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The Latte

For something so engrained in today’s pop culture, the latte has a relatively recent introduction.

Latte. The word has become iconic, so much so that it has its own consumer stereotype. That’s when you know you’ve made it. Despite the latte’s meteoric rise in the past couple of decades, the actual term latte is not all that old. You don’t have to go back to the days of yore to find its beginnings. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary claims that it was first used in 1867 by William Dean Howells. Using the phrase “caffè e latte” in his essay “Italian Journeys”, Howells unwittingly coined a term that forms the basis of many Starbucks regulars’ vocabulary.

But let’s get something straight, coffee with milk has been around since the days of yore. Europeans have been pouring dairy in their bean juice since the 17th century. The French called it café au lait, the Germans call it Milchkaffee, the Spanish call it café con leche, and the Italians call it caffè e latte. They all mean coffee with milk. Funnily enough, the French version is the one that has been picked up the most in popular Western European culture (you even see it in the US), but the French themselves actually refer to it as café crème these days. 

Now since the US was late to the whole “creating a country” thing, being a British spinoff and all, it seems we are always in a rush.  We don’t have time for whole words, so we narrow them down to the important parts (San Fran, TV). We don’t have time to use whole sentences, so we create abbreviations (IDK, LOL, DTF). Sometimes words are even too much hassle, so we communicate with pictures, using emojis and gifs. Therefore, leave it to us Americans to shorten the phrase coffee with milk to just milk. The term latte was popularized in Seattle towards the end of the 90s. In the past decade, the focus on “latte art” has shifted the mainstream perception of coffee in general to a beverage to be enjoyed by both the mouth and the eyes. 
Pro Tip: If you order a latte in Italy, you will literally just get a glass of milk. Don’t make that mistake. Unless of course you want a glass of milk. In which case, order a latte.

So what is it?

When in Rome
The Italians use lattes as a morning beverage, pairing it with their breakfast. Traditionally, they use a Moka pot to brew the coffee, adding it to a cup of warm milk. This is different from the international latte, which would typically have foamed milk. The Italians also do not use much, if any, sugar. 

When not in Rome
Internationally, the latte has come to generally be prepared with a shot of espresso and creamy, velvety steamed milk, leaving a layer of foam about half an inch thick at the top. Coffee shops in the US tend to add a friendly dose of sugar as well. 

Cappuccino vs  Latte
Due to their similarity, there is a lot of confusion between cappuccinos and lattes these days. The major difference is simply the milk foam, cappuccinos have a lot more foam than lattes, leading some to call the latte, the “wet cappuccino”

The ratio between espresso and milk is also different. The cappuccino has equal parts espresso to milk foam and steamed milk. Meanwhile, the latte has 2 parts espresso to 3 parts steamed milk. This means that if you want something more foamy, with a stronger coffee taste, pick the cappuccino. If you want something smoother and more milky, pick the latte. And if you neither of those work for you, then you gotta find another drink.