So what exactly is a macchiato these days?

This hasn’t exactly been bugging me but perhaps it is worthy of some thought.  In all the talk of “traditional” cappuccinos (let’s not get started again on the absurdity of thirds) there is another drink where the role of tradition is becoming questionable.

These days there is a huge variation in the taste of macchiatos.  Whilst they mostly consist of about an ounce of espresso (be it a short double or a single) the amount of milk going into them varies wildly from the old fashioned teaspoon of milk with a dot of foam to signal its addition to equal quantities of coffee and milk, or in some cases about two parts milk to one part coffee.  Whilst the variation in ml of milk is quite small the ratios, hence the taste and texture of the drink vary wildly.

For me there was a pivotal moment in my approach to this drink where I went from the old fashioned way to the 1:1 ratio way:  I got good enough at latte art to pour a half decent rosetta in an espresso cup.  I would quietly hope that people who order macchiatos from me would let me decide how to make so I could show off my new found skills (no point lying about this).  But most of the time they didn’t because I worked out quite early that macchiato drinkers are fussy.  (Well, you are!)  Let me turn this around into a few questions:

When was the last time you asked for a macchiato (from somewhere you expected it to taste good from) and were served the full espresso cup version without latte art?  Do we make the full cup because it tastes good or looks good?  Why are we adding the milk – at what point does the milk go from softening the espresso to smothering it?

I’ve had lots of old fashioned ones, and plenty with nice art but nothing really in between.  This isn’t to say that one tastes better than the other.  I think a teaspoon of milk in an espresso can soften the experience of a straight shot without masking the espresso too much.  It seems to be the drink of people who drink a lot of coffee, who can’t face another straight shot but would like to see how good the coffee is.   For me the other drink with more milk is more like a cortado though I’ve struggled to really pin down what a cortado is, perhaps because I’ve struggled to find particularly tasty coffee when I have been down in Spain and I have yet to make it to Portugal.  Oddly the cortado was a drink I saw quite a lot in Norway though it was amusingly explained as the manly way to have a cappuccino, and it was a bit milkier than I would have expected though was served in a short glass which I thought was appropriate.

I am not claiming to have any answers on this.  I’ll be honest – I prefer drinking the old fashioned ones, but prefer pouring the full cup ones, but I think in any cafe environment it is always worthwhile getting as much input from the customer as possible (they usually know exactly what they want….)

31 Comments So what exactly is a macchiato these days?

  1. bz

    first off, this is a relief. you were sounding so … american, james. and here we have three “whilst”s! whew.

    i have a pet theory that high-milk-volume maccs stem from image-conscious consumer-heavy american coffee shops wanting to serve only completely full vessels. but that is a large pot o’ worms.

  2. jim

    Damn the US and its infectiousness.

    Good to be back in Blighty and all, but am I now to live in fear of a giant red marker highlighting my grammatical shortcomings? I’ll either crack under pressure, hire an editor or (heaven forbid) actually try and write a bit better on my own!

    I am not so sure about the full cup thing when it comes to macchiatos, because it is such a rare drink order and such a specific type of consumer and its not like anyone asks for it with soy and a shot of caramel syrup in there so doesn’t really fall into the category of drinks for the masses.

  3. Glenn

    (My preference is) No more than a teaspoon of milk for softening – as the translation is literally ‘marked/stained with milk’

    The rosetta’s look great though.

  4. Stephen

    Hello there

    If I ever make one for myself, which is rare, I generally like a ratio of .5 fl oz of milk to the one oz espresso. I like to then stir it up quite a lot, and maybe its worth mentioning that I prefer a thinner textured milk too.

    Such a lovely blog you have.


  5. wheretherearewolves

    It is great that you guys had a chance to come over because you guys are very much respected within the community but have a more eurocentric aesthetic that I believe helps us. To see how things are done on the west coast through your barista eyes benefits us because what we do in America sometimes becomes dogma and the fact is wonderful coffee is made in a respectful, creative way all over the world.

