When it comes to our coffee, we may know our favorite drink and simply stick to it. And while it’s fine to have a preference for espresso over caramel macchiatos, trying something new can be rewarding and expand both your knowledge and love of coffee. And for anyone who is relatively new to drinking coffee, it can help to know not only the differences between different options but even the history behind the different selections.
In this article, we’ll cover two drinks: the cortado and the latte. We’ll be looking at what makes these two drinks a popular choice, delving into the rich history behind both of them, and discussing the key differences and similarities in terms of flavor, presentation, and ingredients.
But in order to do that, we’ll have to first take a look at the history of coffee as a beverage itself. Doing so can help us appreciate the many choices we have today, even more, educate us on both the positive and negative impact of the coffee industry, and lead us to make informed decisions.
The History of Coffee:
Today, over half of Americans drink coffee or coffee beverages, with specialty coffee sales projected to continue to increase 20 percent every year. In 2017, independent coffee shops alone recorded $12 billion in sales, and drive-thrus averaged 200 to 300 sales of cups of espresso in a single day. That’s not even counting coffee that can be purchased online, in supermarkets, or convenience stores–and given that home brewing is still preferred on a daily basis to getting coffee out, that’s saying a lot.
It wasn’t always so easy to get your caffeine fix. The history of coffee is long and filled with ambiguity, but we do have some records to trace parts of how the coffee trade may have started, and how it expanded into what it is today.
Some of the earliest coffee production may have occurred many centuries ago in Ethiopia. Eventually, coffee spread across the Arabian peninsula, which is likely where cultivation and trade really began, sometime in the 15th century. After reaching Yemen, coffee started to be produced in Persia, Egypt, Turkey, and Syria.
Public coffee houses began to populate cities in the Near East and the drink became more than drink, with these places now serving as social meeting grounds where customers would also listen to music, play games, and share news. The Mecca, which still remains a place of religious pilgrimage, as happened to be the optimal place where visitors could learn about coffee, and disperse the beverage’s popularity even further.
Coffee Reaches Europe:
Coffee first reached Europe around 1573, in Italy. Venice was an important trading port and area of commerce, so it makes sense that coffee would find its way here first. Coffee was mostly imported to Venice by the powerful Ottoman Empire, with North Africans, traders from the East, as well as from Egypt trading coffee more and more. The first coffee house in Europe opened in 1645 in Venice.
Coffee likely next spread to the English and the Dutch through imports and coffee production really took off through the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company. Interestingly, Europe, aside from German, restricted coffee consumption and did not allow women to drink or gather in coffee houses for some time. In France, Antoine Galland, a prominent scholar, translator, and archaeologist, recorded to the introduction of coffee in Paris by a man who traveled from the east and brought coffee beans which made their way to the king’s interpreter. At the same time, coffee also spread to Austria and Eastern Europe.
Coffee Reaches North America:
Coffee came to North America in the early 18th century, but it wasn’t popularized until the Boston Tea Party in 1773 when the British colonies rebelled against being forced to pay taxes but not truly considered full citizens or represented by mainland England, which marked the first pivotal act of defiance that would eventually escalate to the American Revolution. The switch from tea to coffee at first then was a more necessary and political statement than preference.
The American Civil War further saw an increased consumption of coffee in the United States. In the late 1860s, coffee began to be mass-produced, and prominent coffee companies, including Maxwell House, opened up for production.
Specialty coffee increased in demand, and, over a century and two decades later, the first Starbucks opened its door in the United States in Seattle in 1971.
Coffee’s Problematic Roots:
Coffee production was not merely a seamless process of trade and supply and demand. Like so many industries that date back to the 15th and 16th century, coffee had deep roots in slavery and the slave trade, and coffee plantations were very lucrative. Even today, coffee farms across the world have been charged with violations such as the use of child labor, and the destruction of environments. But today there are also more and more calls for stricter labeling systems and other ways to produce more ethical brew.
What is a Latte?
As rich as the history of coffee in general is, it’s also rich for specific specialty drinks, and this is also true for the latte, one of the most popular coffee beverages available.
In case you don’t already know, a latte is actually of Italian origin and is an espresso-based drink. Foamed and steamed milk is combined to create a robust but also creamy and rich drink, and is especially a popular option for anyone who loves the richness of espresso but wants a way to make it a bit milder.
Cappuccino and latte are often confused with one another, but they are different beverages, not in ingredients but how they are crafted. As opposed to the “airy, thick layer” of foamed milk of a cappuccino, a latte instead features a thin layer of foamed milk, followed by a second layer of steamed milk. The bottom of the cup is filled with a shot of strong espresso. While a cappuccino’s layers are very distinct, in a latte the layers end up blending with one another for an all-over creamy and mild effect.
A diagram of a latte is shown above courtesy of Starbucks Coffee.
Depending on what kind of milk you use (whole or reduced-fat is preferred to make the best foamy layer), you’ll be presented with a relatively mild and creamy drink with touches of espresso flavor. While not sweet on its own, it goes well either as is or with a touch of sweetener or vanilla flavoring.
You can order a latte, like anything else, with some specifications that will change the overall taste and experience. You can ask for either a thin or thicker layer of “foam”; that is the frothy milk at the top of the beverage. If you want a large amount of foam, however, you would be better off ordering a cappuccino. Lattes are relatively mild and a great choice for someone who doesn’t want too strong of a drink. And you can always ask (or make it yourself) to see if you can use a specific type of espresso.
The History Behind the Latte:
When it comes to the latte we know and love, the history is very short, and there’s a good deal of misunderstanding.
The latte started in Italy and is actually shorthand for “caffelatte” which means coffee and milk, and is comparable with the French cafe au lait and the Spanish cafe con Leche. But while the term originated in Italy, it did not have the same meaning; simply ordering a latte in Italy, until recently, meant getting a hot glass of milk.
