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What is a Latte? – A Beginner’s Guide to the Most Popular Coffee Drink

A latte (also called a “caffe latte”) is a milk coffee drink made with one or two shots of bold espresso, steamed milk, and a finishing touch of milk froth. The result is a creamy, balanced, stunning, and silky-smooth coffee experience.
What is a Latte?

As a barista, I probably made more lattes than any other drink behind the bar. So, I feel good about answering “what is a latte?” 😜

That said, I always spend several hours diving down research rabbit holes for everything I publish here. 

And with that, there’s some new stuff I learned I’m excited to share with you!

This article will cover everything you should know about what a latte is. From classic definitions to modern-day spins on latte ingredients and all the details between, get ready to get your latte on!

What is a Latte?

A latte (or caffè latte) is a milk coffee drink with espresso that boasts a silky layer of foam on top. A proper latte contains one or two shots of espresso, steamed milk, and a final, thin layer of frothed milk on top. Combining these elements result in a balanced and beautiful milky coffee.

What is a Latte

You can think of the latte as the flat white’s foamier cousin. But latte foam levels got nothin’ on the cappuccino. Its foam is the goldilocks factor that makes the latte so appealing to so many people. Mild, but you get the best of the foam upfront because of the steamed milk.

In the Italian tradition, the latte is a breakfast coffee, along with the cappuccino. (Same ingredients, different preparation by the way). This is because both drinks feature a lot of milk, making them heavier and best suited to a morning coffee.

But what is a latte compared to other drinks? It boils down to milk-to-espresso ratios. The ratio of a single espresso shot to milk is approximately 1:14, making it the milkiest and creamiest you can find. It sounds like a large ratio—and it is, since lattes are typically served in 10-12 oz. mugs.

All that said, keep in mind that the latte’s precise composition changes from region to region, like all great coffee drinks!

What is a Latte

The world loves lattes. But Americans really love them. In fact, of all the caffeine Americans consume, a whopping 75% of it is in the form of coffee. And the latte scores #1 as the most ordered coffee in the U.S.

Yep. We Americans consume 146 billion cups of coffee per year. 🤯 And in a one-year period, 67 million of those were lattes. With all the coffee variety out there, that’s impressive!  

But Americans are not alone. The latte is known and loved all over the world—including the UK. Data shows our friends across the pond consistently order lattes more than any other coffee beverage—even plain drip coffee.

The Latte: A Brief History

With millions of cups consumed daily, the latte’s here to stay. But the drink can trace its roots back to 17th-century Europe. 

Some say Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki invented adding milk to coffee—the basis for the latte—in 1684. The story goes that he served Europeans Turkish-style coffee in his cafe in Vienna, and it wasn’t palatable.

To ease the coffee’s bitterness, Kulczycki filtered the grinds to prevent so many from remaining in the brew. And of course, he added milk.

It was another 163 years before the caffe latte itself surfaced in Italy. 

The drink was first referred to as “Caffe Latte” in 1847 and “caffe latte” in an essay by William Dean Howells in 1867. Although it originated in Italy, mainland Europe and Britain enjoyed it for centuries.

The drink gained popularity in the US in the 20th century. Caffe Mediterraneum in Berkeley, California (My alma mater! Go Bears!) even claimed to have invented it in the 1950s. 

What is a Latte

It wasn’t until the 1980s that its popularity skyrocketed in Seattle, now dubbed the coffee capital thanks to Starbucks.

It’s important to call out that the standardized ‘commercial’ latte you know is a product of America, even though Europeans created the drink. And they have centuries on us when it comes to enjoying different variations.

Anyway, the US went latte-crazy, and coffee shops popped up coast to coast, making it a cultural staple in the states. But why? 

From a scientific perspective, the milk in lattes counters coffee’s natural bitterness. The whey and casein proteins in milk combine with coffee’s antioxidant polyphenols to create the taste we identify as “the latte”. 

Is a Latte Healthy?

