If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between all of the fancy drinks your local coffee shop lists on their chalkboards, you aren’t alone. If you aren’t an espresso aficionado, it might be difficult to immediately understand the difference between a latte and a macchiato.
Cafe drinks each have their own history, flavor composition, mouthfeel, and presentation. Variations on these coffee drinks have emerged over the years as the popularity of traditional coffee bar drinks grows. You now have a seemingly endless number of options to choose from each time you visit your local cafe.
While we encourage you to try them all, the basics are cappuccinos, lattes, macchiatos, and mochas. Prepared traditionally, the subtleties between these four main drinks are sometimes slight, but result in boldly different textures and flavors. Here is everything you need to know to prepare you for your next visit to the coffee shop.
Every cafe drink essentially begins with the same ingredients: espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam. Not every drink includes all three, but the biggest differences between these four popular beverages are the ratios between the basic ingredients.
Lattes, macchiatos, cappuccinos, and mochas all start with espresso. Just like regular coffee, espresso is made with coffee beans. The difference is in the way those beans are prepared: espresso uses pressurized steam to force water through tightly packed coffee grounds, producing small amounts of concentrated liquid a time. These espresso shots contain a higher percentage of caffeine than regular coffee and form the base of all of coffee bar drinks (see here).
Steamed milk is the next component. Most professional espresso machines include a steaming wand for baristas to use for this purpose. You may have even watched a barista pour milk into a metal carafe and stick it under a long metal arm protruding from an espresso machine. That’s what they’re doing: steaming milk for lattes, cappuccinos, or mochas.
Milk foam is the final component in the basic coffee drink and makes an appearance in most of them. It’s made by gently whipping steamed milk to create air bubbles. Skilled baristas can control the texture of steamed milk and milk foam in the same carafe.
Microfoam has tiny bubbles resulting in a smooth texture and mouthfeel. It is used for lattes and gives the latte its classic milky, velvety feel. Bigger, fuller air bubbles result in a “dry foam” that is used for cappuccinos. Its texture is not as smooth and takes up more physical space in the drink.
Proper espresso drinks are made by a professional or at-home barista using quality equipment, namely a coffee grinder, espresso machine, and steaming wand.
In the United States, a latte is made with a double shot of espresso (60 mL or 2 oz), steamed milk, and a 1/2 in-thick layer of milk foam on top. Most lattes will be between 8 oz and 12 oz depending on the coffee shop’s preference. This popular version of the latte uses microfoam, which is perfect for creating elaborate designs. In fact, latte art has become its own art form (see vid below) and baristas everywhere seek to master the delicate process (see here) of creating beautiful designs on their lattes.
The latte you find in your local coffee shop originates from an Italian beverage called caffè latte that is almost always served for breakfast and consists of coffee brewed in a stovetop Moka pot and poured into heated milk, sans the milk foam.
However, the latte has roots in a variety of traditional drinks all over Europe, including the café au lait found in France and the Milchkaffee of Germany. The American version of the latte was popularized in Seattle, Washington in the early 1980s. The Caffe Mediterraneum in Berkeley, California claims one of its early owners, Lino Meiorin, invented the now-standard latte (see here) drink in the 1950s.
The latte’s unique flavor and texture results from the smooth milk foam that covers the surface. This is a drink for people who appreciate the flavor of milk in their coffee and enjoy the potential for modification.
Many coffee shops will offer variations of the latte that include syrups and flavorings, resulting in a much sweeter drink. An iced latte does not use milk foam but is instead a combination of espresso poured over chilled milk and almost always includes a flavored syrup. Sometimes the entire beverage is blended with ice to create a frosty texture.
The macchiato, also called a caffè macchiato or espresso macchiato, is made with espresso and a small amount of steamed milk. The literal translation of caffè macchiato from Italian is “stained coffee” or “spotted coffee.”
Rather than thinking about the ingredients of the macchiato in terms of their ratio to each other, think of it as espresso with a “drop” of milk in it. This drink originated when baristas needed to find a way to differentiate a shot of straight espresso from a shot of espresso with a little bit of milk. In fact, the Portuguese name for this drink, café pingado, is directly translated as “coffee with a drop” (see here).
The macchiato is a strong coffee drink. It is occasionally prepared with a little bit of milk foam, but more often than not your macchiato will be prepared in a shot glass with espresso and a light layer of steamed milk on top.
