Coffee Drinks Explained - Part 2
October 10, 2022

Welcome to part two of this two-part blog, where I give a rundown of drinks generally found on a standard cafe menu. Thanks to being a genuinely global obsession, different countries have adapted drinks to suit their audience. And as a result, there are almost no standards for what any drink should be, anywhere. Unless you're in Italy, that is. But I'm not. So, this will be Irish-centric because that's where I am. But I will try and elaborate as much as possible. And if you read this and think, "that's not how my cafe makes it!" I'm sure you're as correct as I am.

 

I will focus on milk-based drinks in part two of this blog piece (You can read part one here). People have been pairing milk or cream with coffee for a long time. No one group claims to have been the first. But I can only assume that the first to do so were trying to mask the taste of lousy coffee. Either way, knowingly or not, they started a relationship that still blossoms. In fact, it currently feels that every week brings a fresh revelation that some new plant has been milked. But that's a conversation for another day. In quite a few of the below sections, I will refer to ratios. How much liquid coffee goes in compared to milk (1:2 or 1:3). Confused? Good, that should make this more intriguing. Read on to find out more. 

 

 

Empty cups on saucer on a wooden bench.

 

Perhaps the most iconic drink on a cafe menu. And one that predates espresso. It is also one with many a myth attached to it. And most of these myths are connected to the Capuchin monks of northern Italy. This order of Franciscan monks was founded in 1525 and wore brown habits with hoods. People say the milk-foam dome of a Cappuccino resembles a hood. And in fact, the Italian word for hood is cappuccio. Others say that has to do with how the milk is poured. When the white milk is circled by the golden brown espresso, it can resemble the head of a monk and the distinct haircut associated with them. And like all good myths, they sound like they could be true. But unfortunately, like all good myths, they're not. Both connect the use of frothed milk as part of the drink. And that only arrived with the espresso machine in the early 1900s. And the Cappuccino far outdates that. Not only that, but the Capuchin monks don't perform tonsure, the act of cutting one's hair as an act of humility. However, there is a connection to Capuchin monks. And it comes not from Italy but from the coffeehouses of Vienna, Austria, in the early 1800s. Here you could order a drink called the Kapuziner, which was coffee mixed with cream until the colour matched the distinct brown of the robes of the Capuchin monks. It was a way of indicating how strong or milky you wanted your coffee. The drink we know today didn't arrive for at least another century.

 

When the modern espresso machine arrived in the late 1940s, it changed almost everything about coffee service. The speed at which it could be prepared. The flavours that could be extracted. Even how coffee looked was altered. But another feature arrived with it. The ability to rapidly heat milk. This resulted in the microfoam, or the frothy, velvety milk we know today. And as the espresso machines' popularity spread worldwide, so did the milky drinks prepared with it. One was a strong, milky, frothy coffee we would come to know as the Cappuccino. But what exactly is a Cappuccino? It's a good question. And one with no strict answer. Essentially it's a strong, milky coffee with a good layer of foamed, textured milk. There is a suggestion that a real Cappuccino has a coffee, milk, and foam ratio of 1:1:1. But that's relatively nonsensical when you think of it. A single shot cappuccino would only be about 75ml then.

The SCA (the Speciality Coffee Association), which organises the World Barista Championship, has its own definition. This global competition which has been running since 2000, has the Cappuccino as one of the drinks an aspiring contender must produce to be crowned world champion. Their regulations define it as "a coffee and milk beverage that should produce a harmonious balance of rich, sweet milk and espresso." It must also have a minimum of 1cm of foam depth and be between 150ml-180ml in total volume. So don't forget your tape measure the next time you order one! And as for the chocolate on top? I could find no mention of anyone who claims to have started this trend. It is certainly not a defining characteristic of the drink. My guess would be somewhere in the U.S., and my guess for its enduring popularity is, well, who doesn't love chocolate? 

 

So what should you expect if you order a Cappuccino? Well, it'll probably be a strong, milky coffee with a good layer of foam that may or may not have chocolate on top. Simple. 

 

 

 

Empty cups on saucer on a wooden bench.

 

This is an excellent example of something that has evolved from country to country. Although, others might use the word mutated. The original is almost as old as the first espresso. When espresso was gaining popularity in Italy, some locals found the new way of brewing coffee resulted in a flavour too intense to enjoy. And so, some would ask for a dash of milk in their shot to mellow it out. The problem was milk would sink and hide under the crema, the golden, brown top of an espresso. And if you approached a counter full of drinks, there was no way to know which contained the milk. To help ease the confusion, a barista would spoon a bit of frothed milk on top of the espresso marking or staining it. Hence the name Macchiato. It literally translates to stained in English. And so, that is what a traditional Macchiato should be. A single shot of espresso with a dash of milk and a dollop of milk foam on top. 

 

But here's where things get confusing. Over time, many cafes began to add more and more milk. Most likely so, skilled baristas could show off their latte art in small cups. The result would be an espresso to milk ratio of 1:1. However, there is a drink called the Cortado from the Iberian region (Portugal & Spain) with that exact ratio. The Cortado is not uncommon on many coffee menus. Then you have the Piccolo Latte with very similar proportions to the Cortado. It is less common but not unheard of and essentially the same thing, albeit with a slightly different ratio (1:1-1:2). And then along came Starbucks with a sledgehammer to logic. Their Caramel Macchiato is a massive, cappuccino-like drink with vanilla syrup and drizzled caramel sauce. Now admittedly, I've never had one of these drinks. Nor do I ever intend to, but clearly, lots and lots of people enjoy it. But their use of the word Macchiato in the name has caused more confusion than good in the coffee world. 

