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The Kashrus Status of the Popular Latte

By: Rabbi Sholem Fishbane
 

It was not too long ago that the thought of spending five dollars on a coffee was unheard of. Our ability and willingness to keep Starbucks and similar coffee cafes financially sound is indeed a sign of our affluent times. One very popular item is the "latte", which in Italian simply means milk. Outside Italy, a latte is typically prepared with approximately one third true espresso - ground dark roast coffee filtered at an extremely high pressure (or simply known as concentrated coffee) and two-thirds steamed milk, with a layer of foamed milk approximately one quarter inch thick on the top. As the above ingredients are generally kosher, and the latte utensils seem to be dedicated to such, many have wondered if it is all right to purchase a latt from a non-certified coffee house.

In order to answer this, we need to explore how a latte is made. Lattes are made in espresso machines which have four major parts: the grinder, the steamer, the doser, and the steam wand. Nothing goes into the grinder except whole coffee beans. The steamer is the mechanism inside the machine that heats and pressurizes the water. It consists of heated coils and pressure valves. The doser, which is the actual filter, is pure metal and has a handle approximately six inches long - although the latest models have them as part of the machine. Finally, the steam wand is a double pronged piece that projects from the espresso machine (looking like two very long metal teeth), and with the turn of a knob, sprays steam. For heated espresso drinks, such as our latte, milk is poured into a metal pitcher, the wand is immersed in the milk, and the knob is turned so that the milk is heated by steaming. The standard procedure in many places -including Starbucks- is that each metal pitcher (there are usually four) has a specific designation: nonfat milk, whole milk, half & half, and soymilk.

Is there a concern that these pitchers may be used for non-kosher drinks, such as the famous Frappuccino? Frappuccinos are made from a blend of coffee, milk, sugar and special flavoring ingredients, which are not usually kosher certified. While waiting in airports and similar venues, I have scrutinized many coffee establishments and have never seen the employees using the pitchers for anything other than the four milks - which seems to encourage permitting the latte for the kosher consumer. However, as every kashrus professional knows, one needs to see the whole picture, and not just focus on one particular issue. Indeed, the kashrus issues arise when these stores are closed and utensils are washed in preparation for the next day. Your typical Starbucks or similar coffee house serves non-kosher food and beverages. Aside from the Frappuccino, other beverages have non-kosher grape juice in them, and the food menu includes sliced cakes that reportedly have lard in them, as well as ham, turkey, and other non-kosher sandwiches.

The milk pitchers and the dosers are washed with the rest of the dishes, and depending on the size of the operation - this can either be in a dishwasher or a "three compartment sink" (or sometimes even both). Most people are familiar with how dishwashers work and they will equally not be willing to compromise their neshomos by drinking a hot drink made with utensils which are washed together with trief utensils in a dishwasher.

The more unknown dish washing process (but more common in the food-service industry) is the three-sink process. Typically, the first sink is used to soak the dishes and is therefore filled with hot soapy water; the second sink is used for rinsing; and the third sink is used for sanitizing via a bleach and water solution. For our purposes, we need to know how hot the water in the first compartment is, and at what point is soap is added to this compartment. If the water is over yad soldes bo - 120 degrees Fahrenheit according the cRc and most major hashgachos - then you are being mavlia (absorbing) non-kosher residue into the utensils used to prepare the hot latte. However, if soap is added before the utensils, the soap invalidates the non-kosher transfer (Shulchan Aruch YD 95:4).

In researching this issue, I went to many different types of coffee houses in several different cities and can conclusively report that there are no universal guidelines on washing dishes - even among stores of the same chain. Furthermore, I have been told by the store employees that even if there is a set policy that might b'dieved skirt these kashrus issues, it is not necessarily always followed.

An additional important shailo, is the fact that during the day (and certainly at night) the employees will constantly wipe down the various surfaces with a shmatta. This shmatta can definitely transfer a "film" of non-kosher residue to the next surface on which it is used. As a matter of fact, Rabbi Krupnick from the Detroit Vaad, recently observed an employee wipe down the areas where non-kosher food had been served and then seconds later use the same shmatta to wipe down the espresso wands and proceed to make a latte!

Based on the above facts: that the utensils used to make your hot latte can be washed in a dishwasher together with actual non kosher food, and if in a three compartment sink (the more common method in coffee houses) there is a real safek if the initial wash has soap, which otherwise could make the utensils non-kosher; and the possibility that non-kosher residue can be spread around via the continuous wiping during the day - it is the policy of the cRc not to recommend the consumption of the ever popular latte purchased from a non-certified coffee house. Although the latte may possibly be mutar b'dieved, we typically shy away from recommending foods that are merely permitted b'dieved, and would advise one to do so only after consulting with a Rav who will weigh the factors, including whether one is allowed to rely on a b'dieved just to have a preferred form of coffee rather than one that is kosher without question.

If you are one of us that still does not know the difference between a cappuccino and a latte - your wallet thanks you and I hope you enjoyed this article nevertheless. However if "venti decaf sugar-free soy pumpkin spice cinnamon topped latte" is part of your vocabulary - I hope that this newfound knowledge will be of help when deciding which cup of joe it will be.

Rabbi Sholem Fishbane is the Kashrus Administrator of the Chicago Rabbinical Council

 

HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Shlit"a
Rosh Beth Din

HaRav Yona Reiss, Shlit"a
Av Beth Din

 

Rabbi Sholem Fishbane
Kashruth Administrator

Rabbi Levi Mostofsky
Executive Director

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