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Soy, With Steam and Attitude

'A soy latte' is becoming the order of choice, even if a good one is almost impossible to make

September 04, 2002|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA CRUZ — All trends start somewhere, and for the sake of argument, you could call this 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 here. 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% 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.

"Ask anyone," she says, her silver nose ring glinting. "Giving good soy foam is hard."

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 "presensitizes" 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."

This is apparently why soy-latte-at-its-best can be tough to track down. And why soy latte, at its worst, can end up tasting like livestock feed and looking like old dishwater--wan and thinly bubbled and gray-brown. Elizabeth Briggs, a professor of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., offers a trick: "Don't leave the steam nozzle in your soy milk for more than a minute and a half, total. Get it hot for a minute, pull the nozzle up to just below the surface and froth the milk for just maybe 30 seconds."

In other words, get in and get out.

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, non-animal 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 Bay Area's neo-hippie, dot-com culture--that their convergence began to catch on.

Until then, coffeehouse owners say, the soy latte was a sort of sometime fetish that they chalked up to Nor-Cal eccentricity.

"For years, we had this woman who used to come in every morning with her own soy milk," laughs Daryl Ross, who owns four Berkeley coffeehouses, including Caffe Strada and the Free Speech Movement Cafe on the UC Berkeley campus. "Really attractive blond woman. Professionally dressed. Mysterious. Trench coat. OK, I'm kidding about the trench coat. But really, she came in every day."

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