As someone who really treasures a fresh cup of specialty coffee and often goes out of his way to seek out the best local cafés in the cities that I visit, I do have pretty high standards. Full discloure. Zero apologies.
This is not to sound arrogant. Instead, it’s a reflection of my own knowledge of the product and how I like it being served when I am not preparing it myself. In the nearly 10 years that I’ve been running this blog and business, I’ve encountered countless places that claimed to serve specialty coffee and then simply fell short for various reasons.
Generally speaking, my policy here at The Coffeevine has always been to highlight only the best cafés and leave out the ones that don’t convince. I don’t really believe in public shaming unless there is a structural issue that needs to be addressed such as continously rude customer service, consistently bad quality or straight up lies.
Again, we were served expensive flat whites made with UHT milk. Seriously?
One thing that recently really ground my gears on a visit to Nice was the use of UHT milk in places that claim to serve specialty coffee. The last time that I consistently came across this practice was during my visit to Ukraine in 2018 where I was told that it was due to a lack of high quality fresh milk available. I found that hard to believe, partially because there were also plenty of cafés in Kyiv that did have fresh milk but I let it slip because I knew too little about the market to make an informed judgement.
In Nice, where it was challenging to find any place that serves specialty coffee to begin with, the use of UHT milk was then also coupled with eye-watering prices for coffees that really didn’t go down well. And that is a shame because they could have been so good.
After returning from a day-trip to Monaco yesterday, my partner Michal and I stopped at a local specialty coffee bar that has a 4.9 star rating on Google. Reviews included statements such as ‘fan of speciality coffee it was a pleasure to drink some nice espresso and discuss with the owner. Very friendly staff’ and ‘delicious coffee made and served by someone who cares about coffee’.
Obviously, expectations were high. After popping inside and having a quick chat with the barista, we sat down on the terrace and awaited our flat whites, which both of us craved. When the drinks arrived, the cup size was correct and the latte art looked well done. Then the came the first sip and the immediate disappointment. The milk was not fresh.
I mentioned this to the barista while he was hovering around awaiting my judgement – they knew I was coming – and he said that they never use fresh milk. I was astounded, especially because the price was a whopping €5,50.
Noticing my disapproval, he offered to get some fresh milk for the following day if I cared to return and I happily agreed. What struck me as bizarre, however, was that he also proudly boasted that they can ‘blend’ various coffees on location according to what the customer prefers. Basically, taking different beans, mixing them together and then pulling espresso shots to suit someone’s taste.
This is not a practice that anyone should follow because the results are extremely unpredictable and blending should be done by the roaster, not the barista.
The next day, we hunted down the other place in Nice that claims to serve craft coffee from the same roaster further down the coast in Antibes. Again, the place had a La Marzocco machine and boasted about the use of its Kenyan coffee beans. Again, we were served expensive flat whites made with UHT milk. Seriously?
From a purely commercial perspective, I can understand that you might want to keep your costs low and if you had to choose between fresh milk delivered 1-2 per week and long life milk that you can buy in bulk and store in your basement for months, the choice is clear.
Yet, if you advertise that you serve specialty coffee, you already want to set yourself apart from other hospitality businesses in your area. Add to that a pretty expensive espresso machine and you have all the tools in place to offer your customers a really unique coffee experience. Especially, if you are based in a town with little to no other options.
That is why I don’t understand at all why you would then skimp on such a crucial element such as the milk. Milk and milk foam make up more than 60% of your drink’s composition – if serving a 180 – 200ml cappuccino with a shot of around 38-40ml of espresso.
Fresh milk, ideally one with a high fat content, gives the coffee its rich silky texture while the proteins help to foam the milk and the lactose gives it its sweetness. Using alternative milks such as lactose free options or soy milk, generally doesn’t deliver the results of fresh whole fat milk but, of course, I understand that many people choose alternatives due to dietary restrictions or because they do actualy prefer the taste. The latter is especially true for Oatly.
Yet, when it comes to using UHT milk simply because using fresh whole fat milk isn’t even considered, that to me is pure laziness either on part of the café or bar owner or on part of the roaster or both. As a roaster, I would always want for my customers to serve my coffee in a way that makes it taste the most delicious. It simply does not make sense to me that a specialty coffee roaster would happily advise their customers to use UHT milk.
As a café owner, I would also want to make sure that I use the best ingredients possible for all components of my drinks, not just the coffee itself. If you’re charging me €5,50 for a regular flat white, then I expect it to be the best coffee in town.
Today, I went back to the first café after walking for almost 20 minutes across town only to arrive and be told that the barista didn’t have time to get fresh milk as promised. Grumbling to myself, I ordered a flat white with oat milk instead. Not only was this one worse than the UHT milk version, it also cost a breath-taking €6.
Needless to say, I do not recommend either of these places. My expectations are high for a reason.
What’s your experience with UHT milk in specialty coffee cafés? Is this something you’ve come across much? Does it bother you? Share your thoughts in the comments down below.