It involves a blowtorch and cayenne pepper
EC: The Most Complicated Latte in the World
Credit: Photos by Tovin Lapan

You could never make the most complicated latte in the world at Starbucks. The caffeine king’s syrup assembly line simply wouldn’t allow for it, and last I checked, they didn’t stock blowtorches. To make the most complicated latte in the world, you need a blowtorch. And maybe a fedora. Avery Burke possesses both of these things. The owner and sole employee of the four-month-old Temporarium coffee shop in San Francisco is the creator of the most complicated latte in the world. It doesn’t have a fancy name, and it’s not listed on the menu of his tiny Mission cafe. Instead it simply says “special drink,” which is sometimes the most complicated latte in the world and sometimes not. But if you ask nicely—call it the “sage latte”—he can make it for you. As long as you’ve got five minutes to spare.

Burke didn’t set out to create the most complicated latte in the world. He first developed the drink for a barista competition, drawing inspiration not from the sweet flavors so often combined with coffee, but from a savory dish of ravioli in a sage and brown butter sauce.

“I’m good at mentally tasting what might go well together,” Burke says. “There are always surprises in coffee. People are always saying there are more flavors in coffee than red wine.”

The most complicated latte in the world is more like a cocktail than your average coffee drink. It’s a blend of contrasting and complementing elements that demand a second sip and perhaps a pause to consider what you’ve just tasted.

“It’s a potentially strange combinations of flavors,” Burke admits. But somehow it works.

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It starts with a cup rimmed with pomegranate molasses, curry powder and cayenne pepper. This by itself is a revelation—a tangy, tart and spicy mix that you’ll probably want to slather on toast or drip over vanilla ice cream.

Next come the sage leaves, placed in a dish of cream and torched until they blacken and shrivel. Once the blowtorch comes out, people around the petite shop start to take notice. “It’s a drink that sells itself,” Burke laughs.

He then pours cream and sage into a cappuccino container with six ounces of milk, a bit of brown sugar, and a tiny splash of anise extract.

“It’s powerful stuff,” Burke cautions. “It gives a nice, airy quality.”

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He steams that combination using a Kees van der Westen espresso machine—made by what Burke calls “coffee celebrities” in Holland—then removes the sage leaves pours the remaining liquid over espresso and serves it with that pomegranate rim. The result hits in waves: peppery spice, a punch of curry, then sweet, zingy fruit, followed by the latte itself—gently bitter and herbal, mellowed by creaminess.

It’s fantastic, but not in the way that elicits immediate “mmmmms” of satisfaction. When customers try it, it usually takes them a beat to mentally process the flavors. They don’t say anything at all for a second or two.

“There’s always a moment of doubt when they’re quiet and I think they hate it,” Burke admits.

So far, only one person has decided on the spot that the most complicated latte in the world was simply not for them. And hey, Burke can always make you a mocha.