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Is it just me, or does navigating the menu in your local coffee shop seem like you’re reading a notoriously difficult novel such as Ulysses by James Joyce? I know I might be exaggerating, but in all honesty, deciphering today’s coffee shop menu can be a challenge, to say the least.
It seems like bearded baristas are inventing and adding new beverages to the blackboard on a weekly basis. God forbid if you actually ask what the new Italian-sounding drink is because you’re almost guaranteed to be met with a face of shock followed by a deep exhale, which can make even the seasoned coffee drinker feel out of place.
I hear ya!
To help you navigate through the minefield, which is the modern-day coffee shop menu, I have pulled up four coffee drinks that look very similar but are completely different once you see how they are made and the ingredients that go into them.
I’m sure after reading through the differences between the Macchiato vs. Cappuccino vs. Mocha vs. Latte, you’ll be armed with the knowledge needed to interpret the menu on your next visit. The key difference between these popular coffee drinks is the amount of foam, milk, and espresso that each contains. Let’s take a closer look.
First off, let’s take a look at the Macchiato, which by the way, is sometimes called an Espresso Macchiato or Caffe Macchiato and translates as means “spotted” in Italian. So if you see any of those variations on the blackboard menu, you are looking at the same drink. If you happen to be in Portugal, look out for “coffee with a drop” or “cafe pingado”; again, this is the same drink.
The Macchiato offers up a far bolder flavor when compared to other popular coffee-based drinks found on the menu. This layered drink comprises espresso and milk. Each barista will have their own take on how it’s made, but as a rule of thumb, it should have a double shot of espresso on the base, a layer of steamed milk, then finished off with a layer of milk foam.
Ratios aren’t really a concern with the Macchiato; as long as it has espresso and milk, you’ve ticked all of the boxes.
If you enjoy a bold, strong, tasting coffee, the Macchiato is definitely one to try. For the best experience, high-quality espresso coffee beans are a must.
Evolving from the Austrian coffee drink “kapuziner”, the Cappuccino today is very similar to the Macchiato, however, ratios do play a role in the creation of this drink. The Cappuccino is all about balance and contains equal parts of milk foam, steamed milk, and espresso (1/3 Espresso, 1/3 Steamed Milk, 1/3 Milk Foam).
Espresso is first into the cup, followed by hot steamed milk, which is slowly poured over the espresso from a metal jug. Special care is taken to only allow the milk and not the foam to leave the jug. Finally, the remaining foam is spooned on top of the cappuccino.
Often you will also find a light dusting of cinnamon or rich chocolate powder on top of the foam. Just like a Lattes, the Cappuccino can also have elaborate designs swirled on top, but this isn’t common practice.
Those of you that enjoy the bold-tasting espresso but find that on its own, it can be simply “too much” will appreciate the slightly toned down Cappuccino. The milk takes the often bitter edge off the espresso, leaving you with a smooth and flavorful mouthfeel.
A strange hybrid coffee drink that is far too sweet for my liking, but I’m sure some of you reading this will enjoy slurping on this sugary dessert … I mean beverage.
The Mocha, or sometimes referred to as the Mochaccino or Caffe Mocha, incorporates a blend of ingredients, including espresso, chocolate, and hot milk. The drink shares a lot of characteristics with the Latte but what separates the two is the addition of chocolate. To be honest, I find that the Mocha is more of a hot chocolate type of drink, especially when baristas add a large helping of marshmallows, flavored coffee syrups, and thick whipped cream on top (rolls eyes).
Making a Mocha is pretty simple, and the espresso-to-milk ratio is just like the latte but with the addition of chocolate. A shot of espresso is first placed into the cup, followed by hot chocolate, and lastly, steamed milk is poured on top.
The Starbucks Latte is often found permanently stuck in the hand of almost all busy moms who are dropping their kids off at school.
Joking aside, the Latte, which is the English shortened version of the Italian Caffe Latte, is a word that simply translates to “milk coffee,” which actually describes this coffee beverage accurately; this drink is all about the silky smooth microfoam.
In France, the cafe au lait is a very similar drink to the Latte and is typically enjoyed at breakfast and accompanied by freshly baked croissants. Lattes and other European variations of this drink started to gain popularity in the United States in the mid-1900s (1).
Lattes are one of the creamiest of our espresso-based drinks on this list, and making one is simple enough. A double shot of espresso is added first, followed by 6 or up to 8 ounces of steamed milk, and finished off with a very thin layer of foam. Many baristas also like to add a bit of Latte art to this beverage.
It’s All About The Milk!
The one element that stays consistent in all of the recipes is the espresso; it’s either a double or single shot. What really differentiates the coffee beverages is the milk.
For the average Joe, the type of milk used might seem insignificant; after all, milk is just…. milk, right?
Not really. Each of these drinks calls for a certain type of textured milk. Some require heated hot milk, and some micro-foam, while other recipes need stiff foam or a mixture of all three.
In order to achieve these various types of milk, skill is required to bring the milk to a certain temperature using a metal jug and a steam wand (milk frother), which is often attached to the best espresso machine.
The stream wand simply produces hot steam, which is forced into the milk. While submerged in the milk, it also mixes air into the milk, which produces the various types of milk foams required for these espresso-based drinks. The main distinction between the various types of foamed milk is the number of bubbles.
Simply put. For frothed milk, the volume of milk is simply doubled on the other hand, for steamed milk, the volume is increased by up to a third.
So as you can see, without the milk, the Macchiato, Cappuccino, Mocha, and Latte wouldn’t be the drinks they are – it’s all about the milk!
What’s the Difference?
|Steamed milk, espresso
|Espresso, steamed milk, milk foam
|Espresso, chocolate, steamed milk, whipped cream/marshmallows
|Double espresso, steamed milk, milk foam
|Strong, with a slight creaminess
|In a glass
|Ceramic coffee cup
|In a glass
|Glass or coffee cup
|Under 100 calories
|75 calories (nonfat milk)/ 120 calories (whole milk)
|300+ calories, depending on the additional toppings
|From 130-290 calories depending on the type of milk used
What’s Your Favorite Espresso Based Drink?
I hope that after reading this, you’re now armed with enough information to order your preferred drink from any high street coffee shop menu.
If you’re still undecided about which you might like the best, here is a bit more of a helping hand. If easier if you focus on just two factors – how strong do you want your coffee and how much milk foam you would prefer.
If you love a strong coffee, I would recommend that you order a Macchiato. If you would rather have a more milky coffee, maybe the Latte is going to be a good option.
If you enjoy a sweet and desert-like beverage, the chocolate mocha is sure to tickle your tastebuds!
If you love coffee as much as I do, there’s no reason why you can’t try them all, if only once! That is the only way you really discover your favorites. I have even tried the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino (2) …. and yes, it was indeed only one time! …Never again will a pink sparkling drink touch my lips.