The Differences Between a Latte, Cappuccino, and Americano

two white ceramic mugs on coaster

To the uninitiated, ordering a drink at a coffee shop can be confusing and intimidating. There are a lot of Italian words and other lingo involved in placing a coffee order, especially when ordering an espresso-based drink. While many coffee shops offer an array of specialty drinks, they are all derived from the basic espresso drinks. What are these drinks, and what is in them?

What is a Latte?

person making latte art

A latte is the most basic of the espresso-based coffee drinks. It is simply espresso and steamed milk. However, a good latte should also have a velvety texture. Unlike warming milk by other methods, properly steamed milk is infused with air, giving it a richer consistency.

A plain latte is unsweetened and has a fairly strong coffee taste. For those who prefer a sweeter drink, flavored syrups can be added to a latte as well. A mocha, for instance, is nothing more than a latte made with chocolate syrup.

What is a Cappuccino?

coffee Cappuccino in mug

The cappuccino is the most misunderstood of all coffee drinks. Many people who think they like cappuccinos will order one at a coffee shop and be utterly disgusted and disappointed. This is largely because many people associate cappuccinos with the gas station variety, which are made from a sweetened, powdered mix and are dispensed out of a push-button machine.

A true Italian cappuccino bears no resemblance to a gas station cappuccino. Like a latte, a cappuccino consists of only espresso and milk. The difference between the two drinks lies in the preparation of the milk. While some air is infused into a latte’s steamed milk, much more air is infused into a cappuccino. The milk in a good cappuccino should be very foamy, and should feel significantly lighter than a latte of the same size.

Because there is less volume of milk in a cappuccino, it is the strongest of the espresso-based coffee drinks. For those who are accustomed to the taste of gas station cappuccinos, a flavored latte is probably a much better choice.

What is an Americano?

white coffee cup on table

Like lattes and cappuccinos, Americanos start out with a small amount of espresso. However rather than using milk to dilute the espresso, water is added. The result tastes very similar to a brewed coffee, but with a richer flavor. An Americano also has less caffeine than a brewed coffee of the same size, making it ideal for those with a caffeine sensitivity.

These three basic coffee drinks are the basis for an infinite number of variations. Except for the cappuccino, they can all be served either hot or cold. Additionally, cold drinks can be served over ice, or can be blended up like a milkshake (also sometimes called a frappuccino or frappe). They can be flavored with a wide variety of syrups, made with any kind of milk, garnished in many ways, and even made decaffeinated. Espresso-based coffee drinks are completely customizable!

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