Before Italians invented the special machine for making espresso at the end of the 19th century, there were only two methods of brewing coffee.
The first one was born in Turkey (more precisely, in the Ottoman Empire) and implied bringing coffee beans to a boil. This is similar to a modern way of brewing coffee in Turkish cezve.
A method of filtering coffee beans was invented in Europe in the 18th century and made the coffee drinks taste better (it was easier to find good coffee beans in the 18th century, so boiling them was not as necessary as before).
The invention of the espresso machine at the end of the 19th century has changed the whole coffee history and resulted in creating various espresso drinks, the most known of which are, no doubt, latte and cappuccino.
What Is a Cappuccino
Almost one century before the espresso machine was introduced, Austrian coffee houses started serving a new coffee drink with sugar and cream. Barista often decorated the drink with a dash of cinnamon or spices, cocoa powder or chocolate, whipped cream, and other additives being popular those days in Austria. Kapuziner, a Viennese name of that new drink, became a grandfather to a modern cappuccino, but what is cappuccino now?
The cappuccino was named after the Capuchin monks (or Kapuzins in Austria) because of the resemblance of their robe color to the color of a newly invented drink. However, the cappuccino, how we know it now, appeared in Italy only at the beginning of the 20th century after the espresso machine was popularized.
A modern cappuccino is made by adding a portion of steamed milk to an espresso shot. Coffee and milk (including the foam) are cappuccino’s basic and essential ingredients typically mixed in the proportion of 1:1:1, when espresso is followed by the same volume of steamed milk and an equal volume of frothed milk (or simply a milk foam which is usually up to 1 cm of height and often decorated with cinnamon or chocolate like it was in kapuziner).
There are two options of how this drink is crafted by a barista. The first one is a milky “wet cappuccino” with a larger portion of steamed milk (in Italy you can also hear the name “cappuccino chiaro”, or “white” in English). The second one is an airy “dry (also called bone-dry) cappuccino” (“cappuccino scuro” in Italy) with a larger portion of dry frothed milk and a stronger bitter taste.
However, certified cappuccino defined by the Italian National Institute of Espresso (INEI) should contain espresso and milk in the ratio of 1:4 (25 ml of strong espresso and 100 ml of extremely cold milk which should be steamed to a 25% bigger volume, up to 125 ml, and poured over the espresso in a way so that a visible cap of foam is on the top).
Finally, certified cappuccino should be served in a preheated porcelain cup (not big, only 150-160 ml of volume). This method gives a thinner foam layer, compared to the common recipe, and resembles, to some degree, a latte taste served in a cappuccino manner.
So now the time for us to define the latte and determine the latte and cappuccino difference.
What Is a Latte
To start with, the latte does not belong to the Italian coffee culture. The word “latte” has only one meaning in Italian, and it is “milk”. If one asks a latte in Italy, he would most probably receive a glass of milk instead of a cup of coffee. To avoid this, in Italy it is better to use the expression “caffe latte” (this is how “coffee with milk” is called there).
Caffe latte consists of espresso and milk, and, at first glance, it seems like there is no difference between a cappuccino and a latte at all. However, not the ingredients but crafting method and culture peculiarities determine the final drink.
Latte is almost always a homemade coffee drink when coffee is mixed with milk in a cup. There is no single way how to make the latte, and it does not even require any coffee inside, as there are a lot of options like red latte (rooibos tea), matcha latte (tea extract), even activated charcoal latte, and many others.
Because of many variations of the recipe, it is not easy to determine who invented this coffee drink and how. The word “caffe latte” was used for a coffee drink the first time at the end of the 19th century. However, since then it was regarded as an American recipe (even in Italy coffee latte was served mostly among American tourists). There is a version that caffe latte was served to Americans instead of cappuccino because cappuccino was too strong for them. Latte had a perfect milky taste that softened espresso bitterness making the overall taste more balanced.
So, what is the difference between a latte and a cappuccino?
Cappuccino vs. Latte: Comparison
Both drinks are a mix of espresso and milk, but the way of mixing and the coffee-milk ratio are what make the difference between latte and cappuccino.
Cappuccino made in a traditional way is usually a stronger drink, often with equal volumes of espresso, steamed milk, and frothy foam (certified Italian cappuccino has ratio 1:2:2).
Latte has a larger volume of steamed milk topped with a thin cap of foam (the common ratio is 1 portion of espresso to 6 portions of steamed milk, though, unlike cappuccino, there are no strict rules). Latte has a milkier taste and more velvet texture than cappuccino.
There is also a difference in how latte or cappuccino are served. Cappuccino is served in porcelain cups (small cups with volume around 150-160 ml), while latte would be brought to you in a high glass (between 200 to 300 ml of volume).
Latte is commonly crafted with additives, such as toppings, syrups, various flavors, and latte does not even have to contain coffee, as it can be substituted by tea, matcha or other ingredients. Cappuccino remains a more classical option and is an essential part of Italian cafe culture, being a traditional morning (and exclusively morning) drink, unlike other countries where cappuccino is served throughout the day. In the USA cappuccino appeared at the end of the 19th century, at the time when latte did, and this may probably explain the surrounding confusion.
Nowadays both drinks are largely globalized, and that leads to the invention of variations, such as cold cappuccino and latte, dry cappuccino (espresso and foam) and a milkier wet (or white) cappuccino (which tastes more like latte than original cappuccino), latte made from filtered coffee without using the espresso machine, or even, as it has been said, latte without coffee. Sometimes it can be difficult to define the difference between cappuccino and latte, but whenever more classical options are chosen, the difference is often clear.