Milk Separation Problem on Breville Barista Express

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks.

Postby reidw » Oct 05, 2018, 6:15 pm

Hi all,

Introduction: I am having this problem when it comes to latte art that I can't seem to figure out a solution for. I've tried so many things and I seem to get similar results every time. I'm going to give you as many details as I can about my whole process for making latte art and so someone can help me figure this out.

First off I am using the Breville Barista Express BES870XL. I am using the pitcher that comes with it and non-organic whole milk that comes right out of the refrigerator every time. I am saving beans because this is strictly for latte art practice so I mix red or blue food coloring with roughly 40g of milk to create a mock double shot for practice. This is the same technique that La Marzocco recommends here:

Process: I create the mock espresso with food coloring in a cup and fill the Breville included jug up to just below the pouring-notch on the side. I run the steam wand on the Breville. Then I put the tip of the wand into the jug just below the milk, halfway between the center and the edge. I adjust until the whirlpool starts and I hear some of that kissing sound; though it does take a second to find a sweet spot and get the wand to stop screeching at me. I run this whirlpool to create foam until the jug warms up to the temperature of my hand and then I submerge the tip a bit more and continue to try and create a whirlpool. I do this until the jug is too hot to touch for more than a second.

Leaving the tip in the jug I turn the steam off. Take the steam wand out, place the jug on the counter, purge the steam wand and wipe it down. At this point, the milk looks shiny and has a consistency close to the wet paint.. maybe a little too thin?? I thump the jug once or twice on the table and give it a gentle swirl.

Problem: Then, when I pour the latte art I pour from far away until about halfway full. Then I move in as close I can while tilting the cup back towards level. I pour until the cup overflows and nothing gets left on the surface of the "espresso".

Essentially what happens is that the milk looks great in the jug (I think???) but when I pour it, the milk is too thin (or maybe too heavy??) to land on top of the crema, even when I pour very closely and very gently. However, when I get to the very bottom of the milk jug I have a very thick foam. What seems to work (a little bit) is that I can pour the latte halfway full and then discard most of the milk until I get to the very bottom of pitcher where it is actually going to "print" on my espresso. But even then, the foam is too thick to get a design out. It's like the foam separates leaving a thinner, runnier milk on top with an almost too heavy foam on the bottom. From what I understand, I shouldn't have to waste most of the milk to get to something manageable. Also, when I taste the foamed milk it seems fine to me, as in it doesn't a burnt taste.

I am very serious about improving this technique and I am very frustrated that I don't know how to progress past this. I've gone through six jugs of milk, watched a hundred videos and read a bunch of posts on here but nothing I alter seems to change the result that drastically. I just really need something new to try.

The included pictures are basically what it looks like when the very bottom of the pitcher comes out onto the espresso. If I don't overflow the cup or waste a lot of the milk it will simply not do anything in the way of marking the coffee.

Please help and thankyou so much in advance!



Postby Bret » Oct 05, 2018, 7:30 pm

I feel your pain! I had consistently inconsistent results for a long time. I tried using 'mock espresso' and gave up on that real fast. I spent a bit of time making two capps at a time instead of a single latte, since it doubled my practice opportunities.

By far the two most important things that helped me are the following:

1. I use a Decent thermometer, with the alarm set at 143F to prevent over-steaming, but even more valuable is to stop stretching in the 98-100F range. I heard "stop stretching when you feel the temp is about body temperature" but sometimes my hands are warmer or colder than other times. This is listed first because I did it earlier, not because it is the most important change.

2. This video:
This specific video helped me more than any other, and this technique gets me consistent results almost every time (unless I get distracted or look away and let the nozzle position drift, etc.)

Other things that helped: using whole milk, and/or adding a bit of half and half to low fat milk. I did the half and half thing for a while until I realized that they add sugar to low fat milk. Whole milk is also just logistically easier (one thing to keep in the fridge instead of two). I used to suspect my pitchers, and eventually got the Barista Hustle pitcher because it did turn out that all of my other pitchers had 'misalignments' of various kinds. The BH did seem to help, but not significantly. That video tutorial was the thing that clinched it. I wish I had seen it years ago. Anytime my froth is not spot on, I can easily point the finger at myself now for zoning out & simply drifting off positions during frothing.

Maybe a better 'shortcut' would be to dedicated a bag of coffee and a gallon of milk and half a day to practicing (but not drinking all the results). In the end, yes, some milk and coffee is wasted, but you might get to a satisfactory level of consistency in the foaming technique to then proceed tuning your pour methods on your regular drink schedule.

I didn't see any pictures with your post, btw.

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Postby spromance » Oct 05, 2018, 8:06 pm

Latte art is (imo) one of the hardest things to learn 'online' - that's not to discourage you, but more to just say it's taken me a loooong time to finally get consistent with art. Videos help. Reading helps. Q&A helps...but don't beat yourself up too much if on top of that it still takes a long time. Many, many cups. Many, many 'failed' tries. You'll get there though.

reidw wrote:I run this whirlpool to create foam until the jug warms up to the temperature of my hand and then I submerge the tip a bit more and continue to try and create a whirlpool.

