Cappuccino Review #3 – Ancora

Ancora Coffee Roasters

2871 University Ave.
Madison, WI  53705


For an intro about how and why I am trying the cappuccinos of Madison, go here.

It was a cold morning here in Madison, but Taryn and I braved the fridged air to visit the Ancora coffee shop located on University Ave.  Unfortunatnly, I forgot the camera at home, so there won’t be any pictures of the place or drinks here.  Ancora owns a small chain of coffee shops in the Madison area; the one on University Ave. is very small and more oriented toward commuters traveling through the isthmus.  On this Sunday, it was pretty much full, but we found a couple of nice seats next to the (unlit) fireplace.  Ancora’s smallest size of coffee drink is called a ‘regular’; this comes in a 12oz mug.  By cappuccino standards this is enormous, more than twice as big as it should be, but is pretty typical among coffee shops that consider the latte to be the standard drink.  So, I ordered a dry regular cappuccino and hoped for the best

As expected, the cappuccino had too much milk.  The foam was a bit course though otherwise nice.  The real shame was that I could tell the quality of the coffee was quite good, however, it was diluted with too much milk.  Otherwise it was a pleasant cappuccino, though it more resembled a strong latte than anything else.  Here are the numbers (all out of 5):

Presentation: 3

Smoothness: 4

Strength: 3

Complexity: 3

Foam: 3

Correctness: 3

Mean: 3.17/5

SD: 0.41

Although the cappuccino was pretty average, Taryn’s chai latte was extremely good.  It was served in something similar to a water glass, and featured a head of foam that was silky and tasty.  To round it off, cinnamon was sprinkled over the foam; extra points for that!  It was bit sweeter than what many people may prefer (it is perhaps the opposite of the subdued chai at Mother Fool’s), but if you are into that sort of things it is tops.

So, there we have it; although I consider Ancora to be one of the better coffee shops in town, their cappuccino is only average.  However, their chai is probably worth a visit.

Cappuccino Review #2 – Mother Fool’s

Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse

On the corner of Williamson St. and Ingersoll
On the corner of Williamson St. and Ingersoll

1101 Williamson St.
Madison, WI 53703


For an intro about how and why I am trying the cappuccinos of Madison, go here.

Williamson St. is typically considered to be the most ‘bohemian’ area of town and is referred to mostly by the name Willy St. by the people of Madison.  Mother Fool’s retains this character; its interior is well worn and airy, and on a saturday is generally populated by students and others of that sort.  It is also accepts Madison Hours, the local currency of Madison, in case you have some of that in your wallet.

I had already heard very good things about the cappuccinos at this place before I tested it.  I was also hopeful when I saw that their menu listed a cappuccino as 1/3

I couldn't resist taking a sip before the picture...
I couldn't resist taking a sip before the picture...

espresso, 1/3 milk, and 1/3 foam.  So, I ordered a small cappuccino and I indeed got a classic cappuccino of about 50z.  Perfect!  The foam was pleasant and of a perfect proportion.  I could also tell that the espresso was of high quality (they use Alterra coffee out of Milwaukee, WI); it came through the milk with a robust flavor but was not overly bitter.  It also had a nice hint of berries.  Put simply, this was one of the best cappuccinos that I have ever had.  I’m sure a more refined taster could have gripes with this drink, but I simply cannot.  Here are the numbers (all scores out of 5):

Presentation: 4

Smoothness: 5

Strength: 5

Complexity: 4

Foam: 5

Correctness: 5

Mean 4.67/5

SD: .52

Taryn ordered the chai latte; this is rather different from a standard chai latte that you typically find in coffee shops.  Instead of a premanufactured mix

The Chai latte; notice the teabags steeping in the milk.
The Chai latte; notice the teabags steeping in the milk.

being combined with steamed milk, Mother Fool’s gives you chai tea bags steeping in steamed milk.  This produces a more subtle drink that is definently worth a try.

I’m a little reluctant to say that Mother Fool’s is the best coffee shop on the east side, given the fact that I have not yet been to Escape Java Joint (which is just down the street), but I’m sure it is pretty close. I would certainly go out of my way to have another cappuccino here.

What makes a good bike lane?

I came across this website called Streetsblog today that shows  examples of good bike lanes.  If you go to the link you will notice that they are all separated from traffic by some sort of divider.  This is often ignored in America; here a bike lane is just an extra small lane that is set aside for cyclists.  The idea is that a bicycle belongs in the street just like any other vehicle, and that extra accommodations (beyond a slower lane) for bicycles are simply unnecessary.  Madison is a perfect example of this; most bike lanes here are either in the parking lane or between the normal lanes of traffic and the bus lane.  This makes one feel extremely vulnerable most of the time; either you are dodging parked cars (and their doors) or have cars and buses motoring past you on either side.

