What’s your favorite espresso and milk drink? Do you enjoy the milk-forward latte, the creamy cappuccino, the tiny espresso macchiato? Not even sure what these are?
Whether you’re a home espresso enthusiast or a regular coffee shop goer, you should know the basic espresso and milk drinks.
Knowing what the drinks are made with, how they’re created, and how they’re different will give you clarity when it’s your turn to order and will give you more confidence at the counter (or your own home espresso machine).
I want you to feel excited and confident about the coffee you enjoy, even when it comes to espresso. Let’s walk through these most common drinks so you can enjoy the moment, rather than be confused and uncertain.
Espresso + Milk
Let’s start with the basics: all of the drinks in this guide contain two basic ingredients: espresso and milk. Some of the milk is steamed, some is left cold.
When I say steamed milk, I am referring to cold milk that has been steamed with a high-pressure wand on an espresso machine. The wand forces hot air in between the milk’s proteins, warming it up and creating a fine microfoam on the surface.
Many espresso drinks contain sugar, flavored syrups, or even cream instead of milk. We’ll talk about some of these as well.
Most coffee shops put a standard double shot of espresso in every espresso and milk drink, no matter the size. So when you’re determining the size, you’re usually just deciding how much milk you want.
For example, a 12 ounce latte and 6 ounce cappuccino will likely have the same amount of espresso. This isn’t true everywhere, but more often than not, it’s the case.
The latte is the largest and milkiest of the espresso and milk drinks. This makes it the most approachable. Everyone loves a simple, smooth flavored latte - even people who don’t really like coffee. The low concentration of espresso blends pretty well with sweet flavor syrups such as vanilla or mocha.
Lattes usually contain 1-2 ounces of espresso and 8-15 ounces of steamed milk. In the specialty coffee world, anything larger than 8 ounces is considered a latte. It’s not uncommon to find two or three latte sizes.
Latte milk is steamed fairly hot, usually between 135 and 150 degrees, but only has a thin layer of microfoam.
If you’re in the mood for an iced drink, iced lattes are refreshing and smooth. They’re typically made with 1-2 ounces of espresso, 8-14 ounces of cold milk (unsteamed), and ice.
Lattes are friendly and approachable, but that doesn't mean they’re for coffee wimps. Seasoned professionals love a good latte from time to time.
The cappuccino is the most famous espresso and milk drink around the world. No matter where your travels take you, you’ll be able to find one.
Traditionally, cappuccinos were only 5-6 ounce beverages made with 1-2 ounces of espresso and 3-4 ounces of steamed milk. The milk was steamed so that as much as ⅓ of the drink was thick microfoam.
One company (cough Starbucks) began selling large size cappuccinos while keeping that dense layer of foam. This broke from the tradition in terms of size, but it allowed customers to keep the same espresso/milk/foam ratio.
Specialty coffee shops have turned back to tradition, however, so you’ll mainly find cappuccinos that are 5-6 ounces. If you do want a bigger cappuccino, I suggest ordering a “dry latte”. I’ll explain what “dry” means in a bit.
Cappuccinos have a stronger coffee flavor than lattes since there’s less milk to dilute the espresso. However, they’re not unapproachable. They’re a fantastic middle-ground for enjoying the espresso flavor while not being overpowered by it.
And please, for goodness sake, don’t order a “no foam cappuccino”. That would be ⅓ espresso, ⅓ steamed milk, and ⅓ emptiness - and that just doesn’t really make sense. Foam is built into the identity of the drink. You can’t take it out or it’s just a tiny latte or a flat white.
Originating in Australia, the Flat White was created when a cafe customer wanted a cappuccino-size drink but without foam. Essentially, it’s a “no foam cappuccino with extra milk”.
However, once again, it took on a different definition via the Starbucks drink invention machine. The Starbucks flat white contains two ristretto (short) espresso shots and 10-15 ounces of steamed milk. Why did they invent their own definition? Well, we don’t really know.
In the specialty coffee industry, we often explain flat whites as small lattes. The flavor is a little more intense, but the foam is very thin like a latte, if there is any at all.
Cortado / Gibraltar
We’re going even smaller with the Cortado / Gibraltar. This 4-5 ounce drink of Spanish origin is served in a Gibraltar glass, but I’m not sure why some parts of the country call it a Cortado.
This drink is designed to be consumed quickly. The espresso is potent, but it’s mixed with 2-3 ounces of steamed milk to cut the intensity just enough for casual enjoyment.
The milk is steamed to the cooler side - 115 to 125 degrees - to allow you to down it almost immediately after receiving it. It’s nice and warm, but not hot.
Cortados / Gibraltars are more intense than cappuccinos. The more subtle flavors of the espresso are noticeable through the milk.
Many newcomers don’t really enjoy how strong the espresso flavor is in this beverage, but this drink is beloved in the industry. It’s strong, yet not nearly as intense as espresso on its own.
The Macchiato is another confusing drink. Many years ago Starbuck added it to their menu as a 12-20 ounce drink with an intense amount of caramel syrup. That’s nothing like the traditional macchiato, and, once again, we’re not really sure why they made up their own definition.
Traditionally, this drink was just a shot of espresso topped with a small dollop of microfoam from steamed milk. Most of the time, this foam was just spooned out, so no liquid milk actually made it into the cup. The drink was never more than 2-3 ounces large.
Modern specialty coffee shops stick closer to tradition on this one, but depart in a small way. Rather than steaming milk just to scoop out a bit of foam, they pour a tiny bit of liquid milk into the espresso and create latte art. It’s still a 2-3 ounce drink, but it’s got a hint of steamed milk.
If you order a “macchiato” at a specialty coffee shop, you’ll likely be asked to clarify what you want. I cannot tell you how often people ordered macchiatos when I worked in a coffee shop and expected them to be caramel macchiatos, even though our menu clearly said “2 ounces” next to the drink.
The best way to order this drink at a shop is to say “espresso macchiato”. That’s how most specialty shops identify the traditional beverage these days.
Macchiatos are great for experiencing the rich and diverse flavors of espresso, while still not getting the full punch. That small bit of milk and foam smooths out the roughest edges, while still leaving the shot’s flavor profile intact.
What’s A Breve?
Ordering a “breve” at a coffee shop usually results in your receiving a latte that’s made with half and half instead of milk. Though that’s the default drink, “breve” can be used to modify any espresso and milk drink.
For example, a breve cappuccino is a cappuccino made with steamed cream instead of milk. A breve macchiato uses steamed half and half instead of milk.
What Are Dry And Wet Drinks?
Understanding what “wet” and “dry” drinks are allows you to easily modify your favorite espresso and milk drinks. These terms give you control over how much foam you’d like in your drink.
Asking for a dry drink communicates to the barista that you want extra foam and less liquid. Since the foam is less liquidy than milk, this makes the drink “drier”.
Asking for a wet drink communicates to the barista that you want less foam and more steamed milk.
Here are a few ways you can use these terms:
- A wet cappuccino will have less foam than normal, giving you something closer to a flat white.
- A dry latte will have extra foam, bringing it closer to an upsized cappuccino.
See? Just two easy ways to customize the level of your drink’s foam.
That’s the lowdown on the common espresso and milk drinks in North America. There are dozens more that you’ll run into around the world, but these are our favorites.
If you’re brewing espresso at home, there’s nothing more important than using freshly roasted beans. Since whole beans start going stale in 2-3 weeks (and grounds in 30 minutes), it’s important to buy beans that were just roasted days ago if you want to experience the best flavors your coffee can offer.