Macchiatos are a popular drink around the world, though like many coffee drinks, it is of Italian origin. In Mexico, the macchiato is referred to as a cortado, which is a much different drink (see here) in some countries and includes more milk.
This drink has a strong flavor and relies on the quality of the espresso beans to really make it shine.
A traditional cappuccino from Italy is made using equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam. The resulting beverage is perfect for milk foam artwork (see vid below) and packs a smooth, frothy taste and texture.
The origins of the cappuccino date back hundreds of years in Italy, where it is typically reserved for a morning addition to breakfast or a mid-morning snack. Italians often serve cappuccinos to children due to the higher milk content.
The cappuccino migrated to the United States and gained popularity about 25 years ago (see here). Traditional cappuccinos make an appearance at your local cafes and coffee shops, but the drink has become common enough that you might often find semblances of flavored cappuccinos in dispensing machines at gas stations. Be warned—these are not traditional cappuccinos!
Cappuccinos are popular all over the world, resulting in a number of different variations on the original beverage.
The versatility and popularity of the cappuccino continue to grow, so consider ordering one on your next visit to a coffee bar.
A mocha uses the complementary flavor combination of coffee and chocolate (see here) to create a rich, satisfying treat. Much like a latte, a mocha is made from a similar ratio combination of steamed milk and espresso with the addition of milk, white, or dark chocolate.
The name mocha, also called a caffè mocha or a mochaccino, comes from the city of Mocha, Yemen. In the 15th century to early 18th century, Mocha was known for being a famous marketplace for the coffee trade.
You can think of the mocha as almost like a hot chocolate with a shot of espresso added, although a barista might bristle at any insinuation that the art of making a mocha doesn’t require skill.
The exact preparation and ingredients in a mocha will differ by cafe. Some coffee bars use chocolate syrup or cocoa powder to create a mocha, while others may actually break up pieces of chocolate inside the drink that melt and create a fun, uneven pattern on the side of the glass.
A mochaccino is typically used synonymously with a mocha, but there is sometimes a slight variation: whereas a mocha is prepared using espresso, steamed milk, and added chocolate, a mochaccino is sometimes prepared by adding espresso to hot chocolate milk. The difference is subtle, but the technicality remains for those of you who appreciate the details.
It might also be helpful to think of a mocha as a latte with added chocolate flavoring, though just know that the comparison is not exact. Both drinks have a similarly smooth, velvety mouthfeel and contain a generous amount of steamed milk.
However, mochas do not typically have milk foam on the top like a latte. Instead, most coffee bars and shops will sell their mochas with whipped cream. Some even add marshmallows or additional chocolate syrup. Occasionally, bars will prepare mochas with such flair and extravagance that they officially cross the line into the dessert realm.
Most variations of the mocha involved changes to the toppings and type of chocolate used. For example, a white mocha is a popular variation and simply uses the addition of white chocolate instead of dark or milk chocolate. A black and white mocha (see here)—that goes by a number of different names—uses a combination of dark and white chocolate to create a beautiful color and flavor contrast.
These basic drinks are widely available in their traditional forms at most coffee shops, bars, and cafes around the world. The best way to get to know each drink is to try one prepared traditionally by a skilled barista.
However, once you’ve dipped your toes into the world of coffee drinks, it can be fun to try out some other common variations. If you find yourself lost in the coffee bar menu, use this brief explanation of other espresso drinks to help you find your way. Keep in mind this is not an exhaustive list, but it does cover some of the most popular variations.
Each of the four main espresso drinks—latte, macchiato, cappuccino, and mocha—require similar preparation. Making these drinks begins with milk and espresso beans and requires a coffee grinder, scale, espresso machine, and steaming wand. You’ll also need the type of mug you’ll be serving your drink in and a receptacle for the milk, usually a metal carafe of some kind.
All of these drinks begin by freshly grinding coffee beans, preferably using a quality conical burr grinder (see here). The coffee grounds are then packed into a portafilter, tampered down, and brewed using an espresso machine . Watch this basic video (see below) to understand how espresso is brewed. If you’re just getting into the coffee world, we recommend sampling espresso drinks made by a professional barista, known as a coffee bartender (see here).
To start making a latte, you’ll need to pull an espresso shot in the mug you will be using to serve your drink. As your espresso is brewing, steam about 6-8 oz of milk using a steaming wand until you have a nice microfoam (see here). You’ll know you’ve got it right when the milk appears glassy, doesn’t contain any visible bubbles, and sticks to the side of the carafe when you swirl it. Gently tap the carafe on the counter to bring air bubbles to the surface, but give it another swirl to incorporate the milk and foam before you begin pouring. The next step, pouring your steamed milk into the espresso, is when you have the chance to get creative with latte art. If you wish, you can use a spoon to top the finished latte with the foam left in the carafe after pouring.
