What is a Latte? 

The Coffee Folk is reader-supported. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The latte is the iconic espresso-based drink in the West. According to one 2020 poll, it is the single most-ordered drink in the UK! 

But as with the Cappuccino, the latte has as many variations as there are coffee shops. Is it a small drink or a large one? Single shot or double? Glass or mug? No milk foam, a little foam, or lots of foam? 

In this article, we want to understand the origins, nature, and distinctives of the humble latte.

What is a Latte?

What is a latte

The term latte or caffè latte doesn’t actually refer to a specific recipe. It is best seen as a general description of an espresso and milk drink. In fact, the term caffe latte simply means ‘milk coffee’ in Italian.  

Coffee luminaire James Hoffmann defined it in this way: 

The idea of the caffe latte is simple – a sweet, milky beverage with a little coffee flavour.’

However, we can go a little more specific than that. A traditional caffe latte is distinguished by a number of elements

  • It is usually served in a large cup (10-12 oz)
  • It usually has an espresso-to-milk ratio of 1:4-1:8
  • It usually has less foamed milk than a cappuccino
  • It usually has a double shot of espresso 
  • It usually has latte art on top

In many ways, the latte is a large and milky cappuccino. So a latte is a large espresso-based coffee drink that is smooth, milky, and sweet. 

Traditionally it has been seen as a sweet drink that, due to the amount of steamed milk, takes almost all the bitterness away from coffee. Almost a gateway espresso drink. 

Origins of the Latte

Coffee and milk drinks certainly have a diverse history from the Milchkaffee in Germany, the café au lait in France, the café con leche in Spain, and of course the caffe latte in Italy. 

However, while the term caffe latte is Italian ironically the modern latte didn’t actually originate in Italy. In fact, in Italy, if you order a latte you will suffer the humiliation of being handed a cup of milk! The latte is not really part of Italian culture and is a rare order in coffee shops. In fact, in Italy the latte is generally made with the Moka pot and heated non-steamed milk at home.

It is generally thought that the modern latte came to life in the US and was popularized in the 1980s in Seattle. At least one account is that following the Second World War, American soldiers returned to the States and wanted to replicate the milk and coffee drinks they enjoyed in Italy. 

Latte vs Cappuccino 

There is a fair bit of confusion, both in coffee shops and in the general populace, about the differentiation between lattes and cappuccinos. You can see our introduction to the cappuccino here.  

The differences can be seen here 

Cappuccino vs Latte

Basically, a latte is a larger more milky cappuccino with less foamed milk. As such, the cappuccino is a lot more intense while the latte is more sweet and silky. 

How To Make A Latte at Home 

Making a latte at home is simple if you own an espresso machine. Just follow these basic steps:

  1. Pull a double shot of espresso into a large mug (we recommend using a 1-1.5 recipe; 18g of coffee in, 27g out in 25-30 seconds)
  2. Steam a large jug of milk (try to make it more velvety and less foamy)
  3. Pour the steamed milk on top of the espresso (and if possible add some stunning latte art, even a wonky heart will do!)

It’s as simple as that. 

How to make a latte

Takeaway: What is a Latte? 

In summary, a latte is a large and milky espresso-based drink. It is typically enjoyed in a large 10-12 oz cup topped with minimal foam and stunning latte art. As the name suggests (literally ‘milk coffee’), it is less intense than many other espresso drinks and as such forms a silky and sweet coffee-flavored drink that is often enjoyed even by non-coffee drinkers. 

The latte is a gentle introduction to coffee and a staple in coffee shops for a reason, if you are after a cozy coffee drink, the latte is your order.