Café au Lait vs Latte: What’s The Difference?

There are two types of people in the world. Those who drink coffee and those who don’t. To someone who isn’t a coffee enthusiast, a coffee menu can be very daunting. One coffee drink looks very similar to the next one.

Is there even a difference between a cappuccino, a latte, and a café au lait? After all, it’s all made of the same two basic ingredients—coffee and milk. Sometimes if you’re feeling adventurous, you might add a dollop of cream. Doesn’t that sum up every type of coffee drink? Actually, no, it doesn’t!

For the Love of Coffee

The love of coffee is not something that can really be explained. It’s something that needs to be experienced. To some people, coffee is just the drink you have in the morning before you rush off to work. To other people, coffee is the nectar of the gods. And those are the people who understand the exact differences between all these different types of coffees.

It’s true that most coffee drinks are just a different quantity of the same two ingredients. But any avid coffee drinker will tell you that there’s a big difference between your average Cappuccino and your everyday Macchiato.

Two other coffee drinks that are immensely popular in coffee shops all over the United States are Café au lait and Lattes. But do you know the difference?

To help you figure it all out, we’ll be spilling the beans on the history and the way they’re made. Most importantly, we’ll be finding out how exactly these names are supposed to be pronounced!

What is a Cafè au Lait?

Cafè au lait is pronounced as “kafey ou late” and originated in France. The name simply means, “coffee with milk.” Traditionally it’s made by brewing strong filter coffee and then adding steamed milk. Anyone making a homemade cup of coffee with milk is in essence making a cafè au lait in one form or another.

How this coffee drink is enjoyed depends on the country you’re in and your personal preference. By adding it to a restaurant menu, the Europeans launched this basic coffee drink into stardom.

Humble Beginnings

It’s not clear exactly when cafè au lait became popular in France, but reports from as early as the 1600s have people adding boiling hot milk to their basic brewed coffee. Not much has changed in the way this coffee drink is made.

The basic formula involves coffee brewed to your personal taste and then adding milk that’s been steamed to boiling point. Usually, this brew doesn’t have any foam or cream on top. Some people might prefer a little more milk and less coffee, which might actually just make this a flat white drink.

The European Version

Since cafè au late is actually just your standard cup of coffee with steamed milk, most countries have their own versions of this age-old drink.

The European version cafè au lait is actually the standard way of drinking coffee, not only in coffee shops but in the average home as well. A simple filtered coffee is brewed and boiling milk is added. Sugar can also be added according to individual tastes. Most coffee shops use espresso machines to prepare coffee. A strong coffee base is key to the perfect cafè au lait drink.

Other European countries such as Italy, Poland, Germany, and even Spain have their own versions of this traditional coffee drink. The common differences are the strength of the coffee and the quantity of the milk added. Ordinarily cold milk and other whiteners aren’t added.

The American Version

Cafè au lait is also very popular in the United States. Despite this drink being the most basic of coffee drinks, it’s still very popular in 2020. Although it’s still made the traditional French way, coffee shops in New Orleans have decided to spice things up a little bit.

New Orleans baristas are making café au lait with a powdered blend of chicory root. This stems back to the days of the American Civil War when coffee was scarce. Locals used chicory which gave the drink a coffee taste. Right there a new tradition was born.

Serving Suggestions

When it comes to the suggested serving size, it largely depends on the brewing method that’s used to make the coffee. Filter coffee yields a larger serving in comparison to something as exotic as Turkish coffee. This is largely because Turkish coffee pots are so small.

Coffee shop sizes vary from 170ml to 360ml with milk already added. This is acceptable because the coffee is much stronger than filter coffee and is more like a filter coffee shot. Traditionally, cafè au lait drinks also don’t have any form of foam art since there’s no milk foam. This coffee drink is commonly served in a white porcelain bowl or in recent times, a white mug, referred to as a cafè au lait mug. It’s also possible to get a liqueur in the cafè au flavor!

What is Latte?

Caffe latte is pronounced, “la-tey” and means “coffee & milk.” It made its debut in Italy and is made with espresso and steamed milk. But where did the love of lattes start?

Where Did it All Start?

This popular coffee drink has been a part of European cuisine since the 17th century. It’s served in most European homes in one form or another as a common breakfast drink. Most Europeans also only drink coffee once a day with breakfast. If you’ve ever wondered how a latte is made, read on.

When made by Italians, the coffee is brewed on a stovetop and poured into a cup that already contains heated milk. It’s usually one part coffee and three parts milk. In Italy, the milk is generally not foamed. Sugar is an optional extra. Everywhere else a latte is prepared in a glass or cup and contains a shot of espresso and steamed milk. A layer of foamed milk about 12mm thick is on top.

A variant of the latte, called the flat white, is a common drink in Australia and New Zealand. Another popular variant in the United States is an iced latte. In this variant, espresso and chilled milk are poured over ice with sugar or flavored syrups. This makes for a definitive alternative to a hot coffee drink in the summer months and is very popular with coffee drinkers.

What is Latte Art?

Latte art is the name of the pictures, designs, or images you often see in the foam on top of a latte coffee drink. It takes quite a bit of skill to perfect this art since it’s reliant on the conditions of the espresso shot and the milk. The experience of the barista and the espresso machine being used also determine the outcome of the design in the milk froth.

The easiest designs to make are popular leaf and heart designs. Other designs are slightly more complex.

Etching Latte Art

Etching refers to the more complex designs made in the latte foam. Patterns can include anything from simple geometric designs to more complicated designs such as flowers, animals, or even faces. These designs are done with a coffee stirrer. Unfortunately, there isn’t much time to appreciate the art as the foam dissolves into the latte quickly.

A simpler alternative to making the actual designs is to pour chocolate powder through a metal cutout shaped in the desired image. This is also a preferred method in some coffee chains where serving larger volumes of customers doesn’t allow time for individual art.

What is Free Pouring?

Free pouring is when the art is made while the foam is being poured into the cup. To do this, the barista keeps the mug leaning in a particular direction. When the milk flows into the cup, the froth surfaces on the side the cup is leaning towards. The barista sways the pitcher around while filling the cup.

The barista finishes by making a quick strike through the pattern formed by the foam. It’s the strike that forms the centerpiece of the design. The barista then forms the rest of the flower. The way the foam is poured and the way the cup is wiggled around will determine the eventual design. Other popular designs are heart, apple, and even swan shapes.

Café au Lait vs Latte—The Main Differences

There are a few definitive differences between a Latte and a Cafè au lait. We’ve listed them below for easy comparison.

infographic image place here.

Latte Cafè au lait
Made with steamed milk and a shot of espresso;  Ratio 1:3 Made with strong filter coffee and hot milk;  Ratio: 1:1
Traditionally topped with microfoam Served straight up with no foam
Can be flavored with sugar or syrup Chicory is added in the American version
Traditionally served in a clear glass or tall mug Served in a white porcelain bowl or mug
The coffee used is espresso Made with filter coffee, strengths vary
Traditionally has a set serving size Serving size varies according to individual taste
Microfoam art etched or poured A simple drink with no foam and no art


Whether you prefer a café au lait or a latte with some fancy artwork etched in the foam, coffee is something to tailor to your individual taste.

It’s important to know the differences between them so that you can choose your ultimate favorite coffee drink. Knowing the differences between them will also make you seem like a connoisseur the next time you’re flipping through a coffee menu!

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