The most common ingredient added to coffee is milk. Even before sugar and syrup!
Mixing milk with coffee creates a sumptuous, creamy texture that helps to mute lingering bitterness without drowning out the flavor. It’s a surprisingly flexible recipe that can be changed up in a variety of ways but is still simple enough to suit any occasion. Small wonder it’s remained a global staple.
Depending on how much milk you mix in with coffee — as well as the type of milk — can transform the drink into its own thing.
What’s the difference between a Cafe au Lait and a Latte?
The History Of The Cafe Au Lait
This is as straightforward as a drink can get: translated as ‘coffee with milk’ in French, it’s a dollop of silky goodness for a crisp morning.
While not as visually fancy as the latte or the cappuccino, the cafe au lait has some serious staying power. This elegantly simple coffee drink has been around for quite some time: records suggest this term has been used for several decades, perhaps even longer, and has been a daily foundation in France, Italy, and Poland. Despite some minor changes, the core facet of the drink has remained the same. To make a cafe au lait all you need is basic drip coffee and a little milk. Voila!
Sugar isn’t part of the traditional recipe and, for some, is a less preferable option to this smooth, gentle staple. You can find similar variations everywhere you go, from the familiar cafe con leche to the nickname you give your brew in the wee hours at night.
Classically enough, European coffee is usually consumed in the morning. In the United States, however, coffee consumption is widely considered both a morning and an afternoon affair. This changes further when you add canned variations to the mix.
The Variations Of The Latte
Where the cafe au lait is a reliable Coupe, the latte is a Ferrari. It has many of the same uses, but goes the extra mile for style.
It’s a touch more complex than that, of course. The cafe au lait uses drip coffee, while the latte combines concentrated espresso shots with steamed milk. The texture and flavor of a latte is rather distinct as a result.
Espresso goes for a quality over quantity approach, squeezing out every last inch of roasted, complex flavor through fine coffee grounds. You can get a similar approach using the Moka pot, a coffee brewing method that uses steam instead of hot water.
The straightforward espresso-and-milk latte is the foundation of the modern coffee shop. While you may not find the cortado offered on some menus, you can safely bet there will be a dozen variations on this classic cup.
A little sugar or syrup doesn’t change the drink, while other additions do. Lattes mixed with caramel are incorrectly referred to as caramel macchiatos, for starters. A dash of chocolate transforms a latte into a mocha.
The cafe au lait is my go-to. It’s a comfort drink, through and through, and half of that is because of how easy it is to make.
The latte, on the other hand, reminds me of a time before I was paranoid about every visit outside of the house. Before I was wiping down mail and double-checking my mask. In a way, it’s started to represent something more heady than relaxation. It’s artistry, serenity, and a carefree attitude in a cup.
The Most Common Way Of Drinking Coffee
Some want their coffee as black and simple as possible. Others won’t so much as touch a cup unless it’s stuffed full of milk, sugar, and syrup. Where do you land on the scale?
Coffee drinking habits change significantly depending on the region and the culture. These past few years I’ve learned about some…interesting recipes, such as Finland’s technique of pouring coffee over cheese and Senegal’s love of coffee and pepper.
According to the NCA’s 2020 coffee consumption report, around 40% of Americans prefer to add sugar or some sort of sweetener to their cup. Drinking coffee straight is still a niche area, it seems, and the classic cafe basics of lattes and cappuccinos are at the forefront of people’s minds.
Drinking coffee in a cafe, of course, is being swapped out in favor of home brewing. Coffee brewing equipment has skyrocketed this year as people try to balance out comfort with safety.
This gives the basic cafe au lait a little bit of an edge due to its simplicity, but that’s not to say the latte is down and out. People crave the familiar more than ever, up to and including new ways of steaming milk or creating espresso. Even I’m starting to pine for the feel of a traditional latte alongside my morning bagel.
The cafe au lait vs latte is a tight race. Let’s see what other details go into it.
Today’s Popular Cow Milk Alternatives
I used to drink almond milk exclusively. While I’ve recently gone back to whole milk, I’m considering making the dive into plant-based alternatives again for cosmetic reasons. Dairy’s not exactly kind to those with oily skin.
The same report above explored the growing preference for sustainable and healthy cow milk alternatives. While around 5% of Americans use alternative milk on a daily basis, yet more are starting to dip their toes into this lifestyle.
A 2016 study by Nielsen found almond milk to be leading the pack by an overwhelming margin, followed by soy milk and coconut milk. Most cafes today offer at least one variety, if not several, and some coffee products eschew dairy entirely. When you add in the subtle flavors of each type, you have a ton of variety to look forward to.
If you’re getting into latte art, it helps to remember which milk is considered best. Whole milk, 2% milk, and 1% milk is prized because of their fat content, allowing you to create very creamy, fluffy results ripe for customization.
Almond milk, in my experience, is much like skim milk: it’s not going to fluff up quite as much, but you can still get a decent latte leaf out of it with a little pushing. Coconut milk is notoriously watery, on the other hand, and difficult to get a good, creamy texture going.
In the cafe au lait vs latte comparison, the former wins out for not needing extra wrangling during the milk steaming process.
Why Freshly Roasted Coffee Matters?
You might find yourself adding a little extra milk or sugar to keep your cup of coffee from being too bitter. Did you know you can circumvent that entirely?
I’ve mentioned this a few times before, but it always bears repeating: freshly roasted (and freshly ground) coffee makes all the difference. There’s a science behind why the bean tastes the way it does, after all, and understanding that science will make your next drinks unforgettable.
Roast levels come in three basic levels of light, medium, and dark, though you can find more subtle variations such as the light-medium or medium-dark. This depends on the coffee shop you buy from, as well as your own experience with roasting coffee.
Don’t pull your coffee too quickly! Buying a burr grinder (I bought the Hario Skerton Pro for just $45) will ensure you get subtle grind levels that will match your different brewing methods.
To capture as much flavor as possible I’ll grind my beans up just as the water starts boiling. I also use a technique called ‘blooming’ which involves steeping the coffee grounds in a little hot water, then letting them sit for half a minute. This releases excess carbon dioxide.
The cafe au lait vs latte won’t be a match for high-quality coffee stuffed to the brim with subtle flavor notes and an aroma that makes you sway in place.
How To Support Today’s Coffee Roasters?
You’ve probably dabbled in a little homebrewing yourself at this point. Yes, even a simple Mr. Coffee counts!
Coffee roasters number in the thousands in the United States. Even in a pandemic, new ones are cropping up all the time, such as this cafe-roastery hybrid showcased on Daily Coffee News.
Unfortunately, the popularity of coffee is still not enough to cut into the dramatic life changes brought on by the coronavirus. The cafe simply wasn’t designed with minimum capacity in mind. As such, roasters have had to pull out all the stops to try and stay afloat, from offering regular discounts to reinventing their local delivery services.
You can support today’s coffee roasters beyond just buying their coffee. Plugging said coffee on social media (especially with a photo and some hashtags) is a great form of promotion that goes a long way. I
n fact, it’s been proven that around 60% of people prefer to read reviews or feedback from other customers rather than rely on marketing. What you’re doing is ensuring your favorite coffee roaster is getting a steady stream of interest that can translate into sales, repeat customers, and good rapport. Buying a little merch doesn’t hurt, either!
If you never thought you could get much complexity out of your beans besides a basic ‘coffee flavor’, there’s a roastery with your name on it.