So while the term did originate in Italy, and many tote it as of European origin, the latte we enjoy in the United States is actually American. While it’s hard to trace its exact origins, the latte, featuring a shot of espresso and steamed milk, first became popular in Seattle in the 1980s and became most popular in the 1990s and beyond.
Latte Variations and Recipes: The best latte will feature creamy, fresh milk, steamed to perfection, with a shot of bold and rich espresso. But there are different variations and recipes possible if the original variety isn’t doing it for you.
Classic Cafe Latte:
This classic recipe is simple to make and perfect for home brewing. All it takes is quality milk and espresso, with simple directions.
Cafe Latte Version Two:
Admittedly there isn’t a large difference between this recipe and the previous one, but this one does encourage you to make a more luxurious topping, with options for flavored simple syrup add-ins for a touch of sweetness.
For a sweet festive version of a latte, look no further than this recipe. Cinnamon and hints of brown sugar make for an inviting but not too saccharine drink. There are even options for Nutella, Pumpkin Spice, and Salted Caramel varieties.
Hot Buttered Latte with Kahlua:
If you want an indulgent latte, this is a great recipe to consider. Cinnamon, butter, and ice cream make for a delightfully creamy dessert latte.
This isn’t for everyone, but give it a try before you turn it down. Just two tablespoons of dried lavender add aroma and a burst of flavor for a uniquely soothing beverage.
What is a Cortado? And how is it different from a Latte?
A Cortado is perhaps less known, at least in the United States. For many, it’s considered a “second tier” beverage, which simply means that it’s less commonly found on coffeehouse menus. Though rarer, make no mistake: the cortado has a lot to offer coffee lovers.
Cortado actually refers to the Spanish and Portuguese words for “cut”. The drink itself is made with espresso and milk like a latte, but there are some key differences. While made with the same ingredients, a cortado is ‘cut’ with an equal part of hot milk and espresso, making it a stronger and bolder beverage than a latte. And unlike a latte, it does not contain any frothy layer.
It’s actually a very popular drink in other countries, most notably Spain and Latin America. And it tends to be served in a very small portioned cup, as opposed to the latte. It’s meant to be sipped slowly and savored for its rich bold flavor.
Equal parts espresso and milk
1 shot espresso: 6-8 oz milk
No froth; Steamed
A frothy top layer of milk: Steamed and textured
Rich, bold, and creamy
Creamy and mild
Most popular in the United States
Most popular in Spain, Latin America
Without the foam, the espresso and milk combine more seamlessly in a cortado than a latte. The steamed milk still cuts the acidity of the espresso, but you’ll taste the espresso a good deal more, and still get the same creaminess. It’s a better option for anyone who really wants to taste the bold espresso but may not be as friendly to anyone who does not really like the taste of espresso or is new to coffee drinking in general.
Since the cortado is not nearly as popular in the United States as the latte, you’ll either have to find a specialty coffee shop or make it yourself. If you do like lattes but have never given a cortado a try, you should. It can be a great compromise between straight-up espresso and a very mild latte. Even if you like the froth, give it a chance: the richness of the cortado, for many, makes up for or does not even suit, that frothy layer.
The history of the cortado as a coffee beverage is a bit more full than the newer American latte, but it is still not a very old drink. The cortado is a specialty that originated in Spain and continues to be most popular in Spain, as well as Latin American countries, especially Cuba.
While it is not clear exactly where or when the drink originated, we do know that it then spread to Cuba. It came to the United States actually much earlier than the latte, in 1960, when Cuban Americans brought it to Little Havana in Miami Florida.
The cortado has always been served in very small, or even shot glasses, and continues to be to this day. There are similar drinks that mimic the cortado also popular in Australia. Though there is much more ambiguity in terms of the cortado’s origins, that is in part because we simply have not been as exposed to it. It is curious that despite its induction into the United States two full decades before the American latte that it still remains far less popular in the general public.
Perhaps that is for two reasons: for one, many Americans may be accustomed to weaker coffee, and for the other, many Americans may value larger-sized drinks over the petite stature of the cortado.
Recipes to Try:
As previously mentioned, cortados are far less popular in the United States than in other countries. As such, unless you find a specialty shop or you’re traveling, you may very well look at making a cortado at home. Below are some of our suggested best recipes you can try right at home:
Nespresso Cortado: if you happen to have a Nespresso machine, give this recipe a try. It’s a very simple recipe that’s hard to mess up, plus you’ll get the addition of rich crema from the machine.
Coconut Milk Cortado: Whether you’re following a specific diet, have dietary restrictions, or even just want to try something a little different, this recipe is a great option. The naturally slightly sweet but creamy and indulgent texture and flavor of coconut milk is a perfect complement for the equal parts milk and espresso.
Brown Sugar Cinnamon Cortado: This recipe does suggest using Nespresso again, but you can also brew your own espresso. The cinnamon and sugar make for a delightful touch of fall and winter sweetness.
YouTube Tutorial: If you’re feeling overwhelmed with making something you never have before, watch this video first. You’ll get step-by-step directions for a great but simple cortado.
Both the cortado and the latte are excellent choices for your next coffee beverage. Steamed milk and espresso undoubtedly make for a powerful and tasty combination, but which one you prefer will depend on you. You should give both of these drinks a try, and even some innovative versions, to experience as much different coffee as possible.
Erin Jamieson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in After the Pause, Into the Void, Flash Frontier, and Foliate Oak Literary, among others, and her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Erin has been a coffee lover for many years, and there’s nothing she likes better than high-quality coffee with a layer of crema. She loves helping others find their very best cup.