Fun fact: the difference between a cappuccino and a latte used to be very well-known. There was zero confusion… and then along came Starbucks.
Don’t get us wrong—we have great respect for Starbucks! It’s just that the company ushered in an era of confusion around coffee drinks—especially the cappuccino vs latte—with their weird drink naming system.
Let’s fix this mess by going over the big differences between cappuccinos and lattes so you know exactly what you’re buying when you order one. We’ll discuss…
- What sizes the drinks should be… and why specialty coffee works differently
- Why the milk foam is key in understanding the difference
- How Starbucks went off the rails with their drink names
Ready to know the difference, once and for all?
The origin of the cappuccino actually goes way back—before the espresso machine even—and has two competing origin stories.
The first legend claims that Italians began calling their coffee with cream and sugar a cappuccino because it reminded them of the Capuchin monks and their light-brown robes. The monks were originally named after capuchin monkeys because their robes were the same color as the monkey’s fur.
The second myth says the cappuccino simply became the Italian form of a Viennese drink, the kapuziner, made with coffee, cream and sugar.
So either it goes all the way back to monkeys… or just to modern-day Austria. Nobody knows for sure. But we can’t help but prefer the monkey connection.
What Exactly Is A Cappuccino?
So originally, a cappuccino was just coffee, cream, and sugar—but it has changed quite a bit over the centuries.
Once espresso was invented in Italy, the cappuccino took its most well-known form: 33% espresso, 33% steamed milk, and 33% microfoam, in a 5-6 ounce size.
Most coffee shops in the world still recognize this definition.
In some countries, however, it’s customary to add toppings, like cacao powder, cinnamon dust, or even whipped cream. Oh yeah.
The Taste And Texture Of A Cappuccino
Cappuccinos are 33% foam, which makes it… very foamy (to state the obvious).
This means there’s really only ~2 ounces of espresso and ~2 ounces of liquid steamed milk—pretty much a 1:1 ratio. As a result, the cappuccino is considered a well-rounded drink that blends the best of a coffee’s flavor with the smoothness of milk.
And the foam—it’s supposed to be dense. Not big bubbles, but tiny bubbles that feel super smooth along your lips and tongue. If you get a milk-stache, you know the milk’s good.
Cappuccinos At A Glance
- Origin: Italy or Austria
- Ratio: 2oz Espresso, 2oz Steamed Milk, 2oz Microfoam
- Strength: Medium-Strong
- Taste: Fluffy, Espresso, Creamy, Balanced
- Service: Ceramic Cappuccino Mug
Why Is The Starbucks Cappuccino Different?
Okay… Starbucks does and doesn’t stick to the normal ratios here.
Generally, a Starbucks cappuccino does use a 1:1:1 ratio (for smaller drinks, at least)… they just allow you to order it a lot bigger, between 12 and 20 ounces. So they definitely break some rules, but tend to stick to the big one: the ratio.
There is a big difference in the milk foam, however. Starbucks has to prioritize speed over precision, leading to big bubbles that aren’t very creamy. Specialty coffee shops end up being much better at getting that super fine, creamy microfoam.
You’d think with the name caffe latte, that the latte would be an Italian drink. Well… yes and no.
People started using the term caffe latte around 1867 in Italy, but primarily in areas filled with American tourists. Regular Italians weren’t really into the drink—it was primarily created for American tourists who thought the normal cappuccinos were too strong.
We’re not 100% sure who coined the term, but this story seems to be upheld by most coffee historians.
What Exactly Is A Latte?
Classic lattes were served in 8-ounce glasses filled with a shot of espresso, lots of steamed milk, and a small layer of microfoam at the top. Notice we said a glass, not a mug. They’re still served this way in many parts of the world.
Here in the United States, however, we’ve decided we prefer larger drinks—10-20 ounces—and ceramic mugs (but we still use a double shot of espresso). So, ultimately, we’ve taken the toned down drink… and toned it down some more!
The Taste And Texture Of A Latte
The extra milk doesn’t mean lattes taste bad—they just taste more… milky. With 2x as much milk as other espresso drinks (or more), lattes are chill. The espresso flavor is there, but the acidic bite is completely hidden, making it the most approachable coffee drink out there.
This is why flavored syrups are often paired with lattes. The sweet caramelized milk and mild espresso notes make for a fantastic base layer for other flavors, like vanilla, caramel, and chocolate.
Lattes At A Glance
- Origin: American
- Ratio: 1oz Espresso, 8-16oz Steamed Milk, 1-2oz Microfoam
- Strength: Light
- Taste: Creamy, Milky, Smooth, Approachable
- Service: Ceramic Mug (Americas) or Tall Glass (Global)
Flat White vs Cappuccino: Which Should You Pick?
Whether you’re staring at a menu in a cafe or trying to decide what to make at home, here are a few questions you should ask yourself to find your best pick.
Do You Want A Strong Or A Mellow Drink?
Cappuccinos have half as much steamed milk as lattes, but the same amount of espresso, making them quite a bit stronger. They’re smooth—the milk and espresso blend well—but you can still get many of the natural coffee flavors. Lattes are more mellow and better for times when a cup of warm milk sounds great.
- I want a strong drink: cappuccino
- I’d rather get something mellow: latte
Do You Like Thick, Fluffy Microfoam?
Some people hate microfoam, but others can’t seem to get enough of it. Lattes have a pleasant, thin layer of foam (but most of the drink is steamed milk), but cappuccinos are 33% foam.
- Yes gimme foam: cappuccino
- I hate foam: latte
How Long Do You Want Your Drink To Last?
Are you wanting something to sip on for the next hour, or just need a pick-me-up that’ll last a few good minutes? Being 2-3x as large as cappuccinos, lattes tend to take longer to drink.
- I’m sipping slowly: latte
- I need caffeine NOW: cappuccino
Pro Tip: Take a trip to Italy, stand at the coffee bar, and watch how Italians drink their cappuccinos. Despite the drink being super hot, they down the whole thing in 15 seconds or less—it’s crazy.
What About Making Cappuccinos And Lattes At Home?
Both drinks are a joy to make at home if you have an espresso machine, but lattes tend to be easier than cappuccinos because there’s not nearly as much expectation around the milk foam (and if you mess up the espresso, it’s harder to taste it).
Getting the 1:1:1 ratio just right for cappuccinos takes some time to learn, but as long as you’re using high-quality coffee beans, it’s still a fun (and tasty) journey. And once you get them down, cappuccinos are the true mark of a stellar home barista.
And just so you know, here’s what high-quality tastes like:
- Aromatic vanilla
- Tangy strawberry
- Sweet cane sugar
(Yes, we just described our own Espresso Roast.)