Deep Dive: Café au Lait

Deep Dive: Café au Lait

Don't confuse your au lait with your latte.
by Maciej Kasperowicz | February 06, 2020

Café au lait vs. café latte, and other pressing questions!

We're continuing our Deep Dive series by traveling northwest from the espresso bars of Italy to the cafés of Paris. It's time to get milky as we explore the café au lait.

Key Facts
Pronunciation: ca·​fé au lait 
Definition: Coffee with usually hot milk in about equal parts
History and Etymology: French, coffee with milk
First Known Usage: 1763

What Is a Café au Lait?

Café au lait, as you may have already known or figured, is French for coffee with milk. It’s commonly made with a combination of drip coffee and steamed milk. This is what sets a café au lait apart from a café latte, which is made of espresso and steamed milk, and a “white” or “light and sweet” coffee which is made with drip coffee and cold milk.

History of the Café au Lait

Coffee beans first found their way to Paris in the early 1600s, with cafés popping up before the end of the same century. We see reference to “café au lait” in the letters of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the marquise de Sévigné written in that same time.

A Dutch trader in China likely put together coffee and milk. It first appeared in a café setting thanks to a Polish shop owner in Vienna. As to who put together the current specialty version we order at coffee shops, educated guesses are hard to come by. But since steam wands weren't invented until the 20th century, milky coffee was probably a relatively recent invention.

How It’s Made

For all its simplicity, a café au lait - at least the way it's made in a coffee shop - uses a hilarious amount of equipment. Unlike a latte or cappuccino, the café au lait is made using not only an espresso machine but also, in most shops, a big old auto drip coffee maker.

A regular drip coffee gets poured into a cup and passed down to the espresso bar. There, the barista steams a few ounces of milk (or your favorite milk alternative!) and pours it into the hot coffee.

Flavor Profile

The flavor of a café au lait isn’t wildly dissimilar from a regular coffee with milk. There is some difference, though, as heating up milk, with a milk frother, does make the sugars in it (lactose) more soluble and therefore makes the milk — and overall beverage — taste slightly sweeter. Making this beverage is a perfect choice for a coffee lover who prefers espresso coffee drinks with heated milk.

The main difference in a café au lait is the texture of the foamed milk, with a steam wand being able to produce some microfoam and make the texture of the whole coffee drink a little smoother. Also, for those that like their coffee cup hot as heck, the addition of warmer milk makes that target much more achievable.

Similar Drinks

There are as many ways to refer to coffee with milk as there are stars in the sky (that’s possibly hyperbole). There are also as many different ways to combine those two wonderful liquids. And depending on where you are in the world (and especially what kind of coffee brewing is most popular there), translating “coffee and milk” into the local language could get you anything from a drip with cold milk, to a drip with steamed heated milk, to the equivalent of a French café latte.

All of these drinks have the same ingredients (coffee, water, and milk), so if you’re using the same coffee beans, they’ll have similar flavors, but the balance of them will be slightly different.

A similar coffee drink you can make with just an espresso machine is an Americano au lait. For this Italian-French mashup, pull a shot of espresso, top it off with water until it reaches your desired strength, and then steam your milk. And if you happen to be in The Big Easy, the most famous café au lait in the US is served at New Orleans’ Cafe du Monde, where the coffee is accompanied by chicory.

How to Make it at Home

If you prefer to skip the morning line and would rather brew coffee at home, you're in luck-so long as you have an expresso machine. To make a café au lait similar to a beverage you’d get at a coffee shop, an espresso machine with a steam wand is pretty necessary. However, it is possible to learn how to make an espresso without a machine. Make a drip-strength brewed coffee any way you usually make one. That includes a drip coffee maker, pour-over, French Press coffee maker, AeroPress — even a moka pot could do the trick.

Then steam some milk (as much as you’d like, but approximately about a fifth as much milk as coffee), and pour it onto the espresso. If you’re without a steam wand, warming the milk on a stovetop won’t give you the same frothy texture or color but will do just fine in a pinch.

Coffee Recommendations

Metric Coffee Le Corbusier coffee bag

What could be more appropriate than drinking a café au lait made with freshly brewed coffee named after a French (/Swiss) architect? Especially if the coffee you're drinking is one that is totally delicious and just enough of a dark roast to remind us of the kind of stronger coffee you might actually get in an old-school Paris café. When it's time to shop coffee, check out our top strong coffee picks to craft the perfect café au lait.

Metric Le Corbusier ($18.85)

Equator Coffee & Teas Ethiopia Sidama Ardi coffee bag

A naturally-processed coffee intense enough to hold up to milk is a wonderful thing. A café au lait brewed with this Sidama Ardi will taste like vanilla and Creamsicle®.

Equator Ethiopia Sidama Ardi ($21.80)

DOMA coffee roasting company The Chronic coffee bag

This rich blend is already creamy enough to remind us of chocolate milk. Mixed with actual steamed milk? That’s about as close as you can get to a hot chocolate without using actual chocolate.

DOMA The Chronic ($20.00)

Augie's Costa Rica La Pastora coffee bag

A coffee doesn’t have to be super-dark roast to stand up to milk, and this delicious medium-light roast from Augie's is proof. Think: nutty and gently fruity flavors that’ll play well enough with milk without being over-assertive.

Augie's Costa Rica La Pastora ($22.40)

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