What exactly is a macchiato (and should you care?)

Caffe Macchiato

This is by far, the most misunderstood word in the coffee world (except for the use of bean to describe the coffee pit, see a previous post on that issue).

In Italian, the word macchiato means marked, as in a smudge of differing color. As in a shot of espresso with a dollop of foamed milk on top. The caffe macchiato was introduced in the 1980’s in italy. It was a shot of espresso with a dollop of foamed milk on top, but that should come as no surprise given the sentence that preceded this one.

Italian lesson: caffe means coffee, latte means milk. If you are in italy and you order a cafe latte, you will be given a shot of espresso with a large portion of milk. If you are in Italy and you order a latte, you will be given a glass of milk. A caffe macchiato is a ‘marked coffee.’

Caffe Latte

A latte macchiato is much less common but it still is a thing. It is different than a caffe macchiato. Remembering your Italian, as you would probably guess a latte macchiato is marked milk. If you were to steam a glass of milk, creating a layer of foam on the top and pour in a shot of espresso, it would leave a mark on the foam as it passes through. If you pour the shot in carefully, the drink will layer the espresso between the foam on top and the rest of the milk on the bottom. This layering is reversed from the typical espresso drink served in a cafe; the espresso is usually on the bottom with the steamed milk above it.

Latte Macchiato

In 1996, Starbucks introduced the Latte Macchiato and it is as described above; steamed milk topped with espresso topped with foamed milk. The most common form of Starbuck’s Latte Macciato is the Caramel Macchiato which adds a french vanilla syrup to the espresso, whipped cream on top of the foamed milk and a caramel drizzle.

If you look at the Starbucks menu today, you will see two options, the Espresso Macchiato and the Caramel Macchiato. The Espresso Macchiato is the traditional Caffe Macchiato that came to us from Italy and of course I described the Caramel Macchiato in the paragraph above.

Is the a difference between a Latte and a Latte Macchiato? They both contain the same ingredients in (more or less) the same proportions. If you mix the layered ingredients the they will taste exactly the same. They may look different upon presentation by the barista but there really is no difference. And that visual difference will only be apparent if they are served in a transparent cup.

To return to Starbucks product, the Caramel Macchiato, they have not stayed true to the traditional naming conventions. Notice that they do not call the drink the Caramel Latte Macchiato (caramel marked milk). If you had never been to a Starbucks or any other establishment that takes their cues from Starbucks, given your new knowledge of Italian, what would you expect to be served? Personally, I would expect a shot of espresso that had been marked with a drizzle of caramel.

If you are an 800 pound gorilla in a room full of 400 pound nobodies, who cares what other people think. And so, Starbuck’s breaks from convention and leaves everyone who walks into a coffee shop wondering what the macchiato on the menu might mean. Do they mean what Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and many many others now mean – a Latte Macchiato, or will you be served a shot of espresso marked with milk?

The reason why I am writing this post at this moment is that I had a customer come in and ask that exact question, but they asked it in a very skillful and simple way. Before they ordered anything, I was asked, ‘Are your macchiatos in the Italian style or in the American style?’ It should be noted here that they when they learned we made our macchiatos in the Italian style they did not order one, but that information gave them insight into the type of cafe we are.

There has been an explosion of coffee making establishments in the U.S. over the past few decades and there are a wide variation in quality and style. The macchiato question can be useful to gauge the type of cafe you are about to order from. If the person behind the counter doesn’t understand the question, that also gives you valuable information.

Please understand that I am not saying we must all be purists and stick to tradition. At the same time, if every establishment creates their own definitions for traditional words, there will be chaos in the cafes. When I order a hamburger, I expect a patty of ground beef and not a stitch of ham (unless stated so in the description). I could become indignant at the lack of ham in my hamburger or I could recognize that everyone means the same thing when they use the word, hamburger.

So, before placing your order, you might want to have a conversation about what certain words mean and make sure that you are all in agreement. In fact, that is a good rule for life.

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