The cappuccino is unsurpassed in its recognition and considered a standard staple of cafe menus. Despite the beverage’s prevalence and perceived consistency, though, there’s a surprising amount of variation in what exactly a cappuccino is. From 19th Century Vienna coffee houses to today’s third-wave cafes, here’s a guide to the cappuccino’s history and what exactly one is.
In This Guide:
- Where is the Cappuccino From?
- What is the Standard/Typical Cappuccino?
- How is a Cappuccino Made?
- What Are Common Cappuccino Variations?
- What’s the Difference Between a Latte and a Cappuccino?
- What’s the Difference Between a Cortado and a Cappuccino?
Where is the Cappuccino From?
Although the cappuccino is widely thought to be an Italian drink, the first instance of a “cappucicna” beverage comes from Vienna and predates modern Italian espresso. The drink’s origins lie firmly in Vienna’s religious history.
The Original Viennese Cappuccino
The cappuccino’s true story and untrue mythology both begin with the story of Franciscan monk Matteo de Bascio.
Matteo felt that his fellow Franciscans weren’t living the lives of austerity that Saint Francis taught, and he developed a following of like-minded Capuchin monks. Matteo’s Capuchin monks were driven into hiding when religious leaders sought to suppress them, and they found refuge in a monastery of Camaldolese monks.
In a show of gratitude to their hosts, Matteo’s Capuchin followers donned the iconic hooded tunics that the Camaldolese monks work. Capuchin monks continued to wear these tunics, so much so that they were easily recognized in 19th Century Vienna by the robe.
“Cappucina” soon became a coffeehouse reference to how strong a coffee should be, requesting that milk be added to a cup until the color matched that of the monks’ robes.
While the Capuchin monks may have largely been forgotten, anyone who orders a cappuccino knows the color of those monks’ robes. They were a light tan that’s persistently been the color of a cappuccino throughout the beverage’s evolution.
Myths About the Cappucino’s History
While the association between the Capuchin monks and the cappuccino is well recognized, this has given rise to a couple of false rumors about what the association actually was. Both rumors can be easily refuted with additional knowledge of the monks and regional coffee beverages.
Some claim that the top of a cappuccino resembles a monk’s shaved head, but this is more of an inkblot test than anything else. Even if you do think that your barista’s latte art resembles a shaved head, any particular association with the Capuchin monks is false. They didn’t even practice tonsure (shaving the head).
Others use an inkblot of their own to liken the cappuccino’s foamed top to a hood, for “hood” in Italian is rendered “cappuccio.” The association wouldn’t be possible until pressurized espresso machines that could froth milk were developed in the 20th Century, however, and the cappuccino reference in Vienna predates these machines by nearly a century.
A German beverage called “Wiener melange” further confirms Viennese origin. Wiener literally translates “of Vienna,” indicating where this beverage initially came from. The beverage itself is remarkably like a cappuccino, consisting of a little coffee in a medium cup that’s filled with milk. A dusting of chocolate on top is also common, and likewise suggests a Viennese origin of coffee and milk (see below).
The Italian Cappuccino
Even with origins notwithstanding, Italy’s impact on the cappuccino can’t be understated.
Without the advent of pressurized Italian espresso machines and the spread of Italian coffee culture, the cappuccino would neither be what it is or as popular as it is today. The combination of espresso and steamed milk is only possible with a pressurized machine, and Italy is widely recognized for bringing the cappuccino to the world. Even the precise term “cappuccino” is Italian (as are many other coffee terms).
The Italian cappuccino can be generally defined as a single shot of espresso combined with 5 or 6 ounces of steamed milk. The beverage is typically poured into a medium-sized cup, and it retains much of the original tan color that Viennese cappuccinos were defined by.
The Modern Third-Wave Cappuccino
Third-wave coffee shops have since given the Italian cappuccino their own spin, broadly increasing the amount of espresso and decreasing the amount of frothed milk.
The espresso increase stems primarily from using double shots rather than single shots, and each part of a double shot is sometimes more than a traditional single shot would be by itself. In short, a simple order of espresso in an American cafe today will come with more espresso than a traditional Italian cafe would serve.
