You don’t get much more iconic than the latte. It’s even more ubiquitous with coffee than the classic mug of drip.
It’s the most popular coffee drink by a landslide in the West and sees similar popularity across the world. The macchiato, on the other hand, is more beloved in Europe and is often mixed up with other drink types (such as the cortado or the cappuccino). Unsurprisingly, these two are often compared in cafes.
Which one reigns supreme: latte vs macchiato? We’re going to take a look at the difference between the drink types — and their individual popularity — below.
What’s the difference between a Latte vs Macchiato?
The Origin Of The Latte
Coffee’s been around for centuries. The oldest known recordings of the drink date back to ancient Ethiopia, where coffee’s caffeinated kick was discovered through goats and their habit of eating the tree’s cherries.
The latte is an embodiment of the most simple and effective way of drinking coffee: creamy milk and powerful espresso. It originated as a coffee variation in Europe several centuries back and has subtle changes depending on which country or city you find yourself in.
If you’ve confused the latte with the café au lait, take solace in that the two used to be the same thing once upon a time. Nowadays café au lait refers to drip coffee mixed with hot or cold milk. It can also refer to drip coffee mixed with creamer.
Over the decades coffee has shifted and grown to suit the tastes of local culture. Even today we see unique variations cropping up regionally, such as the beloved dalgona in South Korea and Vietnam.
Dalgona is nicknamed as such for its visual similarity to a Korean toffee candy, specifically using instant coffee and a vibrant whipping method to create its texture. I’ve yet to try making it myself, but you’ll likely run into some more variations as coffee culture continues to grow!
The latte vs macchiato might not seem like much of a comparison, but you’d be surprised by how often drink trends get mixed up.
The Appeal Of Latte Art
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a latte? If it’s a curling white leaf in a sea of honey brown, you’re on the money.
Latte art is exactly what it says on the tin: the lovely paintings, doodles, and outright masterpieces carved into the drink’s foam. More specifically, the microfoam. This is the term for steamed milk filled with tiny bubbles, creating a silky consistency that leaves a lot of wiggle room for artistic expression.
Froth, on the other hand, is a dry and fluffy version that is better off as a final touch-up. A skilled barista can create a complex piece of art just using the milk carafe and a careful hand.
A big reason customers visit cafes is not just for the drinks, but all the minor and major details that surround the experience. Today we have latte art competitions and entire hashtags dedicated to the craft.
There’s the World Latte Art Championship that crops up every year, originally created by the influential Specialty Coffee Association. There are also plenty of roasteries that host their own coffee events to improve the techniques of their baristas and continue sharing coffee knowledge with their customer base.
Latte art is a key component of traveling bucket lists and social media accounts. It’s not just a neat addition: you could argue it’s the main course itself.
Improving Your Own Latte Art
It’s hard not to feel a swell of pride when you craft a lovely little illustration in fifteen seconds or less.
Getting the hang of latte art means fundamentally understanding how your milk works. As touched on above, microfoam and froth are very different milk consistencies that will affect the final result.
The tiny bubbles in your milk give you the ability to draw and carve out designs, so you need to pay close attention to how your steam wand is aerating the liquid. This five-minute tutorial video from Coffee Fusion is a great example of the traditional swirling method used by coffee workers.
If you want to get extra creative, use microfoam and froth together. I’ve discussed the vibrant creativity of latte art in past articles before, particularly where froth gets involved.
Like shaping snow, this dry and thick type of milk opens up an entire world of possibility when the creative bug bites you. Consider sprinkling on some chocolate shavings or drizzling some caramel syrup to build your flavor and your design. With the weather so cold, you could easily combine these with some hot chocolate for the ultimate mocha.
Getting the hang of latte art doesn’t have to be limited to lattes. In fact, you can seriously test your skill by…
Defining The Tricky Macchiato
When the macchiato isn’t being confused with the cappuccino, it’s being confused with the latte. I know I got them mixed up when I first started working at a cafe.
To start, the macchiato is pretty much the opposite of a latte. While they both use coffee and milk, the ratio is dramatically different. The latte mixes in steamed milk and a little microfoam over a few espresso shots.
The appeal of this drink is its creamy mouthfeel and gentle (but not bland) espresso kick. Some add a splash of flavored syrup to the mix or ask for extra froth to customize it to their liking, though that’s not enough to change the entire drink type.
The macchiato, on the other hand, comes in a tiny shot glass: a very different approach to the cups and mugs the latte is offered in. It’s also predominantly espresso.
Just a small splash of steamed milk tops it off, with many cafes still offering a tiny leaf or heart. The caramel macchiato craze made popular in the States is very much to blame for some of the confusion on this drink.
From what I’ve seen, a caramel macchiato is just a latte with caramel in it…and not a macchiato whatsoever!
Which one’s best? For me, a latte is a great compliment to breakfast. A macchiato, however, would be a nice treat after a jog.
How Do I Make Good Espresso?
Quality espresso is a key component of most mainstream coffee drinks. Whether you prefer the latte vs macchiato, they just wouldn’t taste the same if you used to drip from your coffeemaker.
The two ways you can make espresso is through an espresso machine or a Moka pot. The latter runs between $30 to $75, which is a point in its favor compared to the $300+ needed for a long-lasting espresso machine.
Coffeemakers and pourovers use a medium-fine grind and a hot water drip to gradually ‘pull’ flavor out from the grounds. Espresso, on the other hand, uses a finer grind that results in a more powerful cup. It also relies on either steam or increased pressure to really squeeze out all that complexity.
The Moka pot and espresso machine still have a few differences. The most obvious is the lack of crema from the former: this is the vivid gold or amber foam that settles atop the espresso shot.
Likewise, the Moka pot can boast mouthfeels ranging from creamy to oily, while the espresso machine tends to lean toward creamy. Either way, they’re considered perfect foundations for classic coffee drinks. My personal homebrewing favorite is a Moka pot espresso with a splash of steamed milk and a little dark brown sugar.
Let’s top off this latte vs macchiato explanation with one more question you might be asking.
What Is Chicory?
This is a term you’ve probably glimpsed here and there, particularly when catching up on your espresso know-how. It often comes up during discussions of coffee, yet isn’t coffee itself. What gives?
Let’s break down the coffee bean really quick. You’ll quickly find that a lot of terminology in the coffee space is very misleading, often named for style rather than scientific accuracy. To begin, the quintessential bean we grind up and steep in water is actually a seed. It comes in a green form, sometimes pale yellow, and achieves its notable brown color after roasting. The commonly known coffee cherry is also a berry.
(The leftover pulp and skin is known as cascara and, according to some interesting research from Olam Coffee, could be very healthy in its own right).
Now for the fascinating alternative. Chicory refers to the chicory plant, of which there are a few varieties found in the wild. The roots of this plant can be cooked or roasted to create a tasty replacement for coffee and even some types of tea. Since it doesn’t have caffeine and comes with a few healthy oils, it’s often treated as a health-focused choice in drink circles. Some even vastly prefer it.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a latte in a cafe. Some of the best ones I’ve ever had were from small, local shops that put extra love into their work.
I’ve had lattes with absolutely stunning floral art. I’ve had macchiatos with espresso that lingered on my tongue for minutes afterward. This year I’ve been reviewing all the little things in life I’m thankful for. Coffee and its happy memories remain one of my most constant.
If you know someone trying to straighten up their coffee terminology, link them to this list. In the meantime: do you prefer the latte or the macchiato?