Do you ever get the feeling that every cafe seems to have different names and definitions for their drinks? One barista’s cappuccino is another’s latte. Or maybe you want a flat white, but your local roaster only serves cortados.
We want to offer a little clarity on the history and make up of espresso drinks, and give you tips for perfecting your favorite drink at home.
The Cafe’s Little Secret
There’s a little in-joke between career baristas. It goes something like this: “At my cafe, we’ll make you absolutely anything you want… as long as it’s only espresso and milk.”
Despite the myriad names, almost every espresso drink involves just two ingredients: espresso and milk. To create a vast and varied cafe menu, you only alter two things: the amount of milk in the drink and the amount of air in the milk.
You may also notice that when it comes to espresso drink taxonomy, many of the definitions and terms overlap. This is mostly due to two things: 1) It’s difficult to make firm boundaries between drinks when they are made of the exact same ingredients. 2) There isn’t a strong standardizing system in place between cafes. Instead, much of the drink terminology is based on the perspective of individual shop owners and baristas.
At the end of the day, we recommend trying out different recipes and milk ratios to find the drink you love the most, regardless of what they’re called. Because a delicious coffee by any other name…
But Why Do the Drinks Taste So Different?
Just like any other kind of cooking, the quality of the ingredients has a huge impact on the flavor of your drink. You may have noticed a latte from a larger chain coffee shop tastes totally different than the same drink from a local roaster. A big reason for that is the quality of coffee and milk.
The other reason has to do with how the espresso is prepared. If the espresso is very diluted from a larger brew ratio (1:3+), it is much more difficult to taste in milk drinks. This is why we recommend using a more concentrated espresso (1:1.5) in milk. Ristretto, or restricted, espressos like these are much better at cutting through the fats and sugars of milk.
For more on Brew Ratios, take a look at this article from La Marzocco.
The amount of milk and foam will greatly transform the way espresso tastes. Milk is full of water, sugars (lactose) and fat. The water dilutes the flavors of the espresso. The sugars helps balance any bitterness from the coffee. The fat coats the tongue, minimizing the experience of dry or sour tastes. The more milk you add, the more these factors will impact the flavor of the espresso. The fats in milk hold onto aromatic compounds, which will prolong the finish of your coffee. Think of it this way: a sip of a good coffee will hang around on your palette for a minute or so, but you can still taste a sip of a good cappuccino after half an hour.
The foam changes the flavor and texture of the drink. The small air bubbles trapped in foam will slowly pop as your drink sits. As they pop, they’ll release small bursts of the coffee aromas trapped in the milk, enhancing the flavor. A good foam will also give a drink a velvety, lush feel–almost like your mouth is wrapped in a cozy blanket near a smoldering fire.
Defining the Drinks
Let’s start with the foundation. Espresso is not a particular roast, nor a specific kind of grown coffee. Espresso is simply an intensely concentrated coffee drink, produced by forcing hot water through very-finely ground coffee. You can use any kind of roasted coffee to make an espresso.
Clive-Recommended Espresso Recipe for Milk Drinks
- 18-20 grams of ground coffee to yield 30 grams or 1.5 ounces of liquid espresso in 25-30 seconds. We will call this a “double shot”.
- Grind coffee into your portafilter; 18 grams for a double basket, common in spouted portafilters or 20 grams for a triple basket, common in bottomless portafilters
- Distribute the coffee by giving a few firm taps to the side of the portafilter, then two firm taps against a counter
- Carefully tamp the coffee, making sure to apply even pressure on the coffee. The tamp should leave a level, evenly compressed puck of ground coffee.
- Place a small scale on the drip tray. Put your cup on the scale and hit tare. Insert the portafilter into the machine and activate the pump. Turn off the pump once you hit 30 grams of liquid espresso.
- If the liquid espresso hits 30 grams before 25 seconds, adjust your grind finer. If it hits 30 grams after 30 seconds, adjust your grind coarser.
Love the flavor of your espresso but wish you had more of it to enjoy? It’s time for you to meet the americano. An americano is an espresso that has different amounts of hot water added to it.
The drink is commonly attributed to American soldiers living in Italy during World War II. Supposedly, U.S. troops would visit Italian cafes and order coffee. The soldiers didn’t know that when you order a coffee in Italy, you get a 21-gram espresso and not a mug of joe. To accommodate the troops and emulate their cups of filter coffee, Italian baristas got in the habit of adding hot water to espresso.
But isn’t that just a watery coffee? Kind of. Think of it like this: an espresso is very, very concentrated so its flavors are packed tightly together. If you add a little water, you give each flavor a little more space, which makes it easier for you to experience them individually. The more water you add, the more spaced out those flavors become; eventually they’ll be so far apart you won’t be able to taste them at all. The trick is to balance the amount of water and espresso–we recommend starting with less water (4 ounces) and adding more until you get the flavor and feel you want.
Americano Recipe | 1:4 Espresso to Water Ratio
- One double shot of espresso | 4 ounces or 120 milliliters of hot water
- Add the hot water to the espresso. If you prefer a more diluted americano add more water to taste.
Before we get into the drink, a quick Italian lesson. The word macchiato means marked. When it comes to coffee, there are two ways a drink can be “marked”.
One way is to “mark” an espresso with a small amount of steamed milk, a cafe macchiato (translation: marked coffee). This small beverage (2-3 ounces total) is a classic Italian drink; if you were to walk up to a Venetian coffee bar and order a macchiato, this is exactly what you’d receive. The small amount of milk can add a little sweetness and help soften some of the more intense coffee.
Espresso Macchiato Recipe | 2:1 Espresso to Milk Ratio
- One double shot of espresso | 1 ounce or 30 milliliters of steamed milk with plenty of foam
- Pull a double shot of espresso. Steam approximately 3-4 ounces of milk. For a foamier, classic macchiato, try to introduce air until the pitcher stops feeling cold, ~100°F. Stop steaming once the pitcher feels hot to touch, ~130-140°F.
- Quickly pour 1 ounce of steamed, foamy milk into the espresso. Discard the remaining milk or mix it with a little chocolate syrup for a hot chocolate sidecar.
- Optional: use a spoon to scoop a dollop of foam on the top of the drink for a classic look.
The other way is to mark a cup of steam milk with an espresso, a latte macchiato (translation: marked milk). This drink has been popularized in the U.S. by large chains and often features additional flavors. As the ingredients are not integrated from the beginning, latte macchiatos tend to have dramatic changes in flavor: from foamy milk to the intense flavors of the espresso to the final sips of warm milk.
Latte Macchiato | 1:6 Espresso to Milk Ratio
One double shot of espresso | 8 ounces or 240 milliliters of steamed milk with plenty of foam
Pull a double shot of espresso. Steam approximately 6-8 ounces of milk. To create a larger “head” of milk foam, try to introduce air until the pitcher stops feeling cold, ~100°F. Stop steaming once the pitcher feels too hot to hold, ~140-150°F. Pour the steamed milk into an empty glass, leaving 1-2 ounces of room. Pour a fresh double shot of espresso into the center of the milk.
The cappuccino. Creamy, meringue-like milk carefully integrated with complex and rich espresso. For many, it is a perfect litmus for the skill of a barista.
Originally named because of their resemblance to the bald heads of capuchin monks, the definition of the drink has changed significantly over time. Traditionally, an Italian cappuccino was a 5-6 ounce beverage composed of equal parts espresso, milk and milk foam. When the drink migrated to the United States, American patrons loved it so much they wanted more; cafe owners were happy to oblige and the cappuccino began to grow larger and milkier. Over time, the drink came to mean a very foamy milk and espresso drink of varying size.
Then “third wave” cafes offered a new take on the cappuccino. High-end roasteries and cafes wanted to emulate Italian tradition while providing a modern twist. To do it, they returned to only serving smaller 5-6 ounces cappuccinos. But instead of topping the drink with a few dollops of airy foam, they wanted to serve a milk drink rich with dense, microfoam. While some say this definition is more like a latte or flat white, many say the rich texture and flavor of the milk is fair superior to overly airy “traditional” style cappuccinos.
Regardless of the style, the cappuccino is one of the more difficult drinks to master. It requires a fair amount of practice to perfect making lots of dense, creamy microfoam, so we recommend lots a patience. For extra tips on milk steaming, take a look at our milk steaming guide here.
Traditional Cappuccino | 1:1:1 Espresso to Milk to Foam Ratio
- One double shot of espresso | ~2 ounces steamed milk | ~2 ounces of dense milk foam
- Pull a double shot of espresso into a 5-6 ounce cup. Steam approximately 4-6 ounces of milk. For a very foamy cappuccino, try to introduce air until the pitcher stops feeling cold, ~100°F.
