A Café… What?: The Definition of the Drink

Cortado at Joe the Art of Coffee, Chelsea, NYC

Like many things that employ multiple languages, artistic prowess, and a constant blowing off of steam, the world of espresso (and the drinks based on it) can be confusing. In fact, the lack of standardization between a “cappuccino” at Starbucks (more appropriately called a latte), a cappuccino according to the National Italian Espresso Institute guidelines, and whatever it is that comes out of a Tassimo machine, has caused many cafés to drop the ambiguous terms altogether and opt for an espresso with x ounces of milk (see below). Don’t worry, you can still order a cappuccino. And for all your other inquiries, and to put a (real) name to that coffee drink you love, check out these explanations:

Espresso: Espresso is drink made from pushing high pressured water (at minimum 135 PSI) through highly compacted, finely ground coffee beans. Typically coffee beans come in an espresso variety, often roasted somewhat darker than is necessary for light coffee beans and often a mixed of different origins. A typical pull of espresso is 1.5 oz. A well made espresso should be pulled manually and should have not be overly bitter.

Espresso, Germany

Macchiato: I still recall my shock as a then high school student in San Francisco ordering a macchiato and getting something completely foreign. Why is it so tiny? No milk, only foam? And where’s the caramel sauce? Starbucks may have initially ruined me, but apparently a traditional macchiato is nothing like the Starbucks one. That is, a caffe macchiato.

A caffe macchiato is a pull of espresso (again often 1 and ½ shots, but it varies) topped with a small amount of milk. In fact, its name literally means marked and refers to the tiny mark of milk in the espresso. It is (or ideally should be) served in anything from a 2.25 oz to 3 oz ceramic espresso cup. If you like your coffee strong but the espresso is just too much, try the caffe macchiato on for size. Note, many American made caffe macchiatos are topped with a small amount of dry macrofoam (the type of foam employed in a cappuccino).

What Starbucks serves up is a latte macchiato, basically the reverse: a pull of milk with barely a marking of espresso.

Cordato: Next up in the hierarchy of milk:espresso rate, the cordato, a Spanish espresso drink that is gaining clout around New York. Though not seen much around Boston now, one barista at Darwins LTD on Cambridge St was able to make one for me.

A Cortado is typically a 1:1 – 1:2 milk:espresso ratio. Milk is warmed, steamed and “stretched” to create a microfoam (or wet foam). Microfoam looks shiny like paint thinner when done right and should have no visible bubbles—this wet foam is what allows the creation of “latte art” due to its thick, velvety texture.

A Cortado should be served ideally in a 5 to 7 oz glass.

Cortado at Ninth Street Espresso, Alphabet City, NYC

Gibraltar: This drink is basically a 4.5 oz version of a cortado, also made with a shot of espresso and microfoamed milk, often complete with latte art. This drink is a recent invention of Blue Bird Café in San Francisco. An insider joke with a cult following, the drink isn’t even on the menu there but has gained popularity around the bay area and even all the way to London. Good name to know in case you see it.

Cappuccino: Probably the most misunderstood and misrepresented of the espresso drinks in America, the cappuccino of many a restaurant in America is really a latte. The distinguishing feature of this espresso drink is its being topped with macro (dry) foam, [foam where you can see the air bubbles] in addition to steam microfoam milk. The total drink should be no more than 5-6 oz and should be served in a ceramic cup.

Cappuccino at Crema Cafe, Harvard Square 

Latte: Many of the drinks you’ve probably had before have probably been a latte in disguise. I know this is the case for me. The latte is a popular breakfast drink in Italy made with a pull of espresso and around 6 oz of microfoamed milk prepared an 8 oz ceramic cup.

Flat-White: Popular in London, this is drink is basically a latte served in a cappuccino-size ceramic cup, often complete with latte art and with as velvety of milk as a cortado. Also find this drink in Australia and New Zealand (its place of origin).

Café con Leche: A latte made with scalded milk instead of microfoamed milk, bringing a caramelized sugary taste to the drink. Scalded milk is raised to a temperature where the proteins in the milk completely denature and, as a result, a microfoam texture cannot be created and thus, neither can latte art. Scalded milk is not to be confused with scorched (burnt) milk.

~Natalie Padilla (Lowell FLP Rep)

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