Know your flat whites from your cortados… your lattes from your cappuccinos… The low-down on coffee

“They [the Turks] are almost continually seated, and for their amusement are accustomed to drinking publicly both in the shops and in the streets – and not the gentlemen only -a black liquid, as scalding as they can bear, that is extracted from a seed that they call kahvè, which they say has the virtue of making a man stay awake.”

Last week I had to get up very early and fly to Newcastle. I got to the airport, thankfully in good time; and in time, thankfully, for an essential injection of caffeine.

I headed to the inevitable Costa coffee, and there I found them advertising something called a cortado.

It’s hard enough deciding between a cappuccino and latte, let alone a flat white, and here was a fourth choice, together with a further cerebral exercise involving whether or not I wanted caramel, mocha, or just plain……plain?

And recently (2023) a study by Dunkin’ (formerly known as Dunkin’ Donuts) published a study which revealed that your coffee choice revealed much about your personality. Double espresso drinkers are well read and travelled; people who like white americanos are straight-talkers; mocha drinkers think they are sexier than average; those who drink flavoured coffee think they’re funny; and those who drink iced coffee are the best lovers!

So what are all these drinks, and how does the uninitiated choose their favourite?

The espresso is the base of everything

It all begins with the shot of espresso. This is more or less the only constant. Only it’s not a constant at all since there are all kinds of views on the amount of coffee, the grind of the coffee, the volume of water……. but let’s say it’s about 40 ml of liquid.

Some technical aspects

The crema

Orange bubbles form on the top of a good espresso – this is a type of caramelised coffee which tastes a bit sweeter than the dark bitter mass of liquid below. If you really pay attention (if you are ‘mindful’) you will also notice that it has a sort of velvety texture…it gives ‘mouthfeel’ (apologies for all this awful jargon).

However, it disappears after a while (so don’t leave your coffee sitting around), and it can also be dissolved by the stiff froth of a cappuccino, or by the dense milk of a latte.

This thin, orange caramel layer of bubbles is called the ‘crema’.

all about milky coffees
Crema on an espresso

The milk

Then there is the milk. This is where the ability and experience of the barista really comes into its own (I really had no idea….now I watch them with wonder…). If they wield their steam wand with the skill of Harry Potter then the milk will separate broadly into three layers: there will be a bottom dense layer, essentially plain hot milk; there will be a middle layer of ‘microfoam’; and on top there will be the froth a habitual cappuccino drinker like myself will know and love.

all about milky coffees


The amazing barista

A really professional barista will not only be able to get the milk to divide in the way described above, but he (or she) will also be able to pour different types of coffee simply by swirling the milk adroitly, and using different pouring speeds. The real champions don’t even use spoons to hold back froth. The real, real champions are also skillful at ‘stretching’ the milk – through their swirling technique they ‘fold back’ as much of the stiff froth as possible to form more of the velvety micro foam, which has the nicest mouthfeel.

The container

The container doesn’t usually have much bearing on the coffee, unless it’s a Gibraltar glass (see below), but bear in mind that coffee served in a glass will get colder more quickly than one served in a cup.

Coffee served in a Brussels cafe in Gibraltar glasses
Coffee served in a Brussels café in Gibraltar glasses

The different types of coffee, what defines each?

So what is a latte?

What identifies a latte is the milk. It’s composed mostly of the dense milk at the bottom of the jug, and then a little froth may be used to top it off. A latte is often a long drink – more espresso and more milk, and it’s often served in a glass rather than a cup. There may be twice as much milk as espresso. The crema is destroyed.

all about milky coffees

And how is that different from a cappuccino?

A cappuccino is made usually with about equal proportions of espresso to milk. The milk is then frothed. The froth is poured over the espresso. The froth destroys the crema.

And how is that different from a cappuccino?

What about a flat white?

A flat white also uses equal proportions of espresso to milk, but the milk is transformed into microfoam and only that type of milk is used. The crema usually remains intact so the whole drink has a very velvety mouthfeel.

And how is that different from a cappuccino?


So what is a cortado?

Well, again, a choice.

You can take the literal answer which is that it’s a coffee ‘cut’ (cortado means ‘cut’ in Spanish) with milk which is either simply warmed; or steamed, but at a lower temperature than usual, and is therefore a bit denser. The coffee usually is cut in half – so equal parts espresso to milk.

Or you can take the more prosaic response which is to say that the cortado has been adopted by a clever marketer to fill the needs of those who find a straight espresso a bit puritan, and a fluffy cappuccino way too cavalier. It’s a drink to satisfy the burgeoning bourgeoisie.

Costa Coffee say they put the coffee into the glass first, then it’s “swirled, coating the sides. The milk is steamed to give a thick and creamy texture. Finally, the milk is poured skilfully into the glass, leaving a florette on top”
So a cortado is a sort of flat white made with milk which is a little more dense….however…it’s not quite that simple.

And how is that different from a cappuccino?

To further complicate things there are other effectively similar drinks with different names.

For example there is:

The Gibraltar. No, this kind of coffee does not come from Gibraltar. It comes from San Francisco (it’s named after the glass in which it’s served, see ‘the container’ further up this post). It tends to be slightly less milky than a cortado.

A piccolo latte is effectively what they call a cortado in Australia. It’s a ristretto shot in a macchiato glass filled with milk steamed to a high temperature. What is a ristretto? A ristretto is a sort of condensed espresso (it has about half the amount of water to the same amount of ground coffee….the coffee may be ground more finely.

• Some people consider the cortado to be a sort of Spanish version of the Italian macchiato (‘macchiato’ means ‘marked’, or ‘stained’ in Italian, and a caffè macchiato is an espresso with just a teaspoon or so of, usually, foamed milk ie much less milk than espresso. In Portuguese a café pingado (which literally means ‘milk with a drop’ is the locals’ name for a macchiato….. but it can also be used to mean a cortado.

what is a macchiato

• Other people make the cortado with a higher ratio of milk to espresso (60:40 for example). For these people the cortadito is a cordato made with equal parts of milk to espresso.

• Yet other people say that a cortadito is a cortado made with cubano rather than espresso. What is Cubano? Cubano is espresso sweetened with demerara sugar.

what is a cubano coffee?

• If you made your cortado with the one to one ratio, but with milk steamed to a high temperature it would morph into a flat white.

• If you added a thick layer of frothy milk on top of a cortado it would become….a latte…. If you added stiff foam it would be…. a cappuccino!

Then there are a couple of other drinks made without milk,

but which are worth mentioning …. of course there are many more, but these are the most interesting:

• There’s an affogato. ‘Affogato’ means drowned in Italian, and basically this is some scoops of vanilla ice cream ‘drowned’ in an espresso…not a bad, instant, pud… I suppose you could also add some brandy….


• There’s a Guillermo – this is an espresso poured over a slice or two of lime. This is a curiously successful pairing.

guillermo coffee

More information

For some good further reading, get God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee, 
by Michaele Weissman.

Or, for an entertaining history of coffee and its role in global capitalism, try Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favourite Drug, by Augustine Sedgewick.

To get really well genned up, do the fascinating, and free Open University course, The Value of Coffee.

Music to listen to while you drink your coffee

Bach loved his coffee – he even wrote a cantata to coffee: here it is. And Bob Dylan also wrote One More Cup of Coffee – you’ll find that below. And then there’s O Ccafé by Domenico Modugno. And finally, not music, but delightful – a scene from a classic Clint Eastwood film, all revolving around coffee.

Meanwhile, here’s what to do if you find too much sugar in your coffee:

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