    I feel the drinks- in this case a macchiato, are derived from the roast and the increase in the dose, a short double/triple pull in a single shot espresso cup. To have the proper balance in taste more milk is added because of the intensity of double short pull. Everywhere in Europe that I have travelled unless specifically specified, when you order a macchiato you will receive a single shot so the restriction in milk that you speak about I feel is generally related to the shot.

    Thanks for your wonderful site, its exciting to see creative people come together and discuss the ongoing mystery which is coffee.

  6. The Onocoffee

    Interesting topic. I learned about the “macchiato” from the boys from Seattle. There, it’s a concoction of 1-2shots of espresso and the remaining volume of a 3z demitasse filled with frothed milk.

    Then I learned about the traditional Italian method of just “marking” the espresso with a dollop of foam.

    Of course, there’s always the ubiquitous bastardization of the “macchiato” – the Starbucks Caramel Macchiato (read:latte).

    Personally speaking, and probably because it’s what I learned originally – I prefer the “macchiato” from Seattle. That little milky espresso balance with the latte art that’s just so compelling. In fact, my first memory of a macchiato was from the then-employed-by-Zoka Kyle Larson who prepared me a macchiato that lingered and stayed with me for nearly an hour. Tasty.

    In an attempt to get over this strange linguistic hump in our business, we’ve reduced the various drinks to the following forms (with the Seattle-style set as our “default” method of preparation):

    “Traditional Macchiato” – that Italian way with a dollop of foam.
    “Seattle-Style Macchiato” – that method with the frothed milk (I’ve also heard this described as a “latte macchiato”)
    “Latte with Caramel Syrup” – that thing sometimes known as the Starbucks Caramel Macchiato

    It’s been pretty easy overall to keep things in line. People come asking for a “macchiato” and we do a little sleuthing to make sure our terminologies are in line. Those who prefer the Starbucks method are detoured to the “Latte” drinks and the rest are taken care of accordingly.

    I’ve noticed in the past few weeks though a seeming “resurgence” of people asking for the Traditional Macchiato. It warms my heart that people seek out this oft-neglected classic.

    But the more you travel the country, it gets a bit mucked up.

    During my most recent trip to Chicago, I stopped in to visit the Millenium Park Intelligentsia store and ordered a “macchiato” – thinking that at a 3rd Wave shop I would have the least amount of friction regarding an order.

    I was offered two styles: a “traditional macchiato” and a “latte macchiato.” Thinking that the “latte macchiato” was in the Seattle-style above, I ordered that. For whatever reason, I thought to ask the difference. It was then explained (with no small amount of elitism and condescension) that the “latte macchiato” was what we know as the Starbucks style macchiato and that their “traditional” was the Seattle-style. A bit confusing to my mind, but I got the order straightened out and had the macchiato I had in mind.

    At some level, I would like there to develop some sort of universal standard that shops can use as guidelines. This way, a person ordering something as benign as a “macchiato” can get what he/she has in mind.

  7. Phil

    For my part, I prefer to pour my macchiatos as opposed to spooning, but I never fill the cup, I normally pour about .5oz milk to an oz of espresso.
    The reason i prefer to pour is partly presentation/showing off with latte art, but also that way the milk is creamier and most of my customers seem to prefer that (which, lets face it, is all that matters.
    However once you start approaching a 1 to 1 ratio i think you’re making the drink to milky.
    O, and I actually do have a customer who orders his with soy, four cups a day…

    Jay, wherever you heard the seattle-style described as a latte macchiato i think was incorrect,
    The Latte Macchiato is a tradional drink (which starbucks base their caramel macchiato on, they just add vanilla shot and copious amounts of caramel sauce), but it is a much larger drink than espresso macchiato, it’s a milk drink “marked” with a little espresso, as opposed to espresso “marked” with a little milk, basically a latte but you pour the espresso after the milk, thus marking it. Someone correct me if they know better, but that was my understanding

  8. Emily

    If you filled it up here (in Aus) it’d be called a piccolo latte, regardless of whether or not it was served in a ceramic cup or glass…
    we’re battling between putting hot and cold milk into a macchiato… in melbourne people seem to be attached to the cold milk whilst ;-) in sydney we’re traditional tiny blobs of creamy milk froth on top of a ristretto!

