Coffee drinks are an incredibly varied thing; from cold brew, drip coffee, French press, iced coffee, the list of drink types can go on and on. We could probably write a piece on every single drink by itself!
If you are new to coffee roasting and coffee in general, it can get overwhelming trying to understand all the minutiae.
What is a Vienna roast? Does a coffee filter affect the taste? What the heck is the difference between a macchiato, an americano, and a cappuccino?
All interesting questions by themselves, however lots of coffee newbies get caught up in the subtleties of espresso-based coffee drinks.
So, we figured it would be easiest to layout and explain the differences between the macchiato, the americano, and the cappuccino. We will even lay out some variations and how to make each one!
What is an Espresso Exactly?
So, before we delve into each in more detail, it would behoove us to explain what exactly an espresso is.
An espresso is a highly concentrated coffee that is brewed by forcing pressurized hot water through finely-ground coffee beans in a short amount of time.
The short extraction time allows the coffee bean's innate flavor and sweetness to come through without becoming bitter and harsh or thin and acidic. There are even more varieties that play around with different measurements of water to coffee bean ratios like the ristretto and others as well, but that's outside of the scope here.
Here at CBC, we have a few espresso blends like our Ferdelance blend specifically for this purpose. We also recommend using certain Brazilian beans like our Daterra CHC Reserve blend.
There are finer points when discussing espresso-making, however, let us just stick to the coffee drinks that take the espresso as their inspiration to create something new.
Espresso-Based Coffee Drinks
In the world of espresso, there are many different types of espresso-based drinks. Each one having its flavors and ingredients.
Popular drinks include the latte, the cortado, the flat white, and much more. However, most Americans are familiar with macchiatos, cappuccinos, and americanos due in part to Starbuck's emergence during America’s second wave of coffee connoisseurship.
But what exactly makes them different from other espresso-based drinks? Is it the coffee bean itself? The ingredients? The brewing method? Let us find out together.
What is a Cappuccino?
The cappuccino is one of the world’s most well-known coffee drinks. This espresso-based drink can be found far and wide in nearly everything café or coffee shop. Its name is nearly synonymous with coffee and espresso itself, but there is more to this coffee drink than its high caffeine content.
While most think the cappuccino is of Italian origin, the real story is a bit more muddled. A similar drink called the “Kapuziner” existed around Viennese coffee houses and cafes in the 1700s. This version of the drink included whipped cream and various spices.
It was not until the 1930s when the modern-day cappuccino started to come into existence in Northern Italy. The name “cappuccino” means “small capuchin” which derives from the Capuchin order of friars. The color referring to the color of their habits.
The drink was mostly relegated to Europe, Australia, and South American for most of its existence. It wasn’t until the mid-'90s as Starbucks came to prominence that most Americans became aware of the drink. Today, most only know the cappuccino because of its intricately swirled designs of flowers, leaves, and even animals!
How to Make a Cappuccino
Luckily for you, making a cappuccino is relatively easy. It only consists of three parts: espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam all in equal parts.
Espresso: If you don’t have an espresso machine, feel free to try out one of these methods to make espresso at home.
Steamed Milk: In the meantime, heat a small saucer of milk on the stovetop until it is hot to the touch, but not simmering. Set aside some milk to foam.
Milk Foam: To create the milk foam, there are few ways to go about this. The first is to use a whisk if you do not mind the arm workout. The other is to invest in a small handheld frother, such as this one.
Finally, to properly combine all the ingredients, first pour 1/3rd of your espresso shot, then 1/3rd of your steamed milk, then top with your frothed milk and enjoy!
If your prepared your cappuccino correctly, it should have a very pronounced coffee taste and even more so depending on the type of coffee bean used. Cappuccino’s also tend to be somewhat sweet due to the milk and they have a thicker mouthfeel due to the foam.
Like many coffee drinks, there are multiple ways to customize them to your or someone else’s preference. There are two primary variations of the cappuccino that seem to be currently favored by most cappuccino connoisseurs: the Iced version and the Cappuccino Fredo.
The iced version of the cappuccino uses cold milk and espresso which is then poured over ice and topped with milk foam like any traditional cappuccino.
Whereas the Cappuccino Fredo, which translates to “cold cappuccino”, simply uses cold, frothed milk instead of warm milk in a traditional cappuccino.
What is a Macchiato?
Meaning “marked” or “stained” in Italian, the macchiato is another simple but storied espresso-based drink. This little brother of the cappuccino features ingredients common to its bigger brother but the macchiato is not rich and serves more so as an afternoon cappuccino than a drink to wake you up.
Not much is known as to the origin of the macchiato, unlike the americano or cappuccino. One apocryphal tale says that baristas needed to better show waiters between an espresso with milk and a plain espresso. Hence the term for it translating to “marked” or “stained”. However, no one truly knows how the macchiato exactly came into being.
How to Make a Macchiato
Like its big brother the cappuccino, the macchiato uses the same ingredients but does not include the steamed milk. Begin by pulling the espresso shot and then add a splash of foamed milk. If you prefer a milder taste, you can add more foamed milk to dilute the espresso’s natural flavor.
Variations on the macchiato abound due to its simplicity. The most common three that are usually seen are the iced macchiato, a flat white, and what is called a latte macchiato.
The iced version simply uses cold foamed milk and is pour-over iced. The flat white included a double portion of hot, foamed milk.
Finally, the latte macchiato differs a bit from a traditional macchiato. Instead of adding steamed milk to the espresso, the espresso is added to the milk and often is less than a full shot. Think of a latte macchiato being more “milk focused” than a macchiato which is more “espresso-centered”.
What is an Americano?
The Americano is the byproduct of a fusion between American coffee culture (or lack thereof during the time) and Italian coffee culture. Merging America’s love of simple drip coffee and Italy’s sophisticated espresso, the Americano is both deceptively simple to create but packs a ton of flavor.
Emerging out of fascist Italy’s collapse during WW2, the drink was a blend of Italian espresso and American drip coffee. The Americano became Italy’s answer to American GI’s penchant for drip coffee while remaining firmly in Italian barista traditions. While nobody can exactly pinpoint when or where the Americano emerged in Italy, but what is certain is that it followed Americans back home.
How to Make an Americano
Making an Americano is quite easy. Requiring only two ingredients, the Americano can be easily incorporated into your morning routine. However, this deceptive recipe can be easily messed up.
After pulling the espresso shot, a splash of hot water should be added to thin out the drink.
Adding the hot water mixes with the espresso’s crema. This mellows the espresso flavor out, creating a similar taste that is more in line with a more “American” cup of coffee.
The taste itself is a bit milder than an espresso that has a fuller body and is richer than simple drip coffee.
Simple variations exist of the Americano and are just as simple to make. The long black, a name more common in Australia and New Zealand, but becoming more well known in the US and the iced version.
The long black is made with two shots of espresso as opposed to one, where the iced version is made with cold water and can be poured over ice cubes too.
Hopefully, our breakdown has cleared up any confusion you may have had about espresso-based drinks. Now armed with the knowledge and know-how of making three of the most popular options (and some variations too!) you can start to branch out and incorporate them into your coffee brewing arsenal.