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Deep Dive: What Is an Espresso Macchiato?

Don't let those green mermaids fool you!

by Maciej Kasperowicz | December 22, 2020

Grab your wetsuits, we're taking a deep dive into some of our favorite café drinks. This time out, we’re going in on a tasty and strong little treat that has become a source of great confusion: the espresso macchiato.

Key Facts
Pronunciation: mac·​chi·​a·​to
Definition: Espresso topped with a thin layer of foamed milk
History and Etymology: Italian, short for caffè macchiato literally, coffee with a spot (of milk)
First Known Usage: 1980

What is a Macchiato?

Macchiato means “marked” in Italian. As the name suggests, it’s traditionally an espresso with a little bit of warm milk, marked on top with foam to indicate that it isn’t just a straight shot of espresso. It is a small coffee drink. Macchiatos are usually no more than a few ounces, with a volume of milk and milk foam no more than that of espresso (eg. a 1.5 oz shot of espresso would yield a macchiato no larger than 3 oz).

History of the Macchiato

As this drink's name implies, it has a lot to do with its distinct marking. That "stain" was first used by baristas to indicate a plain shot of espresso from that with a small amount of milk, so servers could spot the difference.

How it’s made

A traditional Macchiato is made with espresso and milk, steamed on an espresso machine steam wand. In specialty coffee shops, there are two main ways that a macchiato is presented.

The first is the more old-fashioned way: with milk foam scooped onto an espresso shot. The second, which has become popular in specialty coffee in the last decade, has foamed milk poured onto espresso. Unlike the first version, this allows for latte art, like a heart or a rosetta.

Flavor profile

The macchiato uses less milk than any other espresso drink (aside, of course, from the straight shot of espresso). Therefore, it’s the milk coffee drink most likely to taste like the beans you used to brew your espresso shot, with a bit of the edge taken off by the milk and foam.

A macchiato made with foam scooped on top of it will result in the milk foam and espresso flavors hitting your palate more separately. The poured version, on the other hand, will be a little more integrated. Either way, if you’re looking for a drink where the milk hides the espresso flavor (and no judgment if you are!), the macchiato definitely ain’t it.

Similar drinks

The espresso drinks most physically similar to a macchiato are the cortado and the piccolo. The former comes from Spanish coffee culture and the latter from Australian, but they are both basically slightly larger drinks than a macchiato, poured with gently textured milk and not a ton of foam.

However, the drinks most confused for an espresso macchiato (for obvious reasons), are the latte macchiato and the caramel macchiato. The latte macchiato, is sort of the inverse of an espresso macchiato, which, when you consider that macchiato means “marked” or “stained” makes sense. Instead of marking the espresso with milk foam, a latte macchiato marks the milk with a little espresso. More explicitly, it’s a cup or glass of steamed milk with a little milk poured on top of it.

The caramel macchiato is a riff on the latte macchiato, invented by a Starbucks barista in the '90s, and it has thoroughly eclipsed the latte macchiato in popularity. As you might expect from its name, the Starbucks caramel macchiato is a latte macchiato with caramel sauce (and often vanilla syrup), usually served in a cup no smaller than 12 oz. It's pretty much as different from an espresso macchiato as a coffee drink can be.

How to make it at home

Well, it pretty much requires an espresso machine, to start. Basically any kind of espresso shot can be made into a macchiato, though it works best with a 2 to 1 ratio of coffee (say, 18 grams of finely ground coffee) to drink (a finished shot that weighs 36 grams).

One downside of a macchiato is that it can be a little wasteful. Unless you're making two or more, it’s really hard to put such a small amount of milk in a pitcher and get any kind of decent foam in it. So bite the bullet and put 3 oz of milk in as small of a pitcher as you have, and get your wand in there. Turn it on and gently hold it at the surface of the milk to let air in for a few seconds and sink it back down to spin that milk around.

Steaming for a drink as small as a macchiato goes very quickly. Once done, depending on your preferred method, either scoop that milk foam onto your shot, or pour it into the center of your coffee and pull it across to try to get a heart.

Coffee recommendations

If you're a coffee lover that likes coffee beans as straight espresso, there’s a good chance you’ll like it as a macchiato. Even more delicate coffees, which we don’t traditionally think of as standing up to milk, can probably survive this tiny bit of steamed milk and foam and taste pretty interesting as macchiatos. So just grab your favorite coffee beans to make espresso from, and see how a little hot milk changes it. Here are a few of our favorite recommendations:

For an Authentic Italian Macchiato

For a traditional macchiato most similar to what you’d get in Italy, try Caffe Vita’s blend. It’s a particularly dark espresso, and mixing it with some foamy milk will make you feel like you just bellied up to the bar in Rome.

Caffe Vita Organic Espresso ($20.00)

For What You'll Find at Your Local Shop

For a classic US specialty coffee macchiato, try Equator’s espresso. It’s not as dark roasted as something you’d get in Italy, but still has plenty of dark sugar sweetness in the form of chocolate and toffee notes, which taste delicious with milk.

Equator Eye of the Tiger Espresso ($20.60)

For Something Different

For something really out there, try Atomic’s natural. It has enough body and developed sugar to be delicious in espresso, with a ton of ripe fruit flavor that you won’t find in traditional espresso blends. Your macchiato will taste like strawberries and cream. 

Atomic Bali Kintamani Natural ($19.45)

For a Decaf Treat

Just because you don’t drink caffeine, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy espresso drinks. Novo’s Decaf Espresso is a balanced coffee with enough brown sugar flavor to hold up well to a little bit of milk.

Novo Decaf Espresso Novo ($18.85)