During college, I worked at a campus coffee shop, where I easily consumed at least half a dozen shots of espresso each day and nearly as many flaky croissants on a weekly basis. Over time, I mastered the art of pulling an espresso shot, learned what the heck a portafilter was, tasted Italian and French roasts, and learned the difference between a cappuccino and latte.
These two espresso drinks are nearly identical: Depending on the drink size that you order, you can expect that both a cappuccino and a latte will both be made with one to two shots of espresso. The espresso is poured in the mug or paper coffee cup first before being topped with steamed milk. Both drinks contain steamed milk and foam, but the ratios are what distinguish a latte from a cappuccino. This is where things get a little bit tricky: To make a latte, frothed milk is poured evenly into the cup, creating milky coffee with a thin layer of foam on top. On the other hand, a cappuccino is made by pouring the hot milk over the espresso while using a large spoon to hold the foamy milk back. Once the stream of hot milk is added, the remaining foam is then scooped on top of the cappuccino, creating an airy, thick layer of foam on top.
Generally, a cappuccino has a more pronounced coffee flavor, since there is less milk mixed with the espresso. And cappuccinos are generally served in their pure, unadulterated coffee form.
On the other hand, lattes are milkier and generally sweeter. Think of the autumnally trendy Pumpkin Spice Latte or a peppermint mocha latte — these are lattes that have added flavor in the form of an artificial sweetener, chocolate syrup, or both. So how do other popular specialty coffee drinks fit into this?
An Americano is in its own playing field; this beverage, which can be served hot or iced, is literally just a shot or two of espresso (depending on how tired you are) topped with hot or cold water. It tastes stronger than iced coffee, but dilutes the flavor of bitter espresso for a more palatable pick-me-up.
Flat whites are popular espresso drinks in Australia, but they didn’t really gain traction in U.S. coffee shops until Starbucks debuted their version in 2015. It’s hotly debated whether a flat white is more like a cappuccino or a latte . . . and the answer depends on who you ask. But generally, a flat white is made with ristretto shots (which are shorter, sweeter versions of espresso shots), steamed milk, which is richer and velvet-ier than the steamed milk you’d find in a cappuccino or latte, and microfoam made up of fine bubbles poured on top.
A macchiato is a dialed-down version of a cappuccino. A single or double shot of espresso is poured into a Barbie-sized mug and a dollop (just a dollop!) of foamy milk is scooped on top. For the record, this is entirely different from a caramel macchiato, which is just a vanilla latte drizzled with caramel sauce.