 

If you want a Macchiato, it's probably best to ask your barista how they serve it before ordering. And unless you're in a Starbucks, you can expect it to be a very short, strong coffee with milk.

 

 

 

Empty cups on saucer on a wooden bench.

 

Some will say that the origins of this coffee are one of the most hotly contested issues in the coffee world. Australia? Or was it New Zealand? Now, as the husband of an Australian and someone who can claim to have many close friends from both New Zealand and Australia, I can answer this confidently. No one actually gives a damn. They are much more likely to contest the origins of the band Crowded House. But I digress. 

The flat white was a kickback against the ridiculous morphing of the 1990s Cappuccino into a bucket-sized cup of coffee topped with uber-frothy milk and chocolate powder. Those of us of certain seniority will remember this. But if not, watch old episodes of Friends, and one will pop up in due course. But as people grew tired of this, they began to crave and ask specifically for a simple flat, white, coffee. And so, the flat white was born. Either in Australia or New Zealand. I don't know. Who cares!?

 

Originally, and still in Aus and NZ, it is a strong, milky coffee served in a ceramic cup with a thin layer of microfoam on top. Usually, but not always, adorned with latte art. It would approximately be a coffee to milk ratio of 1:4-1:5. Thanks to the constant flow of people in and out of Australia and New Zealand, its popularity spread. By the time it gained popularity in the U.K. and Ireland, it had somewhat changed into what most Aussies and Kiwis would consider a Latte (we'll come to that drink shortly). In this hemisphere, it is more likely to be a 1:3-1:4 ratio. But still at its heart is a strong, flat, milky coffee. And if you see it on a menu in a specialist coffee shop, chances are, you'll get a good drink. 

 

 

 

Empty cups on saucer on a wooden bench.

 

As mentioned before, people have been pairing milk with coffee for a long time. And, no one group or nation claims to be the first to have done so. And even though the Caffè Latte/Latte has an Italian name, its origins are outside Italy. The reason a lot of coffees worldwide have Italian names is probably the same reason a lot of bars have Irish names.

 

The Caffè Latte/Latte probably evolved along the same lines as the café au lait and café con leche of France and Spain. And essentially, they all mean the same thing. Coffee and/with milk. It would have been initially an equal part coffee to milk ratio (1:1) for dipping some delicious pastry into for breakfast. Yum yum. 

But over time, the Latte part of the drink came to the forefront, making it a much milkier (1:5-1:6) and, therefore, sweeter drink. And so it appealed to those who liked such things, and in turn, the drink became suitable for pairing with different flavours. This was particularly true in Seattle during the 90s coffee boom, thanks to Starbucks. Here, vanilla, caramel, and hazelnut flavouring were common additions to a Latte. They remain so globally to this day. The Latte is also a popular drink for baristas to flex their latte art skills. 

Because the word Latte literally means milk, it is attached to many an item on many a menu worldwide. Chai Latte, Matcha Latte, and Turmeric Latte are all relatively common nowadays. They're all just a combination of tea, tea and spices, or just spices mixed with hot milk. And, they can be delicious if you're into that sort of thing. 

 

As for what to expect when you order a Latte today? Well, it really depends on where you are. A modern, speciality cafe will likely give you a strong, milky coffee (1:3-1:4). You might be hard-pressed to differentiate between that and a Cappucino in many places. Whereas a traditional or chain cafe might serve you a large, very milky coffee (1:5-1:6). Sometimes in those tall, stupid thin glass cup things with a tiny handle and long spoon! Arrgh, sorry. I hate those things!! 

 

Anyway, moving on.

 

 

 

Empty cups on saucer on a wooden bench.

 

Simply put, a Mocha is a hot chocolate with a shot of espresso in it. There are no set rules about it. Some cafes use a chocolate sauce, others a syrup and some chocolate powder. Either way, they're all mixed with espresso before being topped with Cappuccino-style hot milk. Usually, they can be pimped up a bit with whipped cream or other bits and bobs. They can be excellent if you're into that sort of thing. But do remember that they contain espresso and, therefore, a good deal of caffeine. So perhaps avoid giving them to small children. Unless you're happy to deal with the consequences! 

 

Why they're called a Mocha is anyone's guess. Since the beginning of the global obsession with coffee, two words have been synonymous. Mocha, and Java. This has to do with the port of Mocha in Yemen and the island of Java in Indonesia. These two places were pivotal in the early expansion of coffee (you can read more about that here). And for quite a long time, and still to this day, in some cases, coffee companies will use one or both of these words to convey a sense of flavour. Generally, a chocolatey, darker roast flavour, as would have been typical at the time. So perhaps it is connected in some way to this chocolatey flavour profile. But this is just speculation. No one claims to have been the first to pair hot chocolate and coffee, but I doff my cap to whoever first did it. And no one is claiming they were the first to call it a Mocha. 

 

So what should you expect if you order a Mocha? Well, you can anticipate something sweet. And if you're already a fan of the Mocha, you're probably not too fussed about how sweet that just might be. 

 

 

 

So there you have it. A somewhat brief explanation of milk-based drinks found on cafe menus. Although you could argue the briefness of it. And some explanations probably leave more questions than answers. But, I hope, at least, it was an entertaining read. And it probably goes without saying, this is not a complete list. Perhaps the best way to discover how a cafe serves its version of any given drink is to visit as many places as possible. And you can rest assured that if you see a friendly orange bag of FiXX behind the counter, at the very least, your coffee will be delicious. 

 

Thanks for reading.

Kevin 

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