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Coffee Jargon: How the Cappuccino Got Its Name

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[Photograph: Anne Lucas Di Elmo on Flickr]

Many folks swear by their cappuccino as a kind of morning savior, but did you know the drink's name has supposedly a blessed history? Today, we'll look into how the most sacred of coffee drinks came to have such an evocative appellation.

In Italian, cappuccino literally means "little cap," which perfectly describes the luscious head of foamed milk that sits atop the drink's espresso base.

It also allegedly derives from a religious sartorial inspiration: With their iconic brown hooded cowls and shaved heads, the monks of Capuchin are a pretty close human resemblance to the ring of crema and white foam that tops the classic beverage. An offshoot of the Franciscan Catholic order, these friars struck out on their own in 1520, adopting the coffee-colored cloak, or cappuccio, as an imitative sign of gratitude to the Benedictine Camaldolese monks, who offered Capuchins refuge while they dodged persecution from church officials.

When expertly poured so that a circle of white is perfectly encircled by the darker coffee, the design on a "traditional" cappuccino is called a monk's head.

(Some reputable sources insist the name strikes further back in the annals of pre-espresso history, however, and originates instead from a popular 19th-century Viennese coffee-and-frothed-milk drink called a Kapuziner, the German equivalent of "Capuchin." I say potato, you say patata—and in Vienna, they say Kartoffel.)

Wherever the monk-y moniker originated, what we consider the modern cappuccino—an espresso-based drink topped with steamed foamed milk—didn't appear until about two decades into the 20th century, when espresso-machine manufacturers started adding steam wands to their equipment, allowing baristas to heat and texturize milk as a complement to the concentrated coffee. (Earlier versions of the gadgets featured valves the barista could use to release short bursts of steam pressure for safety's sake, but heating milk with the volatile vapor hadn't entered the equation yet.)

Curious visitors can drop in on the bygone Italian brothers at their Roman catacombs, in a cavern underneath Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. There, more than 4,000 clergymen's bones are on rather morbidly beautiful display, thanks to a liturgical law that prohibited underground burial on friary property. (No coffee to be had on premises of course, but in Rome you can't walk five feet without coming across a cafe.)

Next time you thank heavens for your cappuccino, just think—somebody up there might actually be listening.

About the author: Erin Meister 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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