The History of the Latte

Traditional Latte Art
A Latte with Latte Art

Whether you call it a caffe latte, cafe au lait, or cafe con leche, the Latte is a drink that has stood the test of time. It has become one of the quintessential drinks of the modern coffee shop, but how did it get there? The history of the latte is a long and fascinating tale with as many layers as the art that traditionally tops them.

First, let’s begin with what is a latte? The modern latte is a combination of, typically, a double shot of espresso mixed with steamed milk. They can be made hot or iced and come in a variety of flavors. It is a simple, delicious drink that fuels many people around the world each morning. What we now know as a latte would confuse many of its original drinkers.

Early History of the Latte

Europeans have been mixing coffee and milk since at least the 17th Century. The term “caffe e latte” was first used by William Dean Howells in his 1867 essay “Italian Journeys”. At this point in history, coffee is starting to become a worldwide sensation, but the brewing methods were still very primitive as espresso machines had not been invented yet.

The Invention of Espresso

To understand what they were drinking, let’s look at a brief history of the espresso machine. Italian coffeemaker Illy defines authentic espresso as, “A jet of hot water at 190°-200°F passes under a pressure of nine of more atmospheres through a .25 oz cake-like layer of ground and tamped coffee.” The first patented espresso machine dates back to 1884, but this machine was only able to create a pressure of 1.5 atmospheres. 

Although there were many improvements made over the years, this issue would not be solved until the 1940s. Milanese cafe owner Achille Gaggia changed the game by adding a spring-piston lever to be operated by the barista. This is where the phrase “pulling a shot” originated and is still widely used today though the levers have been abandoned. This also lead to the discovery of crema. Consumers were initially suspicious of the “scum” floating on top of their coffee until Gaggia began marketing it as “caffe creme”, suggesting that the coffee could produce its own cream because of its high quality. There were a few more innovations over the years, but nothing that would impact the drink on such a massive level for a few decades. 

Espresso with Natural Crema
A Freshly “Pulled” Espresso Shot with Rich Crema

The Reinvention of the Latte

Steam wands had been added to espresso machines as early as 1903, but they had just been used to heat and create texture in the milk. In the 1980s, baristas from Seattle, Washington began to “paint” with the highly textured milk and create art to top the drinks. Over time these designs were popularized and spread throughout the world. It is now common practice to finish any steamed drink with latte art.

The latte has seen many changes over the years, but the fundamentals of coffee and milk remain the same. We likely haven’t seen the end of the evolution of the latte. In the age of social media, coffee trends change and spread faster than ever. The only thing we can be sure of is this traditional drink will continue to adapt with the times.

The Art of the Barista San Diego Coffee Culture

The Art of Being an Expert Barista

You’ve probably been to a cocktail bar and been served by one of those incredibly skilled bartenders — the people who can simultaneously mix great drinks and put on a performance. But did you know that it’s not just bartenders who do this? Baristas, the artisans of the espresso machine, do the same, in little-known competitions called throwdowns. In fact, we have a Thursday Throwdown every week here in San Diego, where baristas from across the city display their well-honed abilities.

Achilles-Coffee-Roasters-San-Diego-1Barista Fundamentals

There’s one ability that ranks above all others: making a good espresso. As espresso shots form the basis of all your lattes, cappuccinos, and many other drinks, so it’s crucial to be able to get it right, every time. A good barista knows pressure to tamp the espresso grounds in the portafilter, the correct amount of water, temperature and time to pull the espresso shot.

The World Barista Championship

So if the espresso is the foundation that all baristas need to know, then what skills does it take to make it at the top level? Well, competitors at the World Barista Championship, now in its 17th year, are tasked with preparing four espressos, four milk drinks, and four original signature drinks, in a 15-minute performance set to music. These baristas are then judged on five criteria:

Technical skill
Overall presentation

This competition format allows baristas to demonstrate both their ability to flawlessly execute the fundamentals, but also their knowledge and innovation in creating new and unique coffee drinks. Berg Wu, the 2016 World Champion, created a drink with an orange and honey reduction, Earl Grey tea and espresso, before infusing it with mandarin essential oil through an aromatizer. It remains to be seen if anyone can top this at the 2017 World Championships this November in Seoul, Korea.

Barista Latte Art

The most visible skill on display is the latte art. If you’ve ever been served your coffee, looked into your micro-foam and seen a heart, a rosette, or a tulip, then you’ve seen barista latte art.

These simple designs are known as Free Hand Pours, where the barista uses only their steady hand and trusty milk pitcher. In the Barista World Latte Art Championships, however, things get more creative, as competitors are also judged on a Designer Pour, for which they are permitted to use a stylus and textured milk to draw with.

In the World Championships, these pours are judged on their symmetry, creativity, visual appeal, and difficulty. If that reminds you of olympic sports like gymnastics or ice-skating, then you’re exactly right — and like these athletes, latte artists are also judged on their professionalism, ability, and stage presence.

Misconceptions and Common Espresso Based Drinks

The Macchiato

Recently there has been much misunderstanding when it comes to what the names of common espresso based drinks really mean. If you go to Starbucks and order a macchiato you will get one drink, while if you go to any third wave coffee shop and order a macchiato you will get something entirely different. These misunderstandings cause your wonderful barista to make a drink for you that you did not want in the first place! Today I would like to clear up some of these misunderstandings and talking about what some of these drinks traditionally are.

