Happy marriage of two beans makes a mean hot beverage

With the addition of soy, some coffee fans find unalloyed joy

January 12, 2003|By Shawn Hubler | By Shawn Hubler,Special to the Sun

All trends start somewhere, and for the sake of argument, you could call Santa Cruz, Calif., the cradle of the soy latte.

Colleen Crosby recalls making her first one in 1978, not long after she and her husband opened a coffeehouse there. A friend who was into two of Northern California's signature passions -- veganism and gourmet coffee -- had wondered if the Italian drink of steamed milk and espresso could be done with no animal products. Crosby remembers shoving a pitcher of soy milk under her espresso machine steamer and thinking, "Hmm," when it came out.

"It looked like silly putty," she says, laughing.

Twenty-five years later, the drink that seemed fringe even to Santa Cruz hippies is moving suddenly, even deliciously, mainstream. Soy lattes are in high-end restaurants, in airport lounges, in Midwestern shopping centers. They are on the menu at all 3,300-plus Starbucks. In Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, some coffeehouses report, as many as 10 percent of their coffee-and-milk drinks are made with soy milk. Renee Zellweger reportedly drinks them, as do Britney Spears and the drummer for Weezer. The popular rock anthem "Drops of Jupiter" compares love to "the best soy latte you ever had."

In America's coffeehouses, however, the soy latte remains the bane of the barista.

"See? Look at this. It's supposed to look like melted ice cream. Does this look like melted ice cream?" Anna Lorito ladles a big spoon into a pitcher of frothed soy milk. It is thick. It is beige. It is fragrant. But, apparently, it is not yet up to par.

Lorito works at a Peet's Coffee & Tea in San Francisco, and in her nine months at the bar, she has found soy lattes completely frustrating.

The taste of a soy latte differs considerably from a conventional latte, in which espresso is mixed with steamed milk, then topped with a cap of milk foam. For one thing, soy milk isn't milk; rather it is an extract of ground, soaked and cooked soybeans. Some soy milks are bland, some are grassy; some are sweetened to suit the tastes of American consumers, others have the "beanier" taste preferred in Asian markets.

At its best, a latte made with soy milk is to regular coffee what a tall Guinness is to a draft beer -- a heartier, almost maltier-tasting variation on the standard, with a thick, brown, creamy head.

Such heights, however, are difficult to achieve because soy milk is so much trickier to steam.

"You have to go into it kind of gently -- it's easy to scorch if you slam into it with full-strength steam," says Patrick Main, the coffee bar quality manager for the Emeryville, Calif.-based Peet's Coffee & Tea chain.

Harold McGee, who has written several books on food science, says this is because soy milk, unlike regular milk, is brought to a boil in its manufacturing process, which "pre-sensitizes" its proteins to steam heat.

"Soy milk has already been beaten up pretty badly by the time it gets to the steamer," he says. "So the proteins are less effective in doing what they need to do in a steamed milk product, which is to bond at just the right time to stabilize the structure of its bubbles."

The rise of the soy latte is one of those random crossings of true believers that seem to occur with preternatural frequency on the West Coast. In this case, the collision was between vegetarian purists, who drank soy because it was a sustainable, nonanimal product, and coffee purists, who, from the late 1960s, sought to raise mainstream consciousness about the virtues of fresh-roasted whole beans. Both groups have been influential for decades in Northern California, although it wasn't until the mid-1990s -- and the rise of the San Francisco Bay Area's neo-hippie, dot-com culture -- that their convergence began to catch on.

By the end of the decade, soy lattes were such a Bay Area fixture that customers could be overheard demanding to know the brand of soy milk, if it was from whole beans or "isolates," if it was organic and if it was Asian- or American-style.

Meanwhile, the trend spread East.

"By the fall of last year, we got such a groundswell of demand that we had to put it on the menu and roll it out in all our stores," says Mark Jameson, executive vice president of Bucks County Coffee, a Philadelphia-area coffeehouse chain.

At the Midwestern coffeehouse chain Caribou Coffee, sales of soy cappuccinos, mochas and lattes have risen by about 60 percent in the two years since they were put on the menu, says marketing director Chris Toal.

But there is soy and then there is soy in Northern California, a fact that has led some baristas to avoid soy lattes altogether.

"Yeah, people ask for 'em. We don't do 'em," says Ida Zoubi, whose family owns the venerable Caffe Trieste in North Beach, Calif. "I mean, soy milk?" She shrugged, wiping the glass counter.

"Ruins the taste of good coffee, I think."

Shawn Hubler is a writer for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Pub-lishing newspaper.

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