What is a Cappuccino?

As a general description, a cappuccino is an espresso drink featuring espresso, liquid milk, and milk foam – typically in a 1:1:1 ratio. However, what differentiates a cappuccino from other espresso drinks? And what differentiates a good cappuccino from a bad cappuccino? Read on to find out!

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A Brief History of the Cappuccino

wiener mélange, a favorite of the Viennese, is served fresh with steamed milk and a frothy milk foam on top. The recipe for the wiener mélange is very similar to the cappuccino most know and love.  However, the cappuccino has more connection to Vienna than just its similarity to the wiener mélange

While the cappuccino only rose in popularity in the United States during the 1980s, its history stretches all the way back to the 1700s, where the origins of its name are found in the word Kapuziner.  Kapuziner stems from the Kapuzin friars in Vienna, an Catholic order founded by the Franciscan Matteo da Bascio.  Specifically, the Kapuziner was inspired by the similarity in color between the drink and the brown robes these friars wore. 

Further study of the origin of the word Kapuzin will lead you to a different spelling of Kapuzin– ”Capuchin”- that references the hood of friars’ robes.  From here, it’s not hard to envision variation leading to the word cappuccino.  This may also serve to explain why, when a cappuccino is poured traditionally to create a white circle around the dark coffee, the appearance is referred to as a “monk’s head.”

monks head cappuccino

Records show that the first mention of a coffee as a cappuccino occurred in the 1930s and, because the recipe requires espresso, such a drink could only have come into existence once the espresso maker was invented in 1884. However, the cappuccino has transformed throughout its hundred-ish years of existence. Originally, the cappuccino was served in Viennese form, as an espresso topped with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkled with chocolate shaving or a dusting of cinnamon. Over time, the drink evolved, reaching the form we are accustomed to sometime around 1945. During this time, an improvement to the original espresso makers was developed, which marked the addition of a thick crema on the top of the espresso.  Foamed milk is an even more recent addition.

So a cappuccino involves foamed milk and espresso.  But what makes it different than a latte?

The Distinction between a Café Latte and a Cappuccino

Lattes and cappuccinos are both beverages made with milk and espresso.  However, they differ in amount of milk used and the way the milk is prepared.

An equal balance of milk, espresso, and foam (1:1:1) is required for cappuccinos. For lattes, we begin with at least triple the amount of milk than we use espresso (and often even more milk than that!).

The milk for cappuccinos is frothed- by way of a steam wand included with most espresso machines- into foam.  In order to froth milk with a wand, the wand should initially be placed above the surface of the milk.  The wand is then continuously raised and lowered into the milk as the milk expands. The foam’s bubbles are created by pushing hot air through the closely-knit “fabric” produced by the milk’s protein molecules. Funny enough, the foam produced by skim milk- which has a higher protein count- will actually be more voluminous than that produced by whole milk.

Conversely, the milk in lattes is steamed to create a frothy head- also by using a steam wand, but in a different way.  To steam using the wand, insert the wand into the milk just below the milk’s surface.  The steam should then cause the milk to swirl/vortex inside the cup, allowing for the milk to be evenly heated by the steam.

What is Your Drink, a Latte, or Cappuccino?

Unfortunately, inexperienced baristas might end up making lattes and cappuccinos the very same way. On the other hand, a quality barista will utilize a consistent approach for each drink – carefully performing each step (froth, fold, and pour) to create the perfect drink.

The proper approach will provide each drink with a unique taste. The flavors will vary based on the amount used and the kind of dilution the coffee has with milk. Every beverage has its own differences, as far as texture, mouthfeel, and taste go:

  • Lattes have a milky taste, leaving you with a mouthfeel that’s quite rich. There is a little bit of foam at the top, though it is fairly subtle.
  • Cappuccinos have more of a divided texture, a bubbly mouthfeel, and a stiff foam on top. 

In order to truly appreciate the difference between each drink, go to various cafes and coffee shops. Try out each one individually. The distinctions in texture will be evident.

Crema Integration: Testing Decent Cappuccinos

The light red/orange caramelized layer above an espresso shot is called a crema. It is produced when the shot is pulled. Crema is comprised of accumulated coffee oils, which is created when carbon monoxide is freed from the grounds as they’re being brewed. Crema is sweeter than the whole espresso. If left doused or sitting in milk, the crema will dissipate.

A cappuccino’s crema should fade into the beverage, under the stiff weight of the foam.  In contrast, the crema of the espresso in a latte is completely integrated/doused in milk.

Creating an Outstanding Cappuccino

Caffeine in a Cappuccino (Vs. Other Espresso Beverages)

The amount of caffeine in any cafe drink is directly related to the quantity of espresso used. Having said that, as a caffeine content proxy, the table below indicates the amount of caffeine indicated by Starbucks for a cappuccino and other drinks on the menu:

Beverage (Size: Grande)Amount of Caffeine
Caramel Macchiato150 mg
Espresso Macchiato (Size: Doppio)150 mg
Cappuccino150 mg
Latte150 mg
Flat White195 mg

As shown in the above chart, there is a caffeine count of 150 mg in a cappuccino from two espresso shots, grande size. That’s anidentical amount as other drinks offered by Starbucks, flat white excluded.

Calories in Cappuccinos (Vs. Other Espresso Beverages)

As a total calorie proxy for cappuccinos generally, the table below shows the calorie total listed by Starbucks for grande sizes of the following drinks (standard preparation):

Beverage (Size: Grande)Amount of Calories
Caramel Macchiato250
Espresso Macchiato (Size: Doppio)15
Flat White220

As indicated from the above chart, cappuccinos are a fairly low-calorie choice from Starbucks. This is primarily due to the lower milk content versus other drinks like the latte or flat white and not having added sugar like a caramel macchiato.

Cappuccino vs. Latte: Which One Should I Get?

If you are looking for an in-between of milk-forward beverages like lattes and espresso-forwarded beverages like cortados or macchiatos, try a cappuccino the next time you visit a cafe. It might end up replacing the latte as your go-to morning coffee!

Jay Arr

Jay Arr is passionate about everything coffee. What began as a simple interest in the history, production, and brewing of coffee led him to a job as a barista at a national coffee chain. That’s not where Jay’s story with coffee ends, however. Roasting and brewing day in and out, he continued to gather knowledge about all things coffee.

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