- When introducing air, you want to hear lots of little chirping sounds that resemble paper tearing. Stop steaming once the pitcher feels hot to the touch, ~130-140°F.
- Give the pitcher a few good swirls on the counter to help integrate the dense foam.
- Pour the steamed milk into the espresso until it fills a 5-6 ounce cup. As the drink settles, the foam will rise to the top, resulting in an even mixture of foam, milk, and coffee.
Ask for a latte in Italy and you’ll likely get a tall glass of milk (latte means milk in Italian). To get a cup of steamed milk and espresso, you’d have to ask for a caffe latte. Lucky for us time-strapped Americans, most cafes forgo the caffe and only refer to it as a latte.
What is a latte? It is an espresso and steamed (or cold) milk drink of varying size. It’s different from cappuccinos because it has less foam and much more milk. In most cafes, you’ll see a latte served in 8, 12, 16 and sometimes even 20-ounce cups.
8 Ounce Latte | 1:4 Espresso to Milk Ratio
- One double shot of espresso | 6-7 ounces of steamed milk with a thinner layer of foam
- Pull a double shot of espresso into an 8-ounce cup. Steam approximately 6-7 ounces of milk. For a more milky latte, try to introduce less air into the milk (think 3-4 seconds of chirping/paper tearing sounds). Stop steaming once the pitcher feels too hot to hold, ~140-150°F. Give the pitcher a few good swirls on the counter to help integrate the foam.
- Pour the steamed milk into the espresso until it fills the cup.
- To make larger lattes, increase the amount of milk to match your desired size.
A favorite among baristas and coffee nerds, the cortado is all about the delicate balance of fine espresso “cut” with a small amount of milk. The drink is a loose adaptation of a classic Spanish coffee where very strong brewed coffee is mixed with warmed milk. Generally speaking, a cortado is 1-2 ounces of espresso with just over 2 ounces of lightly textured (meaning less foam), lower temperature, steamed milk.
The cortado is also often referred to as a Gibraltar. Why? Gibraltar is the brand name of the glassware in which the drink is served. While some will assert the two drinks are very much distinct, the casual drinker would be hard pressed to identify how. After all both are small, cooler, lightly textured milk and espresso beverages.
For more information on the history of the cortado, check out this fantastic article from Oliver Strand and the New York Times: A Cortado Is Not a Minivan
Cortado | 1:2 Espresso to Milk Ratio
- One double shot of espresso | 2-3 ounces of milk with a very thin layer of foam
- Pull a double shot of espresso into a 4-4.5 ounce cup. Steam approximately 5-6 ounces of milk. Our favorite cortados have significantly less foam-try to only introduce a small amount of air into your milk (2-3 seconds of chirping/paper tearing sound).
- Stop steaming once the pitcher feels hot to touch, ~120-130°F. Give the pitcher a few good swirls on the counter to help integrate the foam. Pour the steamed milk into the espresso until it fills the cup.
The Australian import. To understand this drink, you have to know a little about Australian coffee culture. Much of the Aussie cafe culture is the direct result of Italian immigrants. As such, an Australian cappuccino looks very traditional with lots of foam sitting on a carefully mixed bed of milk and espresso. But as coffee culture evolved, customers and baristas wanted to taste more of the espresso through less foam and milk. Instead of a small drink having a nice dome of foam, they wanted it to have a flat surface–hence, the flat white.
In essence, it is a cappuccino sized latte, roughly 5-6 ounces. Practically speaking, there isn’t a huge difference between a flat white and a cortado. Some will argue that a flat white should be served hotter and with a little more foam than a cortado. Really, both are trying to do the same thing: balance the flavor of milk and espresso by using less milk than a standard latte.
Flat White | 1:2 Espresso to Milk Ratio
- One double shot of espresso | 3-4 ounces of milk with a thin layer of foam
- Pull a double shot of espresso into a 5-6 ounce cup. Steam approximately 5-6 ounces of milk. The best flat whites have a careful balance of dense foam and steam milk–try to introduce a small amount of air (4-5 seconds of chirping/paper tearing sounds).
- Stop steaming once the pitcher feels hot to touch, ~130-140°F. Give the pitcher a few good swirls on the counter to help integrate the foam. Pour the steamed milk into the espresso until it fills the cup.