Whether you can consider lattes healthy depends on two things: The latte, and your idea of healthy. 

We could point to the 2% milk and say a latte is healthy because it’s strengthening your bones with all that calcium.

Or, shine a spotlight on the fact that simple milk and espresso are relatively low in calories and fat. A 12-ounce latte has between 170-210 calories depending on where it’s made. 

What is a Latte

Make it iced and you can save 50 calories. Non-fat or milk substitutes can lower the carbs, calories, and sugars, too.

But if you’re drinking large ones with a bunch of sugary syrups and whole milk, it’s not a healthy choice. In fact, some chain cafes’ lattes balloon to 500+ calories.

So remember that as with anything in life, balance is key. And making your lattes at home is an easier way to control exactly what goes into them. 

How a Latte is Made

There are lots of creative spins on the latte, but all feature the same essential ingredients: Espresso, steamed milk, and a thin layer of foam on top. 

Here’s a general way you can make a latte, irrespective of your espresso brewing method or other equipment.

  1. Start with a shot or two of espresso. It’s the base of your latte and sets the tone for the rest of the drink.
  2. If you want to add a little flavor, go for it! Some popular options include vanilla, caramel, or hazelnut syrup. Whisk it into the espresso before pouring the milk.
  3. Steam milk until it’s hot and frothy. Aim for a 1:2 ratio of espresso to milk, so if you have a double shot of espresso, use around 6 ounces of milk.
  4. Pour the steamed milk into your espresso, making sure to create a layer of foam on top.

Pro Tip: Make your latte with coffee beans from Central or South American countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica. These regions produce coffee with robust caramel and nutty notes, making them a perfect match for milk coffee.

For an in-depth tutorial, check out Cristian’s expert and detailed walkthrough here.

Three Adored Variations on the Classic Latte

At its core, a caffe latte translates to “coffee with milk”. But you don’t have to stop there. With the latte’s celebrated versatility, there are a ton of different ways to enjoy this classic drink nowadays: 

  1. Milk substitutes: First, you can make a latte with all different types of milk like almond, soy, oat, cashew, and even coconut! 🥥
  1. Try it iced: When it’s hot outside, try switching things up with an iced latte. Sure, it may not have the same exact foam as the hot version, but it’s a small price to pay for a refreshing pick-me-up on those sweltering days.
  1. Flavored syrups: Add a twist with syrups like vanilla, caramel, chocolate—and yes, pumpkin spice, which brings a touch of fall flavor to your cup.

Simply mix a few teaspoons of your favorite syrup with the espresso, stir, then add the steamed milk. And if you’re a fan of making coffee at home, you can easily find these flavored syrups to stock up on.

What is a Latte
A latte with maple syrup? Order one in Canada!

Who knew that coffee and milk could be so spellbinding? The addition of flavorings has become a staple in the coffee world, and it’s completely acceptable to add them to your latte. So go ahead, try something new, and make your latte a little sweeter.

What is a Latte Today?

Lattes’ foundation remains the same in the Western world as it’s always been: Espresso, steamed milk, foam. Yet geographic variances can mean the latte is more like your definition of a flat white or cappuccino. This is particularly true when it comes to serving style and size.

For example, a latte in Australia averages 220 ml (or 7.4 oz). It’s served in a glass.

But in other places, the latte is considerably larger—normally between 12-16 oz. here in the US—and served in a ceramic mug.

It is all relative to where you live, which cafes you frequent, and what you enjoy the best—pumpkin spice or not.

Do size and serving glass change your idea of what a latte is? For me, not as much as the ratio. The espresso-to-milk ratio for a latte is firm in my mind because it’s the milkiness of the drink that makes it what it is.

But what about how our idea of the latte is changing today? It’s not just adding milk and a bit of foam to espresso anymore. Variations and add-ons and custom orders aside, the latte is a part of society.

