that make milk a priority, Rico visited one of the listed shops, Los Angeles' SQIRL and met with their head barista, Colleen King, who would prefer you drink your brewed coffee black, but did still shared her secrets of what makes a milk froth-worthy.

The majority of your latte or cappuccino isn’t coffee, it’s milk. Steamed, frothed, and rich, it is what turns a simple shot of espresso into a special drink – and it’s where your barista gets to show off their talents, making elaborate designs with the flick of a wrist. Not just any milk is up to making those motifs, though, so coffee experts source or craft their own special blends of dairy and non-dairy deliciousness. On the rise in the non-dairy department is almond milk, particularly when made in-house at specialty cafes.



Rico Gagliano: Why does milk work so well with coffee?

Colleen King: I think that it’s just the lactose and the fattiness. There was a big trend with skim milk for a long time but there’s now a trend with whole. The fattier milk, the better. It’s just that it compliments that bitterness.

Rico Gagliano: Alright, so, what is the optimal, let’s start with dairy milk? What would be the optimal dairy milk to have with coffee.

Colleen King: If you ask me, I want the fattier the better. When I worked in Chicago, I used a 5% milk and I thought that was a lot of fat, but here we use Strauss Barista Milk which actually has 12%.

Rico Gagliano: It’s actually called “Barista Milk”? They make it specifically for baristas?

Colleen King: Yeah, they are very good at branding.

Rico Gagliano: Twelve percent.

Colleen King: Twelve percent fat. And that’s our only option other than almond milk.

Rico Gagliano: I mean, that’s still less than cream, but it’s kind of like pouring a very lean steak into your coffee. I guess it is as much about creating a rich texture as a flavor at that point though, right?

Colleen King: Yeah. I would say so. Though you want the fat to compliment the acid and, I mean, that’s why you add milk in the first place. If you drink a skim milk latte, the texture is completely different. It almost tastes like you are drinking something that is watered down.

Rico Gagliano: Alright, so let’s turn, then, to almond milk. First of all, I should tell you I’m really happy to be talking to you about almond milk because I am lactose intolerant.

Colleen King: Perfect!

photo milk from Sqirl

Rico Gagliano: I would not be able to try your other milks unless I was willing to sacrifice internal organs to the experiment. So, what is almond milk? It seems to me like you would get oil out of an almond.

Colleen King: So the process that we use is we used blanched almonds and then we soak them from two to twelve hours. If you want it to be really rich, twelve hours. If you just want to get it done, you can do it for two hours. You’re basically soaking almonds, so it’s kind of like almond water. And then you blend the almonds with the water. And then it’s strained through cheesecloth or muslin. That is how you get the almond milk.

Rico Gagliano: And the straining is obviously to get the chunkiness out of it. But it’s still mainly… infused water. And you just said you don’t want to add anything that would water down the coffee.

Colleen King: I mean, the almond milk still has a higher fat content than skim milk, because the goal of skim is to have pretty much zero fat.

Rico Gagliano: I see. So you still got something in there. Plus I can drink it. That’s the main reason.

Colleen King: That is the goal.

Rico Gagliano: It occurs to me there has been a lot of talk about different roasts creating very different flavors of coffee. You can approach coffee almost like wine. Does that mean that you could have a different milk for every type of roast?

Colleen King: Yeah, I think that is already happening. You know, when you go to a diner, they serve you really dark roast coffee and it’s acceptable even for myself to just grab some heavy cream and just put it in there, and it’s great. But lots of cafes, including ourselves, we are only offering whole milk, because we are serving a much lighter coffee. When I source coffees, I want them to be light, floral, balanced. So if I offered that heavy cream that I’m putting in my coffee at a diner, it would completely overpower it.

Rico Gagliano: It would be all cream, no coffee. But then it becomes, like, how complicated can our cup of joe become? Are we going to get to the point where we are going to have different types of wood for stirrers for each roast of Colombian, or something like that?

Colleen King: Well, I think the goal for the coffee community is to not even have to add milk, but I wouldn’t put it past someone to take it to that extent.

Rico Gagliano: It’s ironic that you guys seem to be going further than many to create creams to put into your coffee, but you would sort of have a goal personally of eliminating cream forever from the vernacular.

Colleen King: I think that it’s enjoyable. I just think that, before we would buy specific woods to stir the cream with, we would eliminate the cream.

Rico Gagliano: So this is as far as it goes. No further complications.

Colleen King: I cannot promise anything.

Rico Gagliano: I want to try this stuff. Can we go next door and try it?

Colleen King: Let’s go!

Rico Gagliano: So we are here, in the cafe itself. First of all, we are standing in front of your refrigerator unit, and we’re looking at some of the milk. The barista milk that you mentioned earlier is indeed 12% fat. That is, for the record, 25% saturated fat you’re putting in.

Colleen King: It’ll fill you up.

good milk

Rico Gagliano: In your other hand you’ve got the almond milk which is especially creamy looking. I must say, I’m used to almond milk seeming very thin, and you’re shaking this around in the jar and it’s really thick looking.

Colleen King: Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the other reasons we love it, because it’s a really great texture.

Rico Gagliano: So I have asked for a cappuccino, just a straight up cappuccino, with the almond milk. I would love to taste the barista steak milk but it would destroy me. So here we go. I’m going to take one sip of this.

Lovely! It is much creamier than I’m used to. Is this steamed at all or is it just poured in?

Colleen King: Steamed. I can have you try it cold. It’s pretty similar, but when you heat up milk of any kind, you’re activating those sugars.

Rico Gagliano: So it makes it sweeter when you steam it?

Colleen King: I don’t know that it makes it sweeter, but definitely the perception of sweetness. When you have an iced latte, even with regular milk, it doesn’t taste as sweet as if you steam it at the exact same proportions.

Rico Gagliano: This is delicious. What do you think is the most important element for a coffee?

Colleen King: Definitely the water.

Rico Gagliano: The water? Not the beans?

Colleen King: I mean, the beans, coffee is 97% water. If you have really good coffee but you take the great water out of the equation and you have bad water, the coffee will never be good. So I guess that’s really the element.

Rico Gagliano: But only when you are making the coffee, not after it is done. No skim milk.

Colleen King: Not if I’m drinking it.