Translating Coffee Menus: Different Names for 'Coffee Plus Milk'

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[Photograph:: journeyscoffee on Flickr]

Ever feel like you need a coffee-to-English dictionary just to order a drink at your local cafe?

While apparently the whole "Inuits have a zillion different words for 'snow'" is a myth, it does seem that the average coffee shop uses a zillion different words to mean "coffee plus milk." You've got your café latte (Italian), café au lait (French), café con leche (Spanish), and even your flat white (the Down Under version, mates).

So what's the deal? Put away your coffee-to-English dictionary and let us decipher the international language of caffeinated deliciousness for you.

Café Latte

In Italian, the word latte simply means "milk," which describes the predominant flavor in this actually-pretty-American drink. The café latte exists as a kind of counterpart—the upstart younger brother, if you will—to the traditional cappuccino. While the latter is often described as a harmonious blend of equal or near-equal parts espresso coffee, steamed milk and foam, a cafe latte places more of an emphasis on the milk than either the coffee or the foam.

Bonus Italian-Language Lesson: Macchiato

Macchiato actually means "marked" or "stained." To whit, an espresso macchiato is espresso coffee with a dollop of steamed and frothed milk, while a latte macchiato (aka that infamous caramel thing) is steamed, frothed (caramel-flavored) milk into which a little coffee is dumped.

Café Au Lait

Another translation of "coffee with milk," au lait on the average American coffee-shop menu typically means brewed coffee with steamed milk, as opposed to espresso with steamed milk (see above: Café Latte). In France, however, it's just as common for an au lait to be made with an espresso base, though it's sometimes served in a bowl-like vessel as opposed to the Italian-style ceramic cup.

Café con Leche

Oh geez, "coffee with milk" again. This variation, common in both Spain and parts of Latin America, is almost always made with espresso (at-home versions are often brewed on a stove-top coffee maker) and steamed, slightly frothed milk—with the occasional added surprise of a pinch of sugar or even salt. Many insist that a con leche has more foam than the typical café latte, but as with most other hotly contested regional cuisines the traditions vary from place to place, making objectivity somewhat moot (I'm looking at you, so-called barbecue purists) .

Flat White

Okay, so it's kind of in English (kind of), but "flat white" is basically the Australian/New Zealander answer to the café latte, which is also popular Down Under. While an antipodean latte normally comes in a glass, the flat white is served in a ceramic cup with a handle, and typically runs a bit smaller (5 - 5.5 ounces, or roughly cappuccino-sized, sans most of the foam).

Any other coffee drinks you'd like deciphered? We've got our dictionaries out and ready...

About the author: Erin Meister (just "Meister" to friends and enemies) trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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