Posted by Bethany Warren on 16th Apr 2014

Latte vs Cappuccino (yep, I went there)

So what's brewing today? How about the difference between a latte and a cappuccino? Sore subject? That's ok, maybe we can smooth things over together...

Turns out that part of the traditional definition, as Americans know it, is getting more nebulous and shifting, especially among quality cafes. Personally, I like where it's going!

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) defines cappuccino as "A classic blend of coffee and steamed milk named after the brown robes of the Capuchin monks." Doesn't tell us too much, does it? 

Traditionally, capps were "it". If you wanted warm milk with your coffee (and you weren't French), you'd be getting somewhere between a dollop and a thick head of warm foamy milk on top of your espresso. Enter the Americans- we tend to like bigger, sweeter drinks, and the latte was born of that sensibility. From there we had to have a distinction between the two, and most traditional cafes would call it this:

Cappuccino: all about proportions. 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, 1/3 foamed milk, never flavored, except with perhaps "the faintest whisper of cinnamon", as defined by Dr. Niles Crane (typically starts at 6oz)

Latte: one or two ounces of espresso, steamed milk, a small, thin head of foaminess, possibly sweetened and flavored (typically starts at 12oz)

In the US, some have further changed the traditional capp to keep up with those sensibilities, making them larger, but much drier, and sometimes adding flavors. The public demands a french vanilla cappuccino, so we might as well give it, right?

I'm here to say: no! We can have our cake and eat it too, with some good distinctions on your menu and training for yourself and/or your staff. Here's where cappuccino-things are changing for the better in the US- we are shifting from the dense, dry, tasteless chunk of foam on top of the drink and moving toward a more incorporated, less dry "textured milk". The milk is not steamed and foamed, it is textured (that's another episode) as one process, creating silky, sweet, smooth, deliciousness that is enjoyed simultaneously with the espresso. It's poured into the espresso in such a way that allows the consumer to enjoy both the complexity of the coffee and the sweet milk at the same time. (Need help with that? Try out our training programs.)

The preservation here is in the proportions- keeping the ratio of coffee to milk higher than a latte keeps with tradition and satisfies discerning customers. The bigger latte, with less coffee to milk ratio, gets the same treatment of milk, textured a little less dry, but still smooth and creamy.


correct capp2

No-Cappuccino (brand shown unintentional- that's what came up in a search for "incorrect cappuccino")

dry capp 2

So then, you've tried this and are convinced- you like the creamy, well proportioned cappuccino and the sweeter, larger latte. How do you handle this inevitable order at the bar? "I'd like a french vanilla cappuccino, 20oz, no foam". Well, we certainly don't want them to feel stupid, because that bar order is probably society's fault, right? We'll tell that to Officer Krupke.

I have a couple solutions, but I'm interested to hear yours too!

  • If the customer seems willing to have the conversation, we blame "tradition" rather than our policies or their understanding and experience (that way no one is the bad guy here)."We make traditional Italian-style cappuccinos that are stronger on the coffee with a drier texture, are 6oz and not flavored. Or, we can make you a latte- it's a larger, less dry (not foamy) and sweeter drink. We can flavor that any way you want!" They can make an informed decision that way, and they feel comfortable/not stupid doing it. Bingo- good customer education and interaction. That one's coming back, and maybe down the road the barista they just grew to trust can get them to branch out.
  • If they seem totally uninterested in the conversation, we'll just make them a less dry vanilla latte, and say, "here's your drink, sir- enjoy!" We know what they really want, and we want to exceed their expectations without a fight and without anyone feeling silly.

How would/do you handle that in a non- bitter barista way? (warning- although hilarious and usually but not always right, he is seriously bitter. Oh, and pardon his french.)