Some Coffee With Your Milk, Mister?


Then . . . Which Goes in First?

Our friend David Wronski writes:

I like my coffee what in NYC they call "regular"; and, that's with milk, by the way. Cream is, well, too creamy. In my Big Apple Days make mine "light". On my way to my Mad-Ave office I would usually stop by the local Chock Full O' Nuts Coffee shop — there were several dotted all over town; not quite like Starbucks, but easy to get to from just about anywhere and order two plain whole wheat donuts — to-die-for and two light coffees, to go. There was only one size to go container, if memory serves; the 8 oz. paper cup the same portion as the familiar Greek diner type cup that is . . . everywhere.

This is how my coffees were dispensed. On the counter the serving ladies would have barrel shaped stainless steel containers filled with milk. Each had a lever protruding underneath. The barrel container was raised above the counter around eight inches on an offset pedestal. The coffee cup would be brought underneath the barrel and with how many upward quick flicks of the lever you got (1) a dark, (2) a medium, or (3) a light. This is a rare image of one of those things. (How do you rate my descriptive powers?)

Which brings me to the main point. Even though I'm sure you love reading about my morning, ahem, breakfast preferences back in the day. They were whole wheat donuts, for crying out loud. Can't be all bad.

I've been told the proper way to take coffee with milk, or cream, is to pour the dairy part into the cup first. Repeat, the milk or cream goes into the cup first. Oh, and don't let's have that all too usual ice cold milk or cream. I like my brew hot, and cold dairy just doesn't get it there. There's one place I frequent where they bring a small carafe of milk steamed from the espresso machine, but not frothed. Ask those profiteers at Starbucks to warm your milk and you get a whopping $3.00 cafe au lait, or an even pricier cappuccino; depending on how the "barrista" interprets that order. Fancy name, fancy price. But, I digress.

I first heard of putting the dairy into the cup first from a story about how my teacher, Dr. Ida Rolf, took her coffee. She was educated as a biochemist so she should know from what's what. I also verified this with one of her earliest students. Yes, indeed, the dairy goes in first.

So, how come?

The easy answers are that by adding the milk in first it mixes automatically. Perhaps more esoteric and arguable, when putting it into a fine china cup, the dairy in first buffers the shock of the hot beverage.

But, we are after some science on this, aren't we? The nearest I can get on this point is that the thermodynamics favor the dairy going in first. In other words, the finished product will be warmer if you put the dairy in first. But, you ask, if you are warming up the milk anyway, what's the diff? That's a good question. Alas, Ida is no longer available on that point. It's just that I don't prepare a cup of coffee that I don't think about her preference to add the dairy first. Funny how some things just stick.

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