latte-vs-espresso

Latte Vs Espresso – The DrinkStack ‘Know Your Coffee’ Series

Today’s hot (drink) topic…Latte Vs Espresso.  Let’s dive straight in…

The latte is built like a sturdy and reliable house.

Espresso forms its foundation, a concentrated and chocolatey form of coffee that oozes throughout the entire drink. The steamed milk surrounds it, lending a creamy texture that goes great with a lazy Sunday and a busy Monday alike. The microfoam, or a little froth, tops it off for added delight.

The latte vs espresso confusion can still come up, especially when you’re trying to understand similar drinks like the flat white. Let’s study the latte layer by layer and understand what, exactly, makes it tick.

Latte Or Cafe Au Lait?

You don’t have to know French to be familiar with this term. The cafe au lait simply means ‘coffee with milk’ and is a downright perfect recipe that, despite originating in France, has found a home in many countries.

The cafe au lait in the United States is associated with a little drip coffee and dairy milk. Sometimes you’re not in the mood for a fancy, sugary drink and just want something simple to soothe your nerves. Can such a basic recipe still get bungled up with other terms? As it stands, the cafe au lait and the latte are sometimes mixed together depending on the country. Since they’re both technically coffee with milk, it’s not hard to see why.

In France the cafe au lait usually refers to the latte as we know it, mixing in espresso shots with steamed milk and foam. Drip coffee usually doesn’t come into the equation, though there is still a little crossover between these two drinks. Dark roasted coffee beans are preferred when making drip coffee, mostly so the flavor doesn’t get totally drowned out by the milk. This hearkens to the more robust flavor of espresso. Either way, you’ll be in good hands.

Got that sorted out? There’s another coffee drink you might want to know.

Latte Or Cafe Con Leche?

Here’s one coffee drink I’ll fully admit I got mixed up in the past. I was convinced the cafe con leche was just the Spanish version of the cafe au lait…and I couldn’t have been more wrong!

The cafe con leche is a standard drink in Spanish-speaking countries — not only Spain — and comes with its own little idiosyncrasies to differentiate it from the latte and the cafe au lait. The most significant is the type of milk used: where a cafe au lait may use cold or warm milk, the cafe con leche uses ‘scalded milk’. This method lends a unique texture that blends nicely with the coffee, though don’t confuse it with burning temperatures. White or brown sugar is sometimes added, with syrup being more popular depending on the region.

Not unlike the latte, the cafe con leche can come hot or cold. An interesting detail that may come as a surprise to Americans is the ability to customize the drink. Yes, some cafes will let you mix in the hot milk and the coffee together at your leisure. To me this hearkens to the more laid-back morning culture of Latin America. Whenever I watch documentaries or interviews asking tourists what they think of the States, one of the first details they bring up is how on-the-go Americans are…and that definitely includes our coffee serving habits!

The latte vs espresso conversation is one that naturally branches into other areas of coffee. It makes sense since even a minor change to the standard latte can turn it into another drink entirely.

How The Latte Can Shift From One Drink To Another?

It’s a subtle change, but the latte can quickly become one thing or another depending on the ratio of milk, foam, and froth.

It’s not unlike how the length of a dress can turn it into a skirt, despite having a similar shape and style. To start with, the flat white is basically a more concentrated latte. It has a smaller size, less milk, and no froth, designed to enhance the flavor of the espresso. The latte can drown out the coffee’s flavor too much for some, while others like the flat white due to being more sensitive to dairy. When it’s safe to go to cafes again, consider ordering outside of your usual…you could be surprised!

Add a little chocolate to the latte and you have a mocha. Choose a light coffee roast as the base for the espresso and, according to some, you’ll have a white coffee. White coffee is a very tricky designation that changes even more dramatically than the cafe au lait. Some countries in Southeast Asia designate white coffee through the creamer and sweetener added, rather than the roast level. You could devote your traveling and drinking habits to white coffee exclusively and have your entire bucket list filled up.

You can’t discuss the latte vs espresso without discussing milk. This is the building block that shapes the morning rituals of cultures and countries.

Steamed Milk, Scalded Milk, And Heated Milk

There are just as many ways to craft milk as there are ways to brew coffee. It can make your head spin after a while.

Steamed milk is my forte. It’s the default milk request as a barista, hot off the heels of the popular latte and cappuccino, and tastes absolutely delicious. My 2021 to-buy list for my home coffee set-up is an espresso machine with a steam wand because I miss the sensation of fluffy foam so much I could cry. In the meantime, I like to experiment with heating my milk for espresso and drip coffee-based recipes. Just take out a pan, watch that temperature, and keep it even so you’re not accidentally curdling your brew.

