Part of being a barista is explaining the lexicon on the chalkboard. This job position is just as much being a teacher as it is a food and beverage worker.
Not only that, we have to upsell what could easily become a frustrating encounter between worker and customer.
What’s the difference between a macchiato vs cappuccino? Why do so many people get them mixed up? These drinks honestly couldn’t be more different and we’re going to take a look at why below.
The Structure Of Espresso
The espresso shot is a deceptive drink. It looks simple on the surface but is composed of several layers that contribute to the complex flavors and stout aroma of the final product.
Espresso was crafted back in the 1800s once steam technology really started to take off. Steam and high-pressure water were found to pull a much more concentrated result from coffee grounds than the commonly used pourover and press methods. If you drink a lot of coffee, you’ll soon notice the difference between brewing techniques. Most of today’s best-known coffee drinks use espresso in some capacity. Some are little more than espresso with the world’s tiniest dollop of milk!
When you study an espresso shot as it pulls, you’ll notice multiple details: the oily condensation, the dark coffee itself, then the golden cream on top. It’s nearly as layered as a painting and certainly as beautiful. It’s worth noting any coffee can be turned into espresso with the right grind and tools. Some coffee, however, is dark roasted and designed to be as robust as possible. You’ll find some coffee bags labeled as an ‘espresso blend’, denoting its roast level as well as its dominant flavor notes.
The visual and aromatic nature of espresso is only the beginning.
What Is Mouthfeel And Why Does It Matter?
First things first: it’s an odd word. It almost sounds like a joke, but as it turns out, it’s an important part of the coffee drinking experience.
Mouthfeel refers to the texture of your drink. It’s a term used in wine and beer spaces, too, and is just as broad a designation as aroma and flavor. If you’ve ever had coffee that felt thick and oily, compared to your usual thin and silky pourover, what you were experiencing was a difference in mouthfeel. This is caused by all the different steps involved in growing and harvesting coffee. You have the unique properties of the origin the coffee comes from, the processing method, and, of course, the brewing technique.
The three primary processing methods used for coffee are dry, wet, and honey. The dry processing method (also known as natural) is exactly what it says on the tin: the coffee cherry is left out to dry in the sun, later removed to store the raw beans. The wet processing method (sometimes called washed processing) takes it a step further by using water to determine the quality of the cherries. It’s not unlike how a rotten egg will float, while a good egg will sink.
I’m a big fan of the honey processing method, which leaves just a little of the coffee cherry pulp on the bean to give it a sweeter flavor.
What Are Common Flavor Notes For Espresso?
Coffee is enjoyable for its endless medley of flavors. While we can all agree coffee has a distinct flavor that separates it from, say, tea or hot chocolate, it can still provide some very particular experiences.
I’ve had coffee that had distinctly tea-like flavor notes and texture, similar to Earl Grey and feeling very soft. I’ve also had vivid and robust cups with flavors of rich molasses and dark cherry. With different brewing methods on my side, I can enhance certain flavors or experience an entirely new mouthfeel. The pour-over, being a more hands-on form of drip coffee, often has softer and thinner textures. The French Press, on the other hand, tends to veer toward creamy, oily, and a little on the thick side.
My Moka pot has given me yet another angle with which to view my coffee. Chocolate notes, as well as tart and fruity notes, tend to be very exaggerated with espresso. Sweeter flavors tend to fade a little as a result, which lines up closely with how espresso roasts lean dark to begin with. Give yourself time to experiment with different roast levels, as well as single origins, and see which one suits you best. What works for one person doesn’t always work for the other!
I’ve had tea-like coffee. I’ve heard of wine-like coffee, which I’m very eager to try. Just when you thought you’ve sipped it all, something comes along and surprises you.
Differentiating The Macchiato And Cortado
Let’s keep things simple to start with: just what is a macchiato, anyway?
You may think it’s a latte with caramel in it. This is unsurprising since a lot of cafes have blurred the distinction of this drink in the United States. The macchiato is actually a very small and espresso-centered drink, served in a tiny shot glass with an even tinier dollop of microfoam. Caramel usually doesn’t come into the equation where it’s served in Europe. Despite this limited size, macchiatos are still ornamented with quaint latte art.
The cortado is similar, also served in a shot glass, and designed to bring out the subtle notes of the espresso. Some prefer it because it uses a little more milk, a boat I’m very much in. It creates the perfect balance between nutty or savory without leaning too hard into the bitter notes that can follow. This is the ideal drink when you’re traveling and want a quick sip in-between sightseeing. If you’ve ever been annoyed trying to find a trash can to dump your latte cup in, you’re in good hands here.
For those that want to linger and appreciate the ambiance, the next drink is patience personified.
The Dry Or Wet Cappuccino
The cappuccino exists on the opposite end of the spectrum. You’ll never mix these two coffee drinks up again!
Blending in microfoam with espresso shots to create a luxurious result, the cappuccino has a reputation as a high-class drink. Uganda, for example, often associates cappuccinos with business deals. I can see where the stereotype comes from. It takes a little more arm work to create, relying on a careful aeration technique to achieve the unique texture of microfoam. Even the feel of the drink hearkens to luxurious silk and velvet.
That’s not to say you need to sell an arm or a leg to get one. It’s a common drink sold in most cafes and is one you can make at home with a little practice. There are two cappuccinos you can choose from: the dry and the wet. The wet cappuccino, depending on where you go, either means there’s a little steamed milk mixed with the shots or the entire drink uses exclusively microfoam. The dry means a mixture of only microfoam and froth, referring to the very airy and light result.
Most cappuccinos are served with a spoon so you can scoop up what can’t be sipped. Whether dry or wet, the cappuccino is a great way to relish in the details of the world around you.
The Perspective Of Coffee Around The World
When you live in the West, it’s common to associate coffee with breakfast, office work, and the morning rush. In other parts of the world, though, there are different knee-jerk reactions.
A good example of this is one detail that stumped many Westerners during the release of ‘Gangnam Style’, a K-POP single you may have heard blowing up the radio stations half a decade back. The song references coffee as an expensive, high-class drink. The Atlantic published a fascinating think piece on the matter exploring the cultural perceptions of coffee throughout South Korea. Unlike the States, it’s treated as a luxurious status symbol, up to the point of actively neglecting other pursuits to indulge in the iconic cafe experience.
As touched on above, the cappuccino is viewed in Uganda by many to be a business drink, expensive, and usually off-limits as a daily affair. Home coffee consumption is also the standard in countries like Rwanda and Kenya. I myself received an interesting comment on one of my blog posts from a Polish reader, stating that cafe culture is still very popular, but has now taken a backseat to home coffee consumption. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about coffee?
It’s that you’re never done learning. To round things off…
Know Your Basic Coffee Cups
Wrapping up the macchiato vs cappuccino list, it’s essential you know your coffee cups and why each one comes with its own set of drinks.
The espresso shot glass is unique in that it functions as both an intermediary and as the cup itself. It can be used to gather up espresso for a latte or mocha but is also designed to hold a macchiato. The coffee mug is, characteristically, a catch-all for all sorts of drinks. It’s usually associated with drip coffee, though sometimes can hold an espresso-based recipe. I keep a variety at home myself: alongside my general ceramic mugs, I’m also looking into Kaffeform’s beautiful recycled cappuccino cups.
Speaking of which! The cappuccino cup is similar to a mug, but a little flatter and wider. This gives you more control over both sipping and scooping up your drink like a form of fluffy soup. It also puts the latte art on full display. Despite this, many people today are using the thermos and reusable to-go mugs in lieu of disposable cups when they visit cafes. Not only does it reduce waste, but it also gives some people peace-of-mind concerning the coronavirus.
If you’ve ever asked for a macchiato cappuccino or a macchiato frappuccino, never fear. A lot of people have.
This isn’t to make you feel bad: by nature of just how widespread and popular coffee is, there are bound to be some terms that fly over your head. Once you learn them, a whole world of delicious drinks opens up for you to try. You might be surprised by what ends up tickling your fancy.
If you know someone who’s learning about the ins and outs of the macchiato vs cappuccino, link them to this article. In the meantime: do you prefer the macchiato, cappuccino, or cortado?