First thought, although the principal of stretching milk till warm is good for (fast) commercial machines...if you're getting that 'kissing'/stretching sound all the way till warm on the Express, it's possible that you're adding too much (hard to tell without video/photo)...

reidw wrote:when I pour it, the milk is too thin (or maybe too heavy??) to land on top of the crema, even when I pour very closely and very gently. However, when I get to the very bottom of the milk jug I have a very thick foam.

This is interesting to me. It sounds like you have plenty of texture (since it's leftover at the bottom of the jug). But, clearly it's not showing up even when you 'drop in.' To me, this sounds like you're really slowing down flow (out of the pitcher)...which could be confirmed by your use of the word "gently."

I know you might feel like you've already got this covered, but my suggestion would be to give your pitcher a good swirl after you've purged...then try and pour really quickly and see if something shows up on the surface. I mean, of course, don't just dump the pitcher over, but maybe aim for a thick stream of milk coming out the pitcher somewhere between the diameter of a pencil and a finger? Don't even worry about starting high, then dropping in. Just integrate the milk by swirling, then pour 'quickly' from down low...if you have any white foam that sits on top of your shot/faux shot, you'll know then that you have enough texture to mark the milk. You may be unknowingly slowing down flow way to slow when you drop in (it tends to happen because people are overly focused on getting designs, rather than just getting white foam to show up).

reidw wrote:It's like the foam separates leaving a thinner, runnier milk on top with an almost too heavy foam on the bottom. From what I understand, I shouldn't have to waste most of the milk to get to something manageable.

Actually, as milk separates your foam will stay up top...but, even with milk separating and foam starting to float on top, if you pour slowly enough (as it sounds like you're maybe doing), the liquid milk will pour, leaving foam behind (which might be why you notice plenty of foam after you've nearly emptied your pitcher).

I know that's a lot. I might be reading/understanding incorrectly, but hopefully some of that lines up with your experience and will be helpful. Try just getting foam to show up by pouring more quickly and from down low first. Don't try for any designs yet...just white foam showing up on top. If you can get that, you can move on to starting to learn the coordination of marking milk intentionally and in a controlled way to get designs.


Postby reidw » Oct 05, 2018, 10:28 pm

Wow, thank you so much for your thoughtful response!

Next time I sit down to work on it I will:
1. Try stretching the milk for a bit less time.
2. Give the pitcher a stronger swirl before pouring.
3. Pour more quickly straight away and close to the liquid without worrying about design to see if it will stay on top?

It makes sense that if I'm pouring too slowly the milk would run out and leave the foam behind on the bottom. Does that not say something about how I'm incorporating the microfoam with the rest of the milk?

Thanks again for the response! Gives me some ideas to work on for sure instead of just doing the same thing over and over.

I will try them tomorrow and let you know. Are there any pictures that would really help diagnose this more thoroughly?


Postby karamba » Oct 08, 2018, 3:51 pm

1. You forgot to include promised pictures.
2. Lower the spout a bit more than you do, you should occasionally hear sips maybe once in two seconds or so when the steam catches air into the milk, When the milk is worm lower the steam wand completely to avoid creating more foam and just heat the milk to the desired 150F. If you do not do these two things you will get too much of too dry foam on top .
3. I cannot do it completely right either.


Postby Beewee » Oct 08, 2018, 4:09 pm

A few things that I've noticed over the years that can cause trouble are:
1. Over heating the milk - milk that is heated beyond ~55°C tends separate much more easily compared to milk that is steamed to around 50°C. Early on, I use to use a thermometer while steaming but with a powerful commercial grade dual-boiler machine, it may only take 5-10 seconds to steam a small pitcher of milk and the thermometer will not react quickily enough. It's not to say that a thermometer is useless, but I would recommend trying to use your hand to gauge whether the milk is hot enough, then you can check with a thermometer to see what temperature you landed at and whether you are able to hit a consistent temperature. My finger tips have a pretty high heat tolerance and usually by the time it's to hot for me to keep my fingers on the pitcher, it's near the ideal milk temperature for me and I give it about 1 more second before I turn off the steam wand.

2. The milk matters - fresh, homogenized milk is way easier to steam compared to non-homogenized milk. The amount of fat content MAY have an effect as well but I refuse to drink anything less than 2% so I can't say whether less/more fat content makes a difference. What I can say is that, non-homogenized milk will separate much more easily during steaming compared to homogenized milk.

3. The pitcher matters - the shape and size of the pitcher will have an effect on the technique required to get a good texture. For example, on my Vivaldi Mini, I found that steaming 5oz of milk in a 20oz pitcher, I get the best result pointing the steam wand straight down and into the middle of the pitcher the entire time. This is because the pitcher is quite wide and so the steam wand is quite close to the bottom of the pitcher so my steam tip is close enough to create a good swirling action all around the bottom of the pitcher. However, when steaming 5oz of milk in a 12oz pitcher, the milk is much deeper and so I need to aim the wand at an angle and point it about 1/2 in from the wall of the pitcher to get a good swirling action going in order to properly stretch the milk. It was quite a revelation when I used the 20oz pitcher for a good 10 years and then migrated to a 12oz pitcher using the same milk and same espresso machine. It took me about 2 weeks to figure out that what I needed to change was my steaming technique.