Cappuccino Review: Mother Fool’s

1101 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53703

https://motherfools.com/

4* out of 5 (Very Good)

Note that they are check/cash only.

Mother Fool’s was one of the first cappuccinos I reviewed back in 2009.  They made a great cappuccino then, so this was certainly a shop that I wanted to get back to for this round of cappuccino reviews.  I had a pretty busy end to my summer, but in late July I stopped in to try out their cappuccino again.

Some things haven’t changed at all. It is still a classic Madison “hippie” coffee shop, and one of the few with live music.  For a long time they have featured a good selection of vegan baked goods, but the big change since the pandemic is that their espresso drinks are now vegan only as well. It’s a pretty radical move that puts them in a small club nationally.  Certainly, I don’t know of any other vegan only coffee shop in Madison (though I’m not vegan, so I might just be unaware).

The lack of whole cow milk left me in a bit of a quandary as far as a review goes. Oat milk was the recommended dairy replacement for a cappuccino, but I can’t say I have ever had it before. And it is also hard to compare the cappuccino at Mother Fool’s with other shops, because whole milk is a central component to a traditional cappuccino’s flavor and texture profile. With all that in mind I’m putting a “*” next to this rating, because it seems a little strange to compare a vegan cappuccino directly to a milk-based cappuccino.  But my rating just reflects how much I liked the drink itself, so just take this all at face value.

I had an oat-milk cappuccino and a vegan donut (which I have had before and are great). I was a bit surprised at how good the oat milk tasted in a cappuccino. When integrated with the espresso the oat milk gave the drink a nice “baked-good” taste of caramel and brown sugar.  It had a surprisingly neutral creaminess, though the flavor profile certainly was different from any cow milk cappuccino that I’ve ever had.  The consistency of the oat milk seemed a bit thinner than whole milk, though not nearly as much as I had expected, and so I’m guessing this hurt the definition of the latte art. That said, the steamed milk still had a good amount of microfoam and a nice consistency.

I still like whole milk more than oat milk, but Mother Fool’s makes a great cappuccino regardless of the type of milk.  It should certainly be a destination for any vegan, and also one for non-vegans to check out.

As this is the first coffee shop I’ve reviewed from my 2009 list it is worth noting that the drink they are serving now is likely better than the one I liked so much more than a decade ago. However, the ’10s were a period of pretty dramatic improvement in the Madison coffee culture. Mother Fool’s has certainly kept up, and it will be interesting to see if others have too.

Flash cappuccino reviews in the west

I took a trip out west and ordered a traditional cappuccino everywhere I went.  Denver and Omaha win.  All out of 5 stars.

Kansas City – I was impressed by the coffee scene.

Filling Station Coffee
2980 McGee Trafficway, Kansas City, MO 64108
3 stars – Cool location in an old garage, but unremarkable caps.

Thou Mayest
412 Delaware St B, Kansas City, MO 64105
4 stars – Hipster shop near a public market worth checking out.

Monarch Coffee
3550 Broadway Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64111
4 stars – Decent cap south of downtown, interesting other drinks.

Boulder – Not terrible, but overall disappointing.

Boxcar Coffee
1825 Pearl St B, Boulder, CO 80302
4 stars – Standard good cap, also has butcher and cheese counter!

January Coffee
1886 30th St Suite B, Boulder, CO 80301
4.5 stars – New coffee shop, a touch better than Boxcar. Great views.

Denver – Best of the trip.

Corvus Coffee
1740 S Broadway, Denver, CO 80210
5 stars – First outstanding cap of the trip, some insanely expensive specialty beans as well.

Sweet Bloom
1619 Reed St, Lakewood, CO 80214
5 stars – A roaster that Bradbury’s in Madison serves, exceptional cap.

Estes Park – It kind of all sucked.

Kind Coffee
470 E Elkhorn Ave, Estes Park, CO 80517
1 star – Didn’t even serve a cap and the coffee tasted worse than at a hotel breakfast.

Inkwell and Brew
150 E Elkhorn Ave, Estes Park, CO 80517
3 stars – Only decent cap in town it seems, cool little stationary/gift shop too.

Raven’s Roast
157 W Elkhorn Ave, Estes Park, CO 80517
2 stars – Cap was a foamy mess from you might get in 2006, barista told me there were chaotic vibes.

Omaha

Archetype Coffee
3926 Farnam St, Omaha, NE 68131
5 stars – Awesome cap in Nebraska, also have cool shirts.

 

Cappuccino Review: Johnson Public House

908 E. Johnson St. Madison, WI 53703 

https://www.jph4ever.com/

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

ledgercoffee.com

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.