  9. BazBean

    to further complicate our menu or its now rapidly growing sub menu of hidden drinks not even up on the main menu board, to which the coffee hardcore feel very exclusive to order a drink which might be a little secret …shhhhh

    we have two styles
    Italain style – bought by most of the our local Italian contingancy which is the traditional teaspoon or stain.We have some english people who order this but they tend to have traveled extensivly.
    English style- double shot (is there any other) and equal milk with our best attempt @ art to top in a 3oz thick Demi.

    As a rule I personally only drink a trad macchaito if the espresso i not hitting the spot and as an antidote to a sub standard coffee or wayward shot.

    just an observation from all the Italian customers, is they allways get/prefer the drinks cooler which i know is traditional but I was surprised at the ritual of leaving the spoon in a macciatto as well to cool it quickly also .. .

  10. bz

    no more grammatical jibes. promise.

    a bambinocino? that’s pretty cool, actually.

    correct me if i’m wrong, but it seems like more customers prefer the topped-off, milky maccs for the basic reason that the closer a beverage gets to a straight shot the fewer people will naturally like it.

  11. Hug

    FWIW… Our macchiato is a 1oz espresso and a good blob of foam, not much milk, into a 2oz cup though never to the brim…no art ‘cos my crema’s too solid. No complaints yet though I do wonder how many of my billys have a clue what they’re ordering.

    Almost choked when I saw the bambinocino… isnt’ that something Pizza Express are plugging for kids, aka babycino, just foam and chocolate sprinkles in a cup, no coffee anywhere in case the little darlings get hyper. I belive the Pizza Express people are giving it away for free in an attempt to convince parents they’re getting value for money….excuse me.

    What’s with precise definitions anyway? All coffee recipes are in constant, gentle evolution, culturally responsive and rightly so. With blends, roasts and flavour profiles constantly changing recipes should be changing too…..

  12. Robert Csar

    Hug, don’t choke. I just thought it was strange (and obviously had to mention in context to the title of this post) that 3 Italian tourists from Florence had never seen a ‘traditional macchiato’ before. Don’t mock the babycino if it is done right – it’s a wonderful way to get little kids to develop a taste for good microfoam – and hopefully by doing that they will not turn into fast food coffee fiends when they are teenagers. Cheers.

  13. jim

    Hugo – the post wasn’t about creating absolute definitions, more about whether there has been a sharp change in recipe based not on taste but on the opportunity for latte art. More or less anyway…

  14. Dan Griffin

    Jim, I think you are right on about the size increase being a result of the need for “The Latte arts.” It makes sense given that most of the ohs and awes we get are a result of latte art. In fact I would even bet that the new recipe makes it easier to sell and get the viewing public excited about the macchiato.

    Personally I’ve been getting a little frustrated about latte art of late. It seems like I’m having 15 conversations a day about latte art with customers and all of my little baristas are running around and secretly steaming milk when I’m not watching.

  15. jim

    I think you are probably right Dan, latte art remains the easiest way to get across our point of difference and start conversations. I am not saying one is right or wrong, merely that I think this change is interesting.

    How far do we take latte art though? Its easier to pour latte art and to pour more impressive patterns in much larger cups. So should we be making larger drinks because they are better opportunities to start customer interaction? (That isn’t meant to read as snarky as it seems to)

    It is interesting how many external factors affect the size of the drinks we serve – be it working around take-out cup manufacturers or that we have settled on certain units of measurement and we stick to nice round numbers on them, or simply that someone else was doing it like this first so we followed.