There is a feeling among many cyclists that even though there may be bike lanes on some main streets, the unsepereated traffic makes it far too dangerous to actually use the lanes.  And this is considered to be an adequate bicycle accomodation by those who design streets.  It seems to me that if we actually want to make cycling a practical method of transportation we need to build infastructure that makes it safe.  Simply drawing lines doesn’t do that.  The lines only accomodate the cars by getting the slower bicycles out of the way.

Cappuccino Review #1 – Starbucks

Starbucks on the capitol square

Across the street from the state capitol; many suits are found inside.
1 E Main St # 101
Madison, WI 53703
For an intro about how and why I am trying the cappuccinos of Madison, go here

It was a beautiful day in Madison today (topping out at 54deg F, which is amazing for Madison in February), so I met Taryn downtown after work and decided to start my series of cappuccino reviews with Starbucks.  You may love or hate the place, but you can’t deny that Starbucks has forever changed the the coffee shop businesses.  It is often times argued that they come into towns and attempt to drive out locally owned businesses.  However, in my experience (I am from suburban Wisconsin) Starbucks has only increased the quality of local shops that could get away with substandard espresso drinks before the competition.  Starbucks does set a certain (though perhaps low) bar of quality.

I went to the Starbucks on the capitol square because I had not actually ever been in there, though there are many of them around town.  For all my reviews, I’ll rate shops by 6 criteria; I explain them fully in a previous post.  I’ll list my final ratings at the end, but here is my non-numeric impression of the Starbucks cappuccino.

I ordered a ‘short’ cappuccino, the mystery size that does not appear on their menu.  In my experience a ‘tall’ (12 oz) cappuccino is little more than a latte; you get the same 1 shot of espresso but with way too much milk.  However, the ‘short’ is still 8 0z (which is about 3 oz too large), but I’ll take what I can get.  I was pleased when I got the drink though; previously at Starbucks I’ve only gotten cappuccinos to go.  The drink certainly looked like it might be a pleasant surprise.

It is a pretty (though large) cappuccino
It is a pretty (though large) cappuccino.

One good sign, as can be seen in the picture, is the ‘espressoized’ milk peeking through the foam; this usually means that you will at least be able to taste the coffee over the milk.  However, it is a tad too big (by about 2 or 3 oz) so I sort of expected a rather weak cappuccino.

And flimsiness is exactly what I got.  Although the foam was quite silking, sweet and good, the rest of the drink was weak and unremarkable.  The espresso that I did taste was just ok, a tad bitter and without much complexity beyond the stereotypical espresso flavor.  So overall, this was a serviceable cappuccino; I might get it again if I found myself in a Starbucks (though I’m not sure I would do so in Madison given my other options), but otherwise I wouldn’t come here again.  However, I have to say that their toffee almond bars are really good; I might be back just for that!  In other news, Taryn’s Chai latte was also “ok”, a bit weak and average.  Here are the numbers for the cappuccino; all scores are out of 5 possible points:

Smoothness: 2

Presentation: 4

Strength: 3

Complexity: 2

Foam: 4

Correctness: 3

Mean score: 3 /5

SD: 0.89

Something about Ecocities

I’ve just finished reading a book about ecological city building by Richard Register. In Ecocities, Register proposes that the current methods of city planning, which advocate single use zoning and great distances, are horribly inadequate. The cities most of us live in are zoned such that people live far from where they work and shop; each human activity has its own area in the modern city; this makes car travel the most practical method. There are of course some exceptions (if one lives in Manhattan, for example, it would be quite easy to never leave the island) but for the most part, this is an accurate model of the suburban city.

It doesn’t take too much effort to realize the problem with the single use zoning. It is tremendously inefficient. Most people travel with their car every day to and from work; they are not using the space that the automobile provides; in order to simply move themselves, they have to bring along something that weighs a ton or so. Why do we agree to live with such an arrangement? Well, suburbs promise to be pleasant, for one; after all, cities can be rather stressful places to live. And it seems like a good idea to have a plot of land to oneself (though it seems like this land is so often wasted by planting huge tracts of grass….). Compound this with the abundance of cheap energy in the form petroleum and you get the current trend for civilization to sprawl over all the landscape. Driving to far off places is cheaper than buying land in the polluted and noisy city, so it is hard to see an argument against such a sprawl.

Register seems to think that the main problem with our current arrangement is the way it ruins lives, both animal and human. It devastates ecosystems as well as creates a dangerous and violent environment in which heavy objects (automobiles) whizz through the air at great speeds. People also become emotionally separated from each other because of their great physical distances from one another. I think these are all good reasons for hating cars (though I’m not sure the last one is so true, given how much New Yorkers despise each other) but the most pressing concern originating from the petroleum induced sprawl is the imminence of ‘peak-oil’ .

