What’s the Difference Between Café au Lait, Cappuccino, Latté, and Macchiato?

updated Jul 11, 2022
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Cropped Image Of Barista Making Coffee At Cafe
Credit: Getty Images/Mallika Wiriyathitipirn / EyeEm

Whether we’re headed across campus for class or into the office for work, chances are that most of us have a travel mug of something caffeinated in our hands.

According to the National Coffee Association, Americans drink an estimated 517 million cups of coffee per day, and 43 percent of those cups are either lattes, cappuccinos, or macchiatos. That means nearly half of all coffee consumed in the United States involves some variation of coffee + milk + foam.

Here’s the difference between these caffeinated favorites.

  • Café au lait: Half brewed coffee, half warmed milk
  • Latté: Espresso topped with steamed milk and thin foam
  • Cappuccino: Espresso topped with thick foam and a little steamed milk
  • Macchiato: Espresso topped with a dollop of foam, no milk

What Is a Café au Lait?

This drink is simply half brewed coffee and half warmed milk. You might get a little foam on top, but the essential idea is thinning the strong coffee with a generous amount of warm, creamy milk.

What Is a Latté?

Similar to a café au lait, lattés are made with a shot (or three) of espresso poured into the bottom of a mug and topped with steamed milk and a thin layer of foam. Some people prefer to add the espresso last so it that sinks through the milk and foam instead, but the idea is the same.

You can make a latté at home to save you a few bucks and a little time. Try any of these recipes below using what you have around the house.

Credit: Getty Images/ Boy_Anupong

What Is a Cappuccino?

We’ve always thought of cappuccinos as the opposite of lattés. A cappuccino also uses shots of espresso, but the proportions of milk and foam are reversed: a little milk, lots of foam. This gives you a much stronger coffee flavor. The key to a good cappuccino in our opinion is really excellent foam.

Credit: Getty Images/Guido Mieth

What Is a Macchiato?

If you like really intense coffee flavor, try one of these! It’s simply a shot of espresso topped with a little foam — no milk! Back in our barista days, we also liked a version where we replaced the foam with a little dollop of whipped cream. Not a bad way to wake up in the morning!

See what we mean? Just a few simple ingredients, but lots of ways to change it up and make a drink that suits your tastes exactly.

What’s your favorite way to drink coffee?

Related: Best Coffee for Hot Days: Cold Brewed Iced Coffee