    I don’t think I managed to make a point there. Ah well…

  16. Phil

    Well this seems to be a hot topic,
    I like to serve drinks in smaller cups where possible, it’s the one area where I encourage other staff not to go for the extra sell (Nothing hurts my ears more than “would you like that flat white in a large cup?”).
    Most of our customers appreciate that taste is far more important than size, and many now specify that they’d like the smaller cups (4-5oz)for their capps and flat whites and glasses (6oz) for lattes. However New Zealand is a very different market from the UK or US, coffee served in cafes here is 100% espresso, we simply don’t do filter or anything else.
    (Also because we have a Probat ’42 UG15 in the back of our cafe that we fire up every morning and afternoon, it’s really not that hard for us to start interesting conversations.)

    I think at the end of the day you said it right in the beginning Jim, customers who order Macchiatos are generally fussy and will tell you how they like it, and if not, our staff typically have the presence of mind to ask…

  17. rob berghmans

    yes it’s difficult and yes, macchiato drinkers are fussy.
    but what with the dutch and german macchiato drinkers?
    almost everywhere in germany and in many places in holland they tend to call a latte a latte macchiato.
    very often these people come in and just ask a macchiato. for me no problem, i see them coming and know i have to start my spickled (what macchiato means) story and the difference between a caffè macchiato and a latte macchiato.
    but so often i see new barista’s having all kind of arguments with these tourists when the ordered macchiato arrives at the table and it’s not appreciated, althought the explanation on the menu is very clear.
    i noticed denmark is also confusing because they got mostly different sizes in all there drinks. i think it gets very confusing for clients when a large macchiato is going to be the same as a double shot dry cappuccino, which is already a difficult one.
    for me, i prefer drinks keep their sizes. and a macchiato 6 cl.
    so, good article jim, keep up the good work. and don’t forget to practice!

  18. Elliott

    Having just returned from Copenhagen, and seeing quite a few Cortados (served in a small Duralex glass), they were described to us as a long Macchiato. I agree with what most are saying here – macchiato = just a tiny touch of milk, Cortado = what most of think as a mac – like in your photo heading this post – filled to the top.

  19. Marcy

    Glad you tackled this one, Jim :)

    Caffe Macchiato is my fave espresso-based drink and always the ‘safety’ drink I order first when ordering in a new (for me) place before ever braving an espresso. I was sorely disappointed in both Vancouver and Seattle when upon ordering (and making certain it wasn’t a Latte Macchiato) I received what was, at the very least, a 1:1 drink – some with and some without art.

    The only place I got a traditional 1-spoon foam CM, without specifying exactly, was in Vienna (Mocca Club). I’ll admit though that, at home, I prefer to pour the milk rather than spoon it and it’s usually more than just a spoon’s worth but definitely not a 1:1 ratio. I have a really cute little 40ml milk jug to steam my milk with absolutely no milk wastage :D

    I don’t really order any e-based drinks in the Netherlands… mostly because I’m not keen on their brewing methods… often scaldingly hot. I’d rather just wait til I get home to make my own coffee.

    Apart from BazBean’s place (UK) where I don’t have to watch behind the bar to know I’ll get a proper fab drink, I didn’t get to visit ‘recommended’ places and have only seen the chains serve such huge North American sized drinks. The ‘smallest’ capp I saw in the chains were bigger than my biggest 5-6 oz cups at home!

    On the grammar… I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who noticed, but consciously refrained from counting, the “whilsts” on the Roadtrip series :P

    BTW, cute term “bambiccino” :) Without an explanation, I would’ve have guessed it to be somewhere between and CM & a capp.

  20. Hug

    If a customer is coffee savvy enough to order a macchiato, chances are they aren’t after a pretty drink and latte art won’t make them Ooh or Aah. Quite possibly the opposite, yeah it’s pretty but with that much milk it’s missing the point of the drink.

    If you can pull a great espresso, and you’ve a customer who knows that and wants to taste it, a fern’s unlikely to give the customer what he wants.