Reaching ‘peak-oil’ means that we have reached the point where petroleum production will begin to decline. This is built into the concept of a finite resource like fossil fuels; we will someday run out. This is why they are not sustainable sources of energy. Fossil fuels are truly amazing in most respects. In case you haven’t stopped and thought about it, try to imagine how much it would cost you to have your car towed across town by a team of animals. Beasts of burden are very expensive to feed and take care of, but this could be accomplished for a few dollars using an internal combustion engine. With this in mind, it isn’t a stretch to consider the cultural and technological boom of the 20th century to be a result of petroleum. And now imagine the disaster that could ensue if it is used up.

In my opinion, Register’s most important point (one that is also expressed by other people concerned about peak-oil) is that we must re-structure our cities in order to survive after oil is gone. It will no longer be economical to drive to work if you live 30 miles away; therefore we need to build communities that are ‘walkable’, in which you could walk to work, to the store, and home again. He also would like to see extensive use of bicycles in his ‘ecocities’ but they should not be the primary method of transportation. He advocates a major movement of people from the suburbs and non-productive rural areas (places not involved in agriculture) to inside the city. This would cause the density of cities to increase dramatically, though he wishes to mitigate this problem by ensuring that architecture produces cities in which people would want to live. This includes numerous natural spaces and gardens that would also have the effect of increasing biodiversity. To get an idea of what this would entail, I calculated the density that would result from the current population of Madison moving into an area similar to (though quite a bit larger than) Register’s vision of an ecocity; I found that the density would be about 12,000 people /square mile. This is similar to the density of a city like Chicago.

Whether the sort of population density envisioned by Register would be desired by people is not clear. He seems to portray this arrangement as some sort of Utopia; I have my doubts as to whether people are capable of creating such places (there certainly are few examples in history of society working this well). However, I do not doubt that a radical increase in density will be required given the coming scarcity of transportation fuels. I don’t think it is likely that we will be able to completely replace our current levels of fossil fuel energy with sustainable sources, and therefore, a radical reduction in energy consumption is almost certainly necessary. But how do we accomplish this without displacing large populations who will be short of food and other resources? I’m not sure that we can shove density down the throats of citizens who are, for the moment, enjoying very cheap energy. Hopefully, people will slowly come to realize the unsustainable nature of suburban living and migrate to communities that have all the necessities of life within a reasonable distances. If this does not happen, and there is a sudden oil ‘crash,’ then it might be best to obtain a nice piece of land and a whole lot of guns; because if large groups of people are not prepared for the sudden drop of energy availability, and must fight to survive, things could get quite ugly. This is clearly what Register hopes to avoid.

I have many other thoughts about this topic, but hopefully this serves as an adequate introduction. There are other voices in this debate, including the more moderate ‘New Urbanists‘ who have been far more successful than Register.   I’ll certainly see what they have to say as well.

Cappuccino Run

How a coffee shop makes its cappuccinos says a lot.  One can drown bad coffee in sweet milk, but when a cappuccino is made properly it shows off (or exposes) both the quality of the bean as well as the skill of the barista.  I’m not trying to be a snooty douche, but cappuccinos really are tasty and also seem to brighten my day (though that is probably just the effect of a copious amount of caffeine….).

There are many coffee shops in Madison, though I typically only frequent a few; so, I think it might be fun to have an excuse to visit some of the others.   For this reason, I’m going to start reviewing the cappuccinos made in every Madison coffee shop.  I won’t venture into the suburbs (anything outside of downtown and the ‘near’ sides) because I don’t like it there.  A Cappuccino ‘crawl’ has been done before in Madison by an espresso snob (the kind that compares everything to how it is in Italy) but he did not comment extensively on shops individually.  So,  perhaps I’ll be contributing something to useless human knowledge of the internet.

Here is the list, derived from the Annual Manual:


Barriques Coffee Trader


Electric Earth Cafe

Escape Java Joint and Gallery

Espresso Royale

Fair Trade

Froth House

In the Company of Theives

Indie Coffee


Mother Fool’s


Steep and Brew

Café Soleil

I’m going to try to be as scientific as possible but I’m not sure how easy that will be for such a subjective activity.  I’ll rate them on the following criteria:

Smoothness: Bitter cups will get a low score.

Presentation: How the cappuccino looks.

Strength: A sufficiently robust cup will get a high score, a milky one will earn a low score.

Complexity: If the cup seems to have hints of several flavors it scores highly.

Foam: How smooth and sweet the foam is.

Correctness: How much the cappuccino matches the typical specifications of a 5oz   drink of 1/3 espresso, 1/3 milk, 1/3 foam.

This may take a while…..