What is a Latte

So as far as how the latte’s place in daily life and society at large is shifting, Tastewise’s 2023 report on latte trends contains this fascinating data: 

  • “Social conversations about Latte have increased by 13.18% over the past year
  • The fastest rising consumer need for Latte is Snack
  • The dominant diet for Lattes is Vegan”

If these numbers are anything to go by, it looks like the latte is becoming a go-to snack for coffee lovers on a vegan diet. 

And perhaps the social conversations bit has something to do with how photography-friendly lattes are. I’m clearly hypothesizing at this point 😂. 

But you’ve got to admit: Lattes look great on the ‘gram. This brings me to…

Latte Art 

What is a Latte

One reason lattes have become so beloved may be thanks to the creativity of coffeehouse baristas. They introduced us to the fun of latte art, which involves whipping up visually appealing designs in the foam on top of the espresso and milk mixture. 

It’s become an absolute cornerstone of the specialty coffee shop, along with pour-overs.

The most common type of latte art is probably the heart. But with a little practice, you can also make designs like leaves, tulip rosettas, and even portraits. 

It’s a fun way to add a creative touch to your morning coffee at home. And it always puts a smile on my face when a barista hands me my drink with latte art poured on top. Plus, it’s a great conversation starter!

But that’s not where latte art ends. Foamed 3D latte art also has a following.

3D Latte Art

What is a Latte

If you haven’t heard of it before, 3D foam art is another type of latte art. It involves creating three-dimensional shapes, designs, and figures in a latte’s foam. 

Unlike traditional latte art, which only involves creating designs on the foam’s surface, 3D latte art goes a step further. By building up the foam to create depth and volume, baristas create the illusion of floating shapes or figures on top of the latte. 

Baristas use specialized techniques and tools to create 3D foam art, such as shaping the foam with spoons or squeeze bottles to create intricate designs (definitely beyond my abilities, for sure!). 

It’s a pretty advanced form of latte art that requires a high level of skill and creativity. 3D latte art adds an extra layer of visual interest to lattes and is certainly an art all its own.

What is a Latte ?- TL;DR

The answer to what is a latte is easy: 

It’s a milk-coffee beverage made with a 2:1 ratio of milk to espresso, with a fine layer of foam on top. 

But while the dictionary definition may be simple, the latte in actuality is not. 

Its massive international popularity—especially in America and the UK—has led to delicious variances. 

So let’s not forget: From pumpkin spiced to iced, the latte’s humble 17th-century roots paved the way for all the ways we enjoy the drink today.

What now? If you want to double-click on coffee’s origin more broadly, I invite you to adventure deeper into the history of coffee in the Americas.

FAQs

Is a Latte Stronger Than a Cappuccino?

No. But the latte may have a milder taste due to the greater proportion of steamed milk compared to the cappuccino which results in a milder flavor.

Does Latte Mean Milk?

Yes. ‘Latte’ is Italian for milk. Be sure to order a “caffe latte” when in Italy! Because if you just ask for a latte, you may find yourself holding a glass of milk. Quite different from the velvety and caffeinated experience of a well-crafted caffe latte.

The same goes for “cafe au lait” if you ever find yourself in France. Au lait means milk in French. Don’t forget the “cafe”! And in Spanish-speaking countries, don’t order a “leche” if you want a “cafe con leche”. You’ll also get a glass of milk.

Is a Latte Hot or Cold?

Both! The latte is delicious hot or iced. The only thing that changes with iced is how you make it. If you’re craving an iced latte, cold milk froths with an old-school whisk, or you can use a fancy milk frother. Once you’ve got your frothy milk, just pour in your espresso over a few ice cubes, followed by the milk, and prego! A yummy iced latte, ready in a snap, right in the comfort of your own home.

What Pairs Well with a Latte?

If your latte is plain without added flavorings, I recommend sweet homemade banana bread or even something a bit different, like this chestnut marble bundt cake recipe! 🤤 Nut and fruit-based treats make the latte’s milkiness extra decadent and highlight different nuances in the espresso. Explore and send your palate on an adventure!
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