First, let’s start with probably the most misunderstood drink: The Macchiato. If you go to Starbucks and order a macchiato you are going to get a large sugary drink with whipped cream on top. A traditional macchiato is far from that. In fact, a macchiato is a very small drink consisting of a shot (or double shot) of espresso and just a “dollop” of milk on top. The entire beverage only comes out to be between two and four fluid ounces depending on the size of the cup and which coffee shop you go to. If you speak with someone who is very traditional when it comes to their espresso based drinks, they will also tell you that the dollop of milk is only to be foam; however, the standard in most specialty coffee shops in America is a “wet” macchiato. This means that it consists of steamed milk and microfoam on top, which allows the consumer to enjoy some beautiful latte art which the barista expertly pours.

The Cortado

When you add just a little more steamed milk to your espresso than a macchiato, you get a cortado. The cortado comes from Argentina, and if you get a “real” cortado then you are going to be served a four ounce beverage that has a double shot of espresso and steamed milk with no foam. However, the more standard version of the cortado you will find is going to have a little bit of microfoam on it, which allows for some more wonderful latte art. Sometimes, people also refer to the cortado as a gibralter, because it is often times served in a gibraltar glass.

Flat White vs. Cappuccino

If you add just a little bit more milk to your espresso than a cortado we come to two very controversial drinks: the flat white and the cappuccino. Both a flat white and cappuccino are traditionally served as a six ounce beverage. They both have the same amount of espresso in them (generally a double shot), but they differ in the consistency of the milk poured. A flat white is closer to being a smaller latte than anything else, which I personally like to call a manly latte. It has steamed milk and micro foam; however, it has less foam than a latte would have. The flat white is very popular in New Zealand and Australia, and many people expect the same quality here in the US as they get there. A cappuccino has much more foam than the flat white has. A traditional cappuccino will have one third espresso, one third steamed milk, and one third foam with each third being about two ounces. Seeing as both of these coffee beverages are quite small, next time you see someone order a 20oz flat white you will know it is not true to its nature.

Achilles Coffee Roasters Espresso DrinksThe Latte

Finally we come to the latte. There are so many kinds of lattes ranging from just steamed milk and espresso, to vanilla lattes, to caramel lattes, to really as creative of a latte that you can come up with to make. Lattes come in many sizes, but they all share the same fundamental feature with each other. This feature is that they all have the same amount of micro foam on them. One way that this can be visualized is a latte has two fingers of foam widthwise, and a flat white has half a finger of foam.

These are the core espresso drinks that any barista should master. From there, creativity is the only limit to what types of delicious coffee drinks you can create behind the bar!

Latte Art: Turning Crema to Canvas

A signature of the third wave coffee movement is latte art, espresso drinks finished with a design. You’ve absolutely witnessed this: lattes finished with ferns, hearts, or flowers freshly poured by your barista. It’s a testament to a well-pulled shot of espresso, milk with good micro foam, and a barista who knows what he/she is doing (and who has likely poured a few hundred lattes).Latte-Art-Achilles-Coffee-Roasters-San-Diego

Latte art is a really fun addition and beautiful detail, and there’s really no way to fake it. To even have a shot at making one of those beautiful designs, you’ll need your shot of espresso to be fresh and have a nice layer of crema (that light, tawny foam-like layer floating atop a well-pulled shot of espresso). Additionally, you’ll need to have steamed your milk well. It helps a lot if the milk is fresh and cold before you begin steaming, and it’s considerably easier to pour latte art with full fat dairy milk (latte art is possible with non-dairy milks like soy or almond milk, and also with fat-free dairy milk, but it’s definitely trickier to pull off. If you’re a beginner, you should absolutely start with good old-fashioned whole milk.). Your milk needs to be fully micro foamed, and the timing is best if you pull the shot while you steam your milk.

There are actually two categories of latte art: free pour latte art and etching. Free pour is what you’ll see most of your third-wave baristas doing- as they pour the drinks, they also manipulate the foam to draw the design as it comes out of the Latte-Art-Espresso-Achilles-Coffee-Roasters-San-Diego-300pitcher and flows into the cup. Etching happens after a latte has already been poured: a barista will then use the existing foam to draw or stencil a design or picture on top of the latte- some baristas even sculpt three-dimensional art out of the foam! However, because of the time required to render art in the etching style, it’s likely that the drink will have already begun to cool, and the foam to have degraded a bit by the time the consumer gets their drink. For this reason, free pour latte art tends to be favored by coffee shops that place a high premium on the taste of their coffee bean.

To be able to free pour a design into a latte, you’ll need to use your freshly steamed milk and freshly pulled espresso just as soon as they’re done. One important step is the first bit of milk poured into espresso – it ought to be done from a height of at least six inches, and with enough force that the milk breaks the surface of the crema. This is a delicate balance – too soft, and the milk will just float atop the crema, ruining your canvas. But too hard, and you’ll break apart the crema too much for drawing.

After you’ve broken the surface, pour carefully until the foam begins to come out of the back of the pitcher- once this happens, you’re able to start making designs!

Next time you are at your favorite coffee shop check to see how your espresso drink is finished. A well-finished latte is a sign of quality, freshness and barista experience.