Check out this video to see a professional barista making a latte: see here.
Just like a latte, a macchiato begins with an espresso shot. A macchiato is typically brewed in a demitasse cup (see here) just like a regular shot of espresso would be. While you are pulling your shot, steam your milk using a steaming wand. For a macchiato, you’ll want the milk to be a little foamier than what you use for a latte. Depending on how traditional you are making your macchiato, you only need a dollop of foamy milk. Some baristas prefer a little extra milk, so you might get some variation from one coffee shop to the next. After your espresso is ready, pour or scoop your milk on top of the espresso according to your preference.
This barista uses about 1 oz of milk instead of the traditional drop to add a creamier flavor to his macchiato, but the traditional preparation is the same (see here).
A cappuccino serving mug is slightly smaller than a latte mug but much bigger than the demitasse cup used for espresso. The total volume of the final drink will be about 5-6 oz so many coffee shops have a separate serving mug for this drink. Most traditional Italian cappuccinos use a single shot, but many countries have standardized using a double shot for a cappuccino. The final ratio should be a 1:1:1 of espresso, milk, and milk foam, usually 2 oz each. Pull your espresso shot and steam your milk using your espresso machine and steaming wand. Rather than the microfoam of a latte, a cappuccino uses a much foamier consistency of milk. Because of this, many baristas will give their foamy milk an extra swirl before pouring it into their espresso and creating beautiful artwork.
Watch a standard cappuccino being prepared here.
A mocha is prepared the same way as a latte with the additional step of adding chocolate, which is the key ingredient in a mocha and what separates it from a latte. Most cafes have their own unique way of preparing a mocha: some use cocoa powder mixed with a little hot water and others use pre-made chocolate syrups. We’ve even seen coffee shops break up pieces of chocolate and add that to the drink. The type of chocolate you use can also vary between milk, dark, and white. Most cafes will use some kind of sweetened milk chocolate, but it’s always a good idea to ask. Mochas are about the same size as a latte so most will be brewed directly into the same size serving mug. Some baristas pour the chocolate in first and brew the espresso over the top, and others will brew the espresso and then top it with chocolate before adding milk. Either way works, though it is slightly more traditional to add the chocolate second and much more common in American coffee shops to add the chocolate first. Otherwise, simply continue as if you are making a latte and then finish with toppings of your choice like whipped cream, more chocolate, or milk foam.
This barista here adds a combination of cocoa powder and hot water and brews the espresso over the top before adding steamed milk artwork just like a latte (see here).
We encourage you to sample all four main espresso drinks to find the taste and style you like best. When prepared correctly, all of these beverages have the potential to be quality cups of coffee. However, your personal taste means you will likely have a preference for one over the other.
If you enjoy the taste of milk in your coffee, then go with a cappuccino or a latte. The latte has a much silkier mouthfeel than a cappuccino due to the smooth microfoam used. It also lacks a substantial amount of foam, so it will be a bit more full of texture. A cappuccino is also a milk-dense coffee drink but about half of the milk that is used will be in the form of foam, so the espresso flavor will be more pronounced and the textures of the drink will seem more separated.
If you like the taste of strong espresso, go with a macchiato. This is definitely a drink for those who enjoy the nuances of espresso shots. If you want something to sip on for a longer period of time, stick with the latte or cappuccino.
All of the chocolate lovers out there gravitate immediately towards the mocha. This is the perfect traditional espresso drink for anyone who enjoys flavored coffee.
Hopefully, you now feel more prepared for your next coffee shop visit. We encourage you to sample as many different kinds of espresso drinks as you can to find your perfect drink.
If you are a world traveler, take the opportunity to learn about coffee preparation in local coffee shops the next time you find yourself in a foreign city. The tradition of drinking and preparing coffee and espresso has a long history, so many cultures have their own way of making these basic drinks.
As always, seek out coffee shops that use freshly ground, quality beans for the best espresso drink experience. Good luck with your coffee adventure!
Hey there, my name is Greg and I'm the creator and editor of Coffee or Bust. I've been in the coffee business for over a decade, and my goal is to help you make the best cup of coffee with recommended tips, tools, and tricks!