The real difference between lattes and cappuccinos

Every day, people order their usual coffee beverage while looking at a menu with varying types of what most coffee shops call "espresso drinks," but very few people can describe the difference between a latte and a cappuccino, even though they have probably tried both. When you get into the more elaborate upmarket drinks, the differences can be subtle, which can lead to confusion. With a simple breakdown, these differences are much easier to understand.

A cappuccino and a latte are both Italian coffee drinks. The modern cappuccino evolved after World War II as better espresso machines became more readily available in Europe (via Spruce Eats). It then reached America around 1980 when coffee shops began marketing them (via Roasty).

Cappuccino is made by adding steamed milk and foam to a shot of espresso. The drink is equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foam, resulting in a creamy drink with a rich flavor (via Healthline). A key aspect of the cappuccino is the foam, which should be dense. Some coffee shops will offer toppings such as cacao powder, cinnamon, or whipped cream for your cappuccino as well (via Coffee Bros).

A latte, or cafe latte, translates directly to "coffee milk." They were originally served in glasses, not mugs, and still are in many parts of the world, including some coffee shops in the United States which still stick to that tradition. A latte consists of adding steamed milk to a shot of espresso, topped with foam. 

The importance of proportion

This is where a lot of the confusion comes from. The ingredients in a cappuccino and latte are the same, but the difference is in the proportions. Lattes contain more steamed milk than cappuccinos (where all ingredients are the same amount across the board), which in turn gives lattes a milder flavor than cappuccinos. Due to the ratio difference, there is more liquid in a latte because of the higher proportion of steamed milk. If both drinks were left to sit so that the foam collapses, the cappuccino will look significantly smaller.

Most coffee shops serve lattes in larger sizes than the traditional 8 ounces. To maintain the proportion of approximately one shot of espresso to 6 ounces of steamed milk, a small or medium latte ordered at a coffee shop may contain two shots of espresso.

Both beverages, in their traditional size, contain the same amount of caffeine because the coffee content is the same — one shot of espresso. However, with lattes, the size of the serving may mean there is more caffeine in the drink because the drink itself is a larger serving.

For social media enthusiasts, lattes have more recently been served with ever more impressive foam art created by the baristas making them, so lattes are the more Instragrammable drink. When it comes to your morning order, your preference for the stronger flavor or the more milky taste determines the beverage that will best suit your palate.