Cappuccino Review: Johnson Public House

908 E. Johnson St. Madison, WI 53703

3 out of 5 stars (Good)

As I mentioned in my previous post, the pandemic has not been kind to cappuccino lovers in Madison. Many coffee shops were completely or partially closed for much of 2020.  Good baristas are talented people, but found that talent worthless in the labor market as it was, and so many of the best moved on to other careers. Even when coffee shops opened again, they typically only served drinks to go. The very vertical paper cup is not a great way to enjoy a cappuccino, a drink that needs some horizontal space to express the nuanced flavors of espresso and milk together.

I say all this, because Johnson Public House served one of the best cappuccinos in Madison before the pandemic. They were also one of the coffee shops making an early comeback with online ordering and to-go cups. I always found them to be disappointing for some reason after the pandemic began. I chalked it up the stresses of making to-go orders during a pandemic, and the inferiority of paper cups. But they have long since brought back in cafe orders, and I’ve encountered similar issues with their cappuccinos.

A “proper” cappuccino is 1/3 froth, 1/3 milk, 1/3 espresso. The standard “third wave” interpretation of “froth” is microfoam rather than the pile of course foam of traditional Italian cappuccinos; it should have the consistency similar to paint.  Because foam takes up more volume than milk, too little foam will lead a drink that is overly milky, drowning the flavors of the espresso. Microfoam on the other hand has a tendency to accentuate espresso flavors, adding a richness and sweetness to the espresso without taking over.

On a recent trip to Johnson Public House my cappuccino had far too little foam, forming a thin layer on top of the drink. The foam that was there was a bit too course, which was obvious from the blobby latte art. You really can’t do good latte art without good microfoam, and so well defined latte art is a good indication that the milk was steamed correctly. The cappuccino I had was too milky tasting. I couldn’t tell the quality of the espresso, because most of what I tasted was the unfrothed milk.

The cheddar scone I had was quite good, and they also have a rather complete breakfast and lunch menu. That’s a nice change from some coffee shops (I’m looking at you Ledger!) that basically only have packaged cookies if you get there past 10am. I’ll certainly be back to Johnson Public House – I hope that sometime soon they will starting serving up top-notch cappuccinos like they did in the good old days.



Reviewing Madison cappuccinos once more: Ledger Coffee

Back in 2008 and 2009, I set out to review as many cappuccinos in Madison as I could. Back then the “third wave” had most decidedly not hit Madison, and the only place that had a first rate cappuccino (by today’s standards) was the newly opened (and still excellent) Bradbury’s. (You can go back and see those reviews by using the “Madison Cappuccino Reviews” category in this blog.)

My standards were also much different back then. I had yet to move to the east coast where I learned a lot about cappuccinos and coffee in general, and had the privilege to try drinks from some of the wold’s best espresso shops in New York City, LA, and Europe. I also undertook to review some of DC’s coffee shops on this blog when I was living there (“DC Cappuccino Reviews” category). DC is no New York or LA, but they have a thriving coffee scene. So I learned quite a bit.

A lot has changed in Madison’s coffee scene since then, and I feel the need to take a look around town again. The pandemic also did a number on local coffee shops. Whether it was the flight of experienced baristas from food service or those paper to-go cups, it seems that cappuccino quality really deteriorated during the pandemic. I’m hoping this trend has reversed a bit.

I’m going to be a bit more holistic this time. Rather than breaking down ratings by each aspect of the cappuccino, I’ll just give single rating from 1 to 5 stars.  Also ratings will only reflect the cappuccino itself, not the coffee shop in general or other items there.  But I’ll describe what is great (and not so great) about each cappuccino.  I’m only going to try one location for the chains, and there will be some I avoid (like that chain with all of the health-code violations….). I’ll start with a go-to coffee shop near my house, in a formerly abandoned feed mill and beet processing plant.

Ledger Coffee

3241 Garver Green Suite 140

4 out of 5 stars (Very Good)

Located in the redeveloped Garver Feed Mill, Ledger is the only first-rate espresso shop within walking distance to my house. So I find myself there quite a bit. Up until a few years ago I just knew this building as a decaying former beet processing plant behind Olbrich Gardens that I would pass along the bike trail. Now it contains an Ian’s pizza, a fish co-op, kombucha producer, yoga studio, and a number of other interesting businesses.

Ledger Coffee
Ledger Coffee

Ledger roasts their own beans on site, and is a pretty small operation. They only have a few baked goods from outside bakeries, and they often sell out of the best stuff pretty early in the morning. They only do to-go orders (sad paper cups). Although the Garver site has lots of seating outside, so you can linger. This means that if you want them to make your drink in a real cup, you need to bring it yourself. So I brought along a 6 oz cup from home, and they happily made me a cappuccino in it.

Ledger Cappuccino

The milk and foam were top notch, with some nice latte art. Of course, latte art itself doesn’t matter, but its presence is a good indication that the milk is of the right consistency (with micro-foam instead of course foam) and the barista is skilled.  The foam was sweet and smooth – perfect actually.

The only reason why Ledger’s cappuccino isn’t top-tier is the “flatness” of the espresso.  I don’t know whether this is a problem with how the shot was pulled or the beans, but the espresso seems to lack much depth of flavor. There is simply a slight bitterness and standard espresso flavor, but not much in the way of interesting fruit, caramel, or chocolate notes.  I know that their single origin coffees are very good (and interesting) when I’ve prepared them at home (either pour-over or espresso), but I haven’t been as impressed with their prepared espresso. That being said I have not tried their espresso blend beans, so perhaps that is the issue.

Even given the lackluster espresso Ledger makes a very good cappuccino. After all, I keep coming back for it! I also highly recommend their seasonal lattes, including the really impressive rose latte that they have been serving lately. They also have very good vegan donuts on weekends (they are really good…trust me!). But come early, because they sell out fast.