Deep Dive: What Is a Cappuccino?

Deep Dive: What Is a Cappuccino?

A legacy much longer than the '80s.
by Kayla Baird | November 24, 2020

Grab your wetsuits, we're taking a deep dive into some of our favorite café drinks. This time out, we’re going even further back than its rise to popularity in the '80s, to get to the bottom of the cappuccino.

Key Facts
Pronunciation: cap·puc·ci·no

Definition: A six-ounce beverage containing espresso and foamed milk

First Known Usage: Named after Capuchin Friars because of the light brown color of their robe, the first known usage was in Italy in the 1900s, soon after the espresso machine became popularized.

What is a cappuccino?

It’s the go-to drink for many and a standard on any café menu, but what is it really?

As it evolved, it has been somewhat standardized that the Italian way of drinking a cappuccino requires the espresso based drink to be no larger than six ounces, made with half milk and half foam. In a regular coffee shop, you can usually order a cappuccino up to 12 ounces, but one critical aspect stays the same: the coffee drink must be made with that characteristic thick milk foam.

Over time, the drink has evolved from having a fairly airy, stiff foam, to a creamier microfoam. Microfoam has smaller, tighter air bubbles that are silkier on the palate, and integrate seamlessly into the espresso crema.

History of the cappuccino

It’s been said that the modern day cappuccino was named after Capuchin Friars in Italy, as the unique color combination of espresso and milk resembled the Friar’s robes. The cappuccino was popularized in Italy in the early 1900s, resembling a Viennese-style coffee beverage with foam and spices. As the cappuccino made its way around the world, the espresso based drink became more simplified — though in Italy it’s still common to have a cappuccino with chocolate syrup or powder sprinkled on the top.

How the perfect cappuccino is made

Foam is almost synonymous with the cappuccino. You can get that velvety, pillowy microfoam by starting with cold milk straight from the fridge. Next, you’ll have your steam wand submerged just slightly, so that when you turn it on you start hearing big sips of air right away. Once the cold milk starts to heat up (about five seconds and 100 degrees Fahrenheit), move your milk pitcher up so that you no longer hear anything.

This process is called aeration — or the process of integrating air into the milk. It’s important to get as much air in, evenly, as soon as possible, otherwise the milk proteins will start to become less malleable and the foam stiff and soap-like. It’s a similar process for why scrambled eggs are so much fluffier when you whisk them while they’re cool, as opposed to whisking them straight on the hot pan.

Once you have your silky, steamed milk foam ready, pour it into an espresso shot until a six ounce cup is filled. Feel free to use a spoon to scoop more or less foam on top of your drink, like a traditional cappuccino!

Flavor profile

If you like stronger coffee, a cappuccino is a relatively strong espresso beverage with a standard ratio of one part espresso to two parts steamed milk and foam. In comparison to a café latte, the perfect cappuccino has a more intense coffee flavor, as well as a creamier mouthfeel due to more presence of air in the milk foam. Not far off from an espresso macchiato, the cappuccino maintains a strong coffee flavor with a more pronounced milky sweetness.


In Italy, the cappuccino often includes chocolate syrup or powder on top. Elsewhere in Europe, the drink is more simplified with only espresso, milk, and foam.

The “dry” cappuccino is a variation made with only foam and no hot milk. Since this takes a very large amount of milk to be done without compromising the quality of the steamed milk, most baristas will suggest a drink with less milk, like a macchiato, as having less heated milk is often the goal in a dry cappuccino.

The opposite of a dry cappuccino is a wet cappuccino. This espresso drink has more heated milk and less foam, making it similar to a latte.

Similar drinks

There are many espresso coffee drinks to be aware of and few are similar to the traditional cappