macchiato in a small cup

Cappuccino vs Latte: The Ultimate Guide to Milk-Based Concoctions

You don’t have to live in despair anymore. Here’s my down-to-earth guide to all milk-based coffees in the solar system.

With so many different caffeinated concoctions to choose from it’s not always easy to visit a coffee shop – that is unless you happen to be fluent in Italian or barista lingo.

In this article, I’m going to explain in layman’s terms exactly what you can expect from each coffee-based drink; be it latte, macchiato or cappuccino, or the more modern creations invented by a certain Mermaid chain (even though these are closer to dessert than coffee IMO). 

But to understand the modern confusing coffee world we need to begin by looking at the foundations of all the quintessential Southern European types of coffee. 

Once you understand the typical template of how these coffee and milk mixtures are made it’s a lot easier to remember what each of them entails.

The classics

Rule #1: Espresso is the foundation of all the drinks.

It all starts with espresso and milk. What if you don’t know what espresso is? Well, then here’s my quick definition: Espresso is the smallest and strongest cup of coffee you can imagine. 

To be considered real espresso it must be brewed under pressure. Historically, 9 bars have been mentioned as the golden standard but in reality 6 is sufficient. 

Because espresso is so concentrated it’s ideal to mix with milk or other liquids.

Milk is used in different forms and proportions. The milk can come in two forms: Steamed and foamed.

  • Steamed milk is essentially just warm milk that will blend nicely with the coffee. (Pro Tip: Never exceed  68°C/154°F when steaming milk, at high temperatures it will start to taste egg-like)

  • Milk foam, on the other hand, will be light and bubbly. Because of all the air trapped inside the microbubbles, it will stay on the top. The milk foam will be the canvas for any latte art.

Coffee gurus on the Difference between latte, cappuccino Macchiato

Both cappuccino, latte and macchiato consist of espresso, foam and steamed milk. What’s important here is, how the ratio differs.

Some respected people in the coffee industry have adopted the approach that essentially it’s all the same; in the end it’s just a matter of different cup sizes. 

Other purists, however, claim that there is a history and a platonic ideal, when it comes to milk and espresso. 

Here’s what some of the most respected people in the industry say about hard and fast rules when it comes to milky coffee. 

James Freeman: Founder of Blue Bottle 

“So what is a macchiato, a cappuccino, or a caffe latte? At Blue Bottle, we instruct our baristas that the differences are mostly a matter of proportion.

(…)

The important thing to realize is that there are as many conceptions of what constitutes a “proper” macchiato, cappuccino, or caffe latte as there are definitions of a “proper” martini. At Blue Bottle, what’s important to us that we all agree on an internal standard for steaming, extracting, and pouring these drinks, and that our customers recognize and appreciate this consistency from barista to barista and from shop to shop.” (Source)

Colin Harmon: Founder of 3fe &  three times Barista Champion of Ireland

“However even in Italy, the “recipe” for a traditional cappuccino is far from clear-cut.

Anyone that’s ever spent time in Italy will understand that it really is a nation made up of many small countries. Even the simplest recipes are fiercely contested between regions with something as basic as a pesto or Arrabiata sauce having a multitude of different combinations of ingredients varying from place to place, and a long standing battle to establish
which is the best.

The idea that there is a “recipe” for a cappuccino, or indeed any milk/coffee combination, is wishful thinking unfortunately. Even the World Barista Championship definition of a cappuccino was vague and open to so much interpretation that there was very little consensus on the subject. They recently abandoned the drink altogether and competitors are now required to prepare an unnamed milk beverage of their choice.” (Source)

James Hoffman: Founder of Square Mile Coffee & World Barista Champion 2007

“Another recent myth surrounding the cappuccino is the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is passed around to this day, and describes a traditional cappuccino as being one-third espresso, one-third milk and one-third foam.

I was taught this very early on in my coffee career but this recipe has no root in tradition. I have read quite a few books about coffee and the first reference to the cappuccino rule of thirds I can find was written in the 1950s. It describes cappuccino as ‘an espresso mixed with equal amounts of milk and foam.’

This sentence appears almost verbatim a number of times in the book. The phrase is a little ambiguous as it could be saying that only the milk and foam are in equal quantities, or that all three ingredients are. So instead of the recipe being 1:1:1, the author could easily have meant it was 1:2:2.

The 150–175ml cappuccino made with a single shot of espresso in the ratio of 1:2:2 does have a long tradition, and is still widely served in much of Italy and the parts of Europe that haven’t yet succumbed to more generous portions of coffee as fast-food retail. This drink is also, when well made, absolutely delicious.” (Source)

Cappuccino

  • 1 double espresso shot
  • 1 part steamed milk
  • 1 part milk foam

Often you’ll get the drink with some latte art on top; rosettas and hearts are favorite patterns. In more traditional cafés the cappuccino will often be sprinkled lightly with cocoa powder on top.

0 %
Espresso
0 %
milk

Cappuccino is usually served in a regular short coffee cup. (Source)

the history

The cappuccino is the god-father of milk-based coffee drinks. The name itself tells you how old the concoction is. Cappuccino refers to the robes of the Italian Capuchin monks that also happened to be brownish; the same color you get when you mix coffee and milk.

The cappuccino goes back several hundred years, but the modern version dates back to the 1950’s when modern espresso machines became widespread in Italian coffee shops.

In Italy cappuccino is considered a breakfast drink; it’s frowned upon to drink it after 11.00 am. Italians will usually order espresso later in the day as it’s supposed to be better for the digestion.

Caffe latte

  • A single or double shot of espresso
  • 6 -10 fl oz of milk
  • ½ inch of milk foam

It’s usually served in a glass, and only rarely in a coffee mug. Today, you can encounter gigantic lattes in many coffee shops.

In more recent times, syrup is often added to give a flavor boost.

0 %
Espresso
0 %
milk
latte in a glass cup

A latte should have less milk foam than a cappuccino (Source)

the history

The caffe latte is one of the most popular coffee drinks today, which is kind of strange when you consider its origins.

In Italy, caffe latte always referred to making coffee with milk at home. Usually, people would make coffee in a so-called Moka pot and then add hot milk. This practice is also called café con leche in Spanish or café au lait in French.

Historically, there has never been a thing such as ‘a latte’ on the menu in Italian coffee shops.

It’s instead believed that the ‘latte’ as we know it today originated in Italian-inspired coffee shops on the American west coast during the 1980’s.

caffe macchiato

  • A double shot of espresso
  • ½ inch of milk foam
Usually it’s served in an espresso cup or a small transparent glass. 
0 %
Espresso
0 %
milk
macchiato in a small cup

A Caffe Macchiato isn’t much bigger in terms of volume than a double espresso. (Source)

the history

The macchiato is a newer concoction that has become very popular in recent years. It has less milk, and more espresso flavor compared to lattes and cappuccinos. For that reason, many coffee drinkers see it as a more masculine drink.

Essentially, it’s just an espresso with a bit of foamed milk on the top. ‘Caffe macchiato’ means ‘marked coffee’ in Italian, so it refers to the fact that the espresso is just touched by a tiny bit of milk.

Traditionally, the milk foam is poured only in one spot, which gives the drink it’s ‘trademark’ white spot in the middle.

latte macchiato

  • A cup of vigorously steamed milk with a nice layer of foam on top
  • A single espresso shot is poured ON TOP of the milk.

The drink will be darker in the top and lighter at the bottom.

5 %
Espresso
95 %
milk

A latte macchiato is a cup of warm milk that is ‘spotted’ with an espresso shot. (Source)

the history

So far everything has been pretty smooth sailing. However, with the introduction of the Latte Macchiato on the coffee menu, things get complicated.

While the caffe macchiato is the most potent drink of all, the latte macchiato is the one with most milk.

To be able to remember the difference, it’s a good idea to keep the Italian dictionary close.

‘Macchiato’ in Italian means ‘marked,’ and latte means milk. So in this drink, it’s the milk that is ‘marked’ or spotted with a few drops of espresso.

In other words. The latte macchiato is the reverse of the caffe macchiato. It’s like the yin and the yang.

In its essence, this is a milk drink, not a coffee drink.

The modern inventions

Now we have been looking at the classics. Sure, they have Latin sounding names but it should be easy enough to memorize the difference between a cappuccino and a macchiato. 

However, the real trouble when it comes to modern coffee started one or two decades ago when a certain global Mermaid-branded chain started inventing a bunch of new coffee and milk concoctions.

At the same time the Aussies and Kiwis came together and decided that they also wanted to chime in with their own names for what is essentially just espresso and warm milk. 

This has resulted in the massive clutter that constitutes a modern coffee menu. 

Flat White

The flat white is a rising star in specialty coffee. It consists of:

  • A double shot of espresso
  • 6 fl oz of gently steamed milk

In many ways it’s similar to a latte. However, the flat white is usually served in a smaller ceramic cup as opposed to the large glass that latte is served in. This makes it a stronger drink with more coffee flavor. 

23 %
Espresso
77 %
milk

A flat white is the Australian hipster version of a latte (Bex Walton: Source)

the history

The origins of this rising star are highly contentious. Both Australia and New Zealand lay claims to being the country that gave birth to the Flat White.

Moors Espresso Bar from Sydney is said to have coined the term ‘flat white’ sometime in the mid-1980s. Before then the description “white coffee – flat” was widespread in traditional Australian coffee houses. 

