What’s a Latte? And Why Is It so Popular?

August 16, 2018Paige Billings
Coffee or Die Photo

The latte. It’s probably the most photographed cup of coffee out there, distinguished by the blank canvas it gives baristas to create unique designs that range from simple to complex — right in the drink. But that’s not the only reason the latte is the most popular drink at coffee shops.

But what exactly is a latte? If you suspect that there’s more to this photogenic drink than meets the eye, you’re right.

As seen in the chart above, a latte consists of two shots of delicious espresso, and eight ounces of steamed milk (measurements vary based on the size of the drink). The simplicity of this drink is what makes it so popular.

Why do we add steamed milk to coffee?

The term “latte” is a shortened version of caffè latte, which is Italian for “milk coffee.” Across Europe, adding milk to coffee in different ways was the way to drink coffee. There are other popular drinks like the cafè au lait (brewed coffee and steamed milk), the macchiato (espresso and milk foam), cappuccino (espresso and foam with a drip of milk), and the list goes on. Although these drinks were popular in Europe in the 17th century, they weren’t formally named until the mid-17th century when the term “caffè latte” was first coined in America (you’re welcome, Europe).

People started adding milk as a way to cream and cool their espresso. If extracted with too much pressure or if the coffee is older or roasted darker, espresso on its own can be acidic and coat the mouth with a heavy presence. But the addition of steamed milk with micro foam bubbles adds a delicacy to the espresso that plays a dance on your taste buds, sip after sip.

Delicate swirls of white foam fold together with the dark rivers of the brew, lightening in color as the warm milk fills the space beneath the espresso. Latte art is the painting of the food world; every wrist flick of the steamed milk flows effortlessly into the espresso creating beautiful ribbons of light brown, white, and rich golden hues. Our espresso is extracted in a way that glistens off the mug when the soft microfoam envelops it. Milk is the paint in latte art, and the espresso is the canvas. When correctly extracted, they play the most beautiful tune in the culture of coffee. This art form is what separates baristas from coffee experts.

Many casual coffee drinkers have adopted a habit of adding artificial flavoring and sweeteners, but traditionally, an espresso drink requires nothing more than steamed milk. The next time you order, step back and think, Do I need to add flavoring? Embrace the simple latte as it was meant to be enjoyed, much like you would a delicious meal by a master chef. Why add ketchup to a fine steak when you know the chef put so much effort into the preparation and presentation of a flawless dish? The same goes for the simple whole-milk latte.  

Give the simple latte a try the next time you head to your local coffee shop, and allow the espresso to melt away with the milk on your tongue. The elegance — not simply the art — of the latte is what makes it the most popular coffee drink in the world.

Paige Billings
Paige Billings

Paige Billings is a staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. She believes that cupcakes and a cup of coffee can solve most any problem. Although she got her start at Williams-Sonoma as a merchandising analyst, she has since combined her passion for coffee, recipe development, design, and photography into her career as a coffee and food writer, recipe developer, and food photographer. Her delicious and beautiful recipes can be found on her blog, Instagram, and in the secret pages of her ongoing cookbook. Paige has lived everywhere from California, where she grew up, to Montana, where she graduated from Montana State University. She now works out of her Florida home with the help of her eager taste testers — her husband, Drew, and her dog, Moose.

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