Coffee Talk: Milk-Based Drinks

us cappacinoBy Danny Pinnell, SCAA

Among coffee drinkers, we have noticed that there tends to be a lot of confusion and anxiety about what to call certain beverages–primarily the ones made up of espresso and milk.

Between terms like cappuccino, macchiato (both of the Italian and Starbucks variety), cortado, piccolo, caffé latte, Gibraltar, Gaspar, and Flat White–all of which are made up of the same two basic ingredients–how do we know what we’re getting, or what to expect?

Our coffee talk host, Peter Giuliano, typically likes to start these weekly coffee-centric discussions with an origin story. However, he admits that there is no real origin story to these beverages as the mixing between them happened so early on in coffee’s history.

italian cappuccinoThe “king” of these coffee and milk drinks, he argues, is the cappuccino. Displaying a picture of a latte-artless (gasp!), foam-domed cappuccino, Peter tells us that this is how cappuccinos look in Italy–where they were first created.

While the exact origin of the name of this drink is not clear, it is believed to have come from Vienna where milk was poured into coffee (in a glass) until the resulting product matched the religious garments of the Capuchin monks.

By the time the drink made its way to Italy, porcelain cups were used and they could no longer see the color. Foam also became more popular, leading to the more specialized use of microfoam and the growing emphasis on latte art that we see in the United States, as well as many other coffee consuming countries around the world.

While the idea of standardization is attractive­–we all want a standard to work from–it’s important to understand that these things are a product of culture.

The cappuccino roughly conforms to this desire for standardization. Considered a “drink of proportions,” it has been defined as a coffee beverage made up of one-third espresso, one-third milk, and one-third foam to create a balance or equivalence in proportions.

Defined by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and the World Barista Championship (WBC), a cappuccino is a 5-6 oz. coffee and milk beverage that should produce a harmonious balance of rich, sweet milk, and espresso. A cappuccino is prepared with a single shot of espresso, textured milk, and a minimum of 1 centimeter of foam depth (assessed vertically).

While a cappuccino may be fairly straightforward, the following variations may produce some of the confusion mentioned earlier.

  • caffe latteCaffé latte: The Italian “coffee milk” puts more emphasis on the milk aspect than the coffee, whereas a cappuccino celebrates more of a balance.
  • Cortado: Meaning “cut” in Spanish, this name represents espresso that is “cut” with a little bit of milk (as one might “cut” whiskey with water). Similar drinks include the Piccolo (Italian for “small”) or the Macchiato (“marked” with milk). Starbucks’ Macchiato inverts the traditional meaning, with milk that is marked with espresso.

cortadoWhile Peter described these different variances, he showed us photos of the “traditional” presentation in contrast to the current aesthetic.

The more traditional cortados, cappuccinos, and lattes were much easier to tell apart in terms of their appearance. When drinks like cortados came to America, more milk began to be added to give baristas more time to create latte art. Baristas want to pour latte art, and consumers want their drink to have it. This natural progression happened because our culture loves presentation.

Cortados became adopted by new cultures and were given new names.

  • gibraltarGibraltar: San Francisco roasters began serving cortados in 4.5 oz. Libbey-Owens-Ford glassware of the same name, eventually adopting the name for the beverage
  • Gaspar: Another (recent) variation of a cortado, served in a 5.5 oz. glass

Last but not least, the Flat White. This beverage has made it’s way prominently into the United States fairly recently. Originating in New Zealand/Australia, most of the beverage, like a caffé latte, is steamed milk. Many people believe that the “flat” in the name refers to the milk–perhaps no foam or very little. The SCAA and WBC definition cites half a centimeter of foam.

american flat white

I suppose the moral of the story is that we shouldn’t get too anxious about calling these drinks the right name. Cappuccinos vary among bars. Some places are even stripping off all the lables and listing “coffee with milk” on their menus.

Coffee adapts to culture, and no matter how it’s labeled, it’s a delicious experience.