  21. Daniel

    At my place of employment we ask each customer if they’d like a “traditional” or “free pour” macchiato and give them the rundown. If they look at us like we’re crazy then it’s the “Oh…you meant the Starbucks version, didn’t you?”

    It seems like most people prefer the “free pour” version (I does seem like a U.S. thing), but it is always nice to make sure. I think most would agree with me that it’s horribly obnoxious to have to remake a drink due to a misunderstanding. It seems that those terms are pretty decent descriptors for the different styles, and people tend to appreciate it when we try to clarify.

  22. Tim Styles

    I’ve always poured macchiati as a 20ml espresso, with about 15ml of textured milk spooned directly into the centre of the crema, and served in a Duralex Provence picollo glass.

    Here in London, people seem to prefer a lot more milk in their macchiati (which aren’t a rare order here in the East), and of course, we oblige.

    We often point customers towards the picollo latte – being a 20ml espresso shot, and the glass filled as per a normal ‘caffe latte’.

    Beyond that, between the picollo and the latte, we offer what we call a Gibraltar, which a lot of people call the Cortado. It’s basically the same latte ratio again, but served in a Duralex Provence 5.6oz glass.

    They’re slowly catching on.

    We’ve got descriiptions to try to help our customers, on our website under “Menu”: Climpson & Sons, Hackney.

  23. Edmundo

    It is clear from all the comments that there is deffinately no text book definition of a macchiato. I was in Torino, Italy a few months ago and they served macchiatos in a full espresso cup so about 1:1 ratio espresso:milk, at best, often the shots were pulled very shots so then the ratios start to favour the milk. After that my traditional definition ‘italian style’ macchiato just got blown out of the water.

    So I revert back to my origional stratergy, make and serve drinks that taste great… the customers are our tasters and they are fussy… make it how thay like it….

    Back to the starting question, what exactly is a macchiato? you could ask the same question for all espresso based drinks served in this country!

  24. Matt

    Funny point on the bambinocino… In Australia, a babycino is pretty common on a lot of cafe menu’s where trendy mums and dads bring the kids along on their coffee breaks.

    A babycino is just a cup of foam with chocolate sprinkled on top…

    I have however been to a few places where the barista ( more likely kid behind the counter ) doesn’t know what a babycino is, and so they go ahead and pull a shot into a tiny cup and top it up with a bunch of foam and sprinkled chocolate, just like a mini capp… Then hand it to an infant… haha. I guess kids have to start somewhere…

    As for macchiato, I prefer mine with a bit more than a dash of steamed milk, on top of a relatively short double shot. Much more than that is what I’d call a piccolo latte, which is also popping up on a number of menu’s here in Australia.

  25. Hug

    Just tested the Macchiato order on one of the better restaurants in Truro whilst celebrating the smoking ban… Asked whether thay could do one, got a confident ‘of course…’ then didn’t get what I expected. I think it was a single shot in a 3oz cup, but was completely hidden under a huge pile of milk foam/meringue , no sign of art but decorated with a single, artfully poised coffee bean…..

    Good espresso though…

  26. joe cappuccino

    i prefer making a macchiato full to the rim with milk. i have been making them with a little maple syrup (im in vermont) and cocoa powder atop the espresso before the milk. thses are called cuarto(lito) however you spell them they are awsome! ever tried the cocoa or cinnamon before the milk? it blends in and creates a nice effect.

    i also make a drink with bailies irish cream and godiva chocolate liquer, a short count of creme de cacao steamed /1/2/whole cocoa powder and double shot.

    lemme know

  27. Chris

    Yes I agree BZ,
    the traditional (correct) ways to make coffe(s) have been ruined by coffee houses wanting to come up with their own styles (Star…ks), baristas that want to show off with a new found talent, (if I want to view art I go to the gallery, to drink coffe I go to a cafe) and inexperienced cafes not want to serve a coffee the size it should be!!!, because the customer is sometime uneducated (possibly from frequenting Star…ks) and thinks they are getting short changed with just a shot of coffee in the cup.

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