Scalded milk immediately brings to mind burnt recipes and annoying experiences. That’s far from the case! This is a technique that’s used not just to make coffee drinks, but for baking. Milk is a complex liquid filled with unique bacteria and sugar, after all, and can take on different consistencies depending on how you bring the heat. To make scalded milk you need to reach a temperature of around 82 to 83 degrees. You can also use a milk watcher, or pot watcher, to keep it from boiling over and making a mess.

Milk and coffee don’t just taste great, they feel great. At this point, you might be wondering where espresso falls on the wellness aspect of things.

Espresso And Health

I regularly discuss coffee and health. It’s a subject that has to be broached often, thanks to a whirlwind of misinformation and constantly updated medical studies on the matter.

Not all claims are factually sound. Some studies don’t use large enough sample pools, while others don’t calculate information over a long enough period of time to reach a reliable conclusion. That makes this Italian study on the health benefits of espresso all the more impressive, with a sample pool of over 20,000 adults calculated over several years. They found regular consumption of espresso (Italian-style, mind you) significantly improved heart health. Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in the States, so that’s no mean feat.

If you like several cups of coffee a day, you’re already off to a good start. Coffee in general is home to a wealth of antioxidants, a key component in protecting you on a cellular level. I also have a theory that the soothing nature of making coffee goes a long way in boosting your emotional health. Keep in mind loading your drink with milk and sugar will cancel out some of those benefits, though. It’s hard to get your heart back to good health when you’re clogging those arteries.

If you’ve ever given yourself an accidental panic attack drinking too much caffeine, you’ll sympathize with this next part.

Caffeine And Health

Caffeine is a tricky subject for the decaf drinker. Many turn away from it for health reasons, while some turn to caffeine for health reasons.

It’s important to remember (and easy to forget) that caffeine is a drug. It’s an actual addictive chemical that affects how your body works from the inside out. You might be familiar with the ‘crash’ that comes with consuming too much caffeine, where you’re consumed with all-encompassing exhaustion that makes it impossible to keep your head up. This usually comes with additional side-effects like headaches, nausea, and a lack of appetite. That’s not to say it’s all bad.

Did you know caffeine, when turned into a medicinal dosage, can have therapeutic effects for rare diseases? How about its positive impact on muscle fatigue and mild asthma? Its ability to stimulate and speed up the human body’s natural processes comes with several upsides. Just like any drug, it needs to be consumed in moderation. For my (very) sensitive constitution, caffeine is best at its most minimal and I don’t have more than two cups of decaf a day.

If I drink too much caffeine, even just one cup of regular drip coffee, I get severe headaches, heart palpitations, and an upset stomach. To those who can consume caffeine with no problem, never take for granted your special power.

Bringing Out The Best Flavor In Your Espresso

It’s all about freshness. Coffee is constantly undergoing a chemical change from roast to grind to steam. Appreciating the science behind the shot is how you keep your espresso divine.

First things first: if you want to start making lattes and cappuccinos at home, get yourself freshly roasted specialty coffee. What separates specialty coffee from your standard instant fare is the meticulous care put into growing, processing, and roasting the beans. They have to be cupped and graded on a complex scale, with an 80 point score or higher to be deemed worthy of the specialty title. It’s a little more expensive as a result and very much worthwhile. Once you sip a cup of coffee that balances syrupy molasses with tart cherry, you’ll never want to go back to stale grocery fare.

You don’t have to worry about shelling out hundreds for a complex homebrewing set-up, either. Roasteries offer different grinds for each brewing method, such as coarse for the French Press or medium-fine for the pourover and home coffeemaker. I personally prefer to get whole beans so I can grind them up just minutes before steeping. If you use a Moka pot, be sure to take it off the heat once it starts up its characteristic ‘bubbling’ sound. Left unattended it can burn and create a bitter aftertaste.

Mix in your espresso shots the second they’re done pulling. Don’t leave the Moka pot on the stove too long. The logic behind coffee is not unlike the logic behind any other fresh, tasty meal.

Final Thoughts

The latte vs espresso makes much more sense once you break it down.

Espresso forms the base of most of today’s popular coffee drinks. The latte, thanks to its elegant simplicity, is by far the most popular aside from the cappuccino. Once you figure out the building blocks, improving this recipe is a matter of personal taste and attention to detail.

If you know someone confused about the difference between the latte vs espresso, link them to this list. In the meantime: how do you prefer to make your espresso?

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