I decided to adopt the cappuccino, the Italian breakfast drink that’s become the symbol of Britain’s modern café culture, as my coffee barometer. According to the official Italian guidelines (no, really), the perfect cappuccino equals 1 shot of espresso mixed with 125ml of warm milk, heated to no more than 650C. The ‘microfoam’ that tops it off should have bubbles so tiny as to be nearly invisible, and be swirled with chestnut-brown streaks. Finally the whole thing should be served up in a wide, relatively shallow ceramic cappuccino cup.
With this in mind, my first testing ground was Beanscene. Negotiating my way through the yummy mummies, prams and small children that this café attracts, I paid £2.10 for a small cappuccino. The cocoa-dusted foam was acceptable, but underneath lurked bitter, murky coffee, more like a watered down espresso than one blended with creamy frothed milk. Drinkable, but only if you’re desperate — which I wasn’t.
I then moved to Little Italy, a traditional, bustling Glaswegian-Italian café on Byres Road. Here they charged only £1.60 and presented my coffee in a proper cappuccino cup. That was the only clue as to what lay inside. Under the foam was something that tasted like hot milk with the tiniest drip of coffee, this Italian proving diminutive in flavour as well as in name.
Just over the road is Tinderbox, a West End institution that certainly looks the part. I had high hopes for such an obviously popular coffee bar, but the cappuccino here was surprisingly amateurishly assembled and, taste-wise, the worst of the lot so far. Bitter, aggressive and one-dimensional, if you’re really this desperate for caffeine you’d be better off grinding up a ProPlus and mixing it with ditchwater.
Beginning to lose heart, I trudged up to the top of Byres Road to Heart Buchanan’s sit-in café. The wrong kind of cup, true, but I can forgive them that. The beautifully swirled foam concealed – finally! – a perfect blend of comforting, creamy milk and the most delicious cappuccino I’ve tasted in a long time. Rich, complex, strong but not bitter, this is how coffee ought to be. Hardly surprising, when you learn that this place sources its beans from London’s legendary Monmouth Coffee Co. At £2.20 it was the most expensive drink of all, but only just, and that’s a small price to pay for rediscovering how good coffee can really be.