Look, I know the urge can be strong to change your morning coffee order directly to its iced counterpart during the height of August’s blistering temperatures. And by all means, replace your steamy drip coffee with a cold brew, and drop your hot almond milk latte in favor of a light and refreshing iced version. But there is one autumn and wintertime coffeehouse staple that under no circumstances should be ordered as an iced drink. Iced cappuccino, we’re looking at you.
You see, a cold brew never even encounters hot water to begin with. And although the milk used to prepare a hot latte spends a good amount of time under a sizzling steam wand, an iced latte is simply cold milk poured over a shot of espresso or two along with ice. Even iced coffee, which is coffee brewed with hot water that is then refrigerated, is a suitable summertime drink. What then is it about an iced cappuccino that makes it such an out-of-bounds beverage? Let’s examine.
A cappuccino, by definition, is a coffee drink made by combining coffee with steamed milk. The word technically encompasses any combination of equal parts coffee, steamed milk and wet foamed milk, though we most associate espresso instead of drip coffee with the drink today. Named after the color of Capuchin friars’ clothing in ancient Rome, the pillowy clouds of milk foam atop a cappuccino eventually give way to the rich, dark brown coffee hiding below. And that color-changing combination is where the issue with iced cappuccinos lurks.
For starters, hot, delicate milk foam and ice physically cannot occupy the same space for more than a couple of seconds. Since ice floats to the top of a cup, the only space where milk foam can exist relatively independently of the drink’s various layers, the two ingredients are immediately at odds with one another. The temperature deviation between the two ingredients both breaks down the fine lattice of dairy protein and air that comprise the foam, and melt the ice, forming a displeasing layer of melted water unable to properly reintegrate with the rest of the drink because of the broken foam combo. The resulting layer is visually displeasing, and will often result in immediate disappointment over a drink that looks and tastes like it was prepared by an amateur.
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There’s also the matter of unwittingly coming away with a potential foodborne illness along with your caffeine fix. Zachary Scott, a barista at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club’s Stumptown-serving cafe explains, “Pouring hot, steamed milk and foam over cold ice can allow for the growth of bacteria. Even though it’s a small risk, it’s still a risk.”
The optimal conditions that allow for bacteria to thrive and multiply generally involve a combination of heat, moisture and environmental oxygen. Restaurant and bar ice machines are already, by their very design, a potential hotbed for bacteria (though newer machines with germ-killing internal UV lights are becoming increasingly popular). As such, they are some of the most frequently flagged parts of a hospitality business during health inspections. In exposing already potentially contaminated ice (despite a business’ best efforts) to hot milk foam, it exposes any possible bacteria hitching a ride on the ice to the spectrum of temperatures where they most easily propagate.
Finally, there’s the head-scratching matter of how we consume iced coffee drinks for the most part: via a straw. Even if it was durable enough to last more than a fleeting moment, what good would silky milk foam do atop a drink protected from spilling by a plastic lid? Even if milk foam were built to last in iced drinks – and again, it is not – your straw and lid rob you of the ability to even appreciate the effort that goes into preparing a cappuccino.
Your local barista may be trained to never correct a guest’s order here in our customer-is-always-right world, so this is one lesson you may need to learn outside of the coffee shop. Stick to cold brews, iced coffees and iced lattes in the summer months, and let cappuccinos remain something you look forward to getting back into along with scarves and pumpkin spice, well, everything in just a few months time when hot drinks will once again hit the spot. Scott adds, “Iced lattes are a much better summertime drink anyway. Low risk, high reward. That’s what you really want.”