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.