However, Kiwi baristas from both Wellington and Auckland also claim to be the actual inventors.

In recent years, Australian coffee culture has become incredibly infuential. Many burgeoning baristas from abroad move to Melbourne and Sydney to learn the specialty coffee craft.

It’s likely that these baristas had since brought the drink back with them when they later went home and opened coffee shops.

The flat white is quite similar to a latte. However, being shorter, the ratio of espresso to milk is usually higher.

Because the flat white is an item that is often associated with third-wave coffee shops (whereas mediocre chains have butcherced lattes and cappuccinos for years), they are the ideal choice to go for if you prefer milky coffee but still care about quality and your image. It’s somehow way cooler to order a flat white, rather than a latte even though they are essentially the same thing.

Pumpkin Spice latte

The Pumpkin Spice Latte is a rather new coffee drink that was invented in the US by Starbucks. It combines the traditional latte with winter spices and whipped cream.
Initially, it didn’t contain any pumpkin.

  • Double espresso
  • Pumpkin Spice Syrup (a blend of sugar, pumpkin, and spices such as cinnamon, clove, ginger & nutmeg)
  • Steamed milk
  • Whipped cream
10 %
Espresso
90 %
milk & cream

The PSL is almost like a dessert (Java Mermaid: Source)

the history

The Pumpkin Spice Latte (or just PSL) was initially invented and introduced by Starbucks in 2003.

Initially, the PSL was meant as a seasonal fall drink. However, the drink quickly went on to obtain a cult following. Today, the concoction can be ordered as early as August and all the way to January.

Other coffee chains have since followed along and released their versions of the drinks. There are also spin-offs such as pumpkin spice cereals and chocolates.

The original Pumpkin Spice Latte, in spite of its name, did NOT contain any pumpkin. Instead, it had a mix of spices typically used in pumpkin pie, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. However, in 2015 Starbucks began adding some real pumpkin to the beverage.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte was one of the first drinks in a trend, where coffee and milk drinks have started to move closer and closer to dessert. A big PSL from Starbucks contains 380 calories, which is precisely the same as a Hot Caramel Sundae from McDonald’s.

Cortado/gibraltar

This coffee drinks have different names and origins but essentially they’re the same. Shorter and more concentrated than a cappuccino but more milky than a macchiato. 

  • Double espresso
  • Steamed milk
50 %
Espresso
50 %
milk

The Gibraltar should always be served in its eponymous glass: Source)

the history

The Cortado has Spanish and Cuban roots. It’s a drink where you can really taste the espresso.

As such it’s popular among guys, who like milky coffee, but don’t the feminine connotations of a latte. 

is another of the more ‘masculine’ milk-based coffee drinks. It’s a smaller, more concentrated latte. It’s about 50/50 steamed mik and espresso. 

It is sometimes called a Gibraltar in specialty coffee shops in the US.

Other notable coffees

In recent years we have seen an explosion of coffee and milk concoction with creative names. The coffee chains have to keep their marketing departments busy so even though this will mean even more confused customers, and the trend is likely to continue.

There are a few more drinks that are likely to stay around:

Caffe Mocha

This is a chocolate version of the caffe latte. It’s around the same size, but usually, there’s also a bit of hot chocolate added to the drink. Often this drink can go into dessert territory and be quite sweet.

Affogato

This is more of a dessert than a real coffee drink so many coffee shops won’t have it on the menu. The most stripped down version of this dessert is just a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso on the top. However, many chefs have their own version. The image below shows a shot pulled directly on the ice cream. 

Mocha

A cappuccino where one espresso shot is exchanged in favor of hot chocolate.

Espresso con Panna

 Espresso with a generous serving of whipped cream on top.

Bulletproof Coffee

Coffee blended with unsalted butter and a particular derivative of coconut oil called MCT oil. Due to its high caloric content, it’s meant to replace breakfast. Supposedly, it aids weight loss and improves cognition.

Irish Coffee

A cocktail consisting of hot coffee mixed with whiskey and brown sugar. Topped off with whipped cream.

Final words

There are so many ways to say ‘espresso with hot milk’ today, that even a seasoned linguist would be perplexed.

I’d advice you to pay attention to the classics, which should be easy enough. If you happen to want something extra strong, it’s not that difficult to memorize a term like ‘cortado.’ 

Remember, If you’re in doubt, ask the barista. Usually, they’re nice folks who don’t mind telling you about their work.

A last thing worth pointing out, is that milk-based coffee concoctions are often very heavy on the calories, so this is probably not something you should consume on a daily basis. 

about the author

about the author

Hey, I'm Asser Christensen from Denmark – the founder & editor of this site.

I have been crazy about caffeine for almost as long as I can remember. Today, I'm a licensed Q Arabica Grader and full time coffee writer.

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