The decrease in froth stems partly from the increase in espresso, but also from the latte art trend. Latte art is more difficult to execute when using foamy milk, so an increasing number of cafes and baristas are using less-foamed milk in all their drinks. This increases the actual amount of milk while reducing the foam on top.
The cappuccino is a quintessential coffee house drink, if for no other reason than its prevalence on ‘90s sitcoms like Seinfeld and Frasier.
What is the Standard/Typical Cappuccino?
A beverage that’s evolved this much is bound to vary slightly depending on what cafe is serving it. Nonetheless, the basics of a modern cappuccino are fairly standard.
The most common ratio for a cappuccino is generally 1/3 espresso, 1/3 milk and 1/3 foam. With these ratios, a single shot cappuccino would have 1 ounce of milk and 1 ounce of foam. You might find this size cappuccino at a traditional cafe in Italy, but most modern cafes make cappuccinos that are 6 ounces. They use a double shot that’s combined with 2 ounces of milk and 2 ounces of foam.
How is a Cappuccino Made?
A cappuccino is made by pulling a double espresso shot and steaming foamy milk. The milk should be well frothed, so the top 1/3 of the beverage can be foam. The milk is then poured over the espresso until the desired proportions and volume are reached.
Some baristas finish their cappuccinos off with latte (or cappuccino) art, but this requires experienced skill. Creating latte art with such frothed milk isn’t easy.
What Are Common Cappuccino Variations?
The most common traditional cappuccino variations are wet, dry and bone dry:
A wet cappuccino has more milk and less foam. The additional milk can be felt in the heavier weight of the drink. The drink will have a slightly diluted coffee flavor, and it’ll offer a more viscous texture. Using 2/6 espresso, 3/6 milk and 1/6 foam would be wet, although there isn’t a precise ratio.
A dry cappuccino has less milk and more foam, thus making it lighter to hold. The reduction of milk creates a slightly stronger coffee flavor, and the drink is rich in foamy smoothness. A 2/6 espresso, 1/6 milk and 3/6 foam ratio would represent a dry cappuccino.
Extra Dry / Bone Dry Cappuccino
An extra dry, or “bone dry” cappuccino is almost all espresso and foam, with very little or no milk in it. The beverage is extremely light to hold, and its weight can be especially deceiving considering the size of a 6-ounce cup. A bold espresso flavor cuts through the constantly foamy texture.
In addition to these variations, cappuccinos can also be made with ristretto espresso (sweeter) and lungo espresso (more bitter). Of course, you can also add any variety of sweeteners or syrups too.
What’s the Difference Between a Latte and a Cappuccino?
A latte and cappuccino are similar in many ways, with the primary difference being size. The latte is larger, usually 2 ounces larger but some cafes serve lattes with a lot more milk. The latte thus has a further diluted coffee flavor.
While both the latte and the wet cappuccino dilute espresso flavor by adding milk, the texture of the two is different. Wet cappuccinos have a more viscous texture due to the reduced foam. Lattes maintain a texture that’s consistent with a standard cappuccino’s, because the milk-to-foam ratio remains unchanged.
What’s the Difference Between a Cortado and a Cappuccino?
A cortado and cappuccino are also similar, except the cortado has less milk. A cortado’s espresso-to-milk ratio is 1:1, rather than the cappuccinos 1:3 (both ratios include milk and foam). The cortado has a stronger taste as a result, and it doesn’t change the texture like a dry cappuccino does. The ratio of milk and foam is the same in a cortado and a standard cappuccino.
Enjoy a Classic Coffee Beverage
There’s a reason the cappuccino has had such a long history. It may have recently fallen out of favor with some, giving way to trendier newbies like the cortado. The cappuccino remains a classic, however, and is still as delicious as ever. Return to the classic next time you’re at a cafe.
Scott M. Brodie has over 20 years of professional experience working in coffee shops and writing about coffee (including selling superautomatic machines). When not writing, he can usually be found roasting a new African single origin or composing a fictional work.