Cappuccino, latte or long black? Many of us have a preferred drink that we always choose when taking time out to enjoy coffee and a slice of cake in a friendly local café. Those of us with allergies or intolerances have become accustomed to carefully checking the ingredients of that tempting slice of cake before we order it, but what about the drink itself? Would you ask if your coffee contained nuts?
It sounds a ridiculous question and yet the trend of serving almond-milk as a popular dairy alternative means that it is something that consumers and cafés need to be aware of.
The majority of drinks sold in cafés are milk based, and while the bulk of those are still dairy, dairy-free milks are increasingly common. The most frequently encountered (whether in small independent cafés or larger chains) are soya, oat and almond. Routinely, the milk (whether dairy or non-dairy) is steamed in a frothing jug using a steam wand on the espresso machine. The issue for nut allergy sufferers, or indeed those with allergies to dairy or soya, is that of potential cross-contamination; this could come at several stages in the production process, from the milk jug, the cleaning cloth or the steam wand.
Many cafés are already on the ball with this issue. When Workshop Coffee, who run a small chain of cafés in London, introduced almond-milk as their main dairy alternative, they ensured that one steam wand of their espresso machine was always kept “dairy only”. Most commercially available espresso machines (with multiple group heads for espresso) come with two steam wands, one at each end of the machine. If informed that you have a nut allergy before you order your drink, the baristas at Workshop Coffee will grab a clean jug, clean cloth and use the dairy-only wand to steam a nut-free latte. But while this is an example of good practice, what about other establishments, smaller independents and chains? And what if your problem is with dairy and not with nuts?
To find a solution we must first look at the problem. Let’s start with the jugs that are used to steam the milk. Many cafés have a policy of using separate jugs for their different kinds of milk, but this is not merely in consideration for people with allergies, as one cafe owner told me “of course you want this anyway, one drop of soya milk in a dairy latte and you really taste it”. One larger chain adopting this process is Starbucks (UK) who ensure that each type of milk is steamed in a different jug. But whilst this good practice exists in theory, can we be sure that processes are followed on the ground? Some cafés do not use different jugs for their milk at all, but instead, rinse the jug between coffees. If you have an allergy or intolerance, do make sure to check with the barista before you order, to ensure that a cursory rinse becomes a proper clean.
Even if a café has excellent processes in place with their milk jugs there is still the issue of the steam wand. The steam wand is purged with steam after making each milk-based drink and then wiped with a cloth. This removes most of the previous milk from the wand but relies heavily on the cleanliness of the cloth, meaning that most wands still carry milk traces. Some cafés, including Workshop, keep one steam-wand on their espresso machines completely nut-free. Most cafés take pride in accommodating their regular’s needs and so if they keep one wand free, would be happy to ensure you receive a nut-free (or dairy-free) beverage. One particular café owner that I spoke with was delighted when her regular drinkers no longer felt the need to specify that they had an allergy because they could trust the cafe to meet their specific needs.
But these practices come up against commercial pressures. If the café you frequent is busy, with a large number of people clamouring for their “extra hot” cappuccino, the chances are that both steam-wands will end up being used for steaming all the milk available. Not all cafés have a policy of ensuring that one steam-wand is nut-free, indeed some consider that unviable. So make sure to check the cafe’s policy on this before you order to avoid a possible reaction.
Additionally, for those with nut allergies, it is not safe to assume that all cafés serving almond milk advertise that they do so, and so it is advisable to ask before placing your order. The preparation protocols vary vastly from café to café. Some use a clean jug, clean cloth, fresh steam-wand, others use a rinsed jug, single cloth and, sadly, some will tell you not to drink in their establishment at all.
Be prepared but be assured, good cafés care passionately about their coffee and those who are unwilling to provide the safe preparation of a nut-free drink should be avoided.
So as an allergy sufferer what can you do to minimise your chances of a reaction in these circumstances?
- Inform the owner or barista of your requirements before you order – The one point that kept cropping up in conversation with café staff was that they wanted to be informed of any allergies or intolerance BEFORE customers placed their order to ensure the correct protocol was followed.
- If allergic to nuts, make sure to ask if almond-milk is used as a dairy alternative
- Check to see if a nut-free (or dairy-free) protocol is in place.
- If separate milk jugs are not used, advise the barista to thoroughly wash the jug before making your drink.
- If worried about contamination from the steam-wand, request that your drink is made with the second wand if there is one available.
- Finally, if in doubt, do not drink. Raise the issue with the café owner or manager, education is vital to improvement in this area.
The question “does my cappuccino contain nuts?” is not ridiculous. “Do you use almond milk?” “Is there dairy in my soya-cappuccino?” These are valid questions, and, if you have an allergy or intolerance, you need to start asking them.
I’d like to thank the owners of a number of independent cafés for taking the time to chat with me about their coffees, and both Workshop Coffee and Starbucks UK for sharing their preparation protocols.
This article was written by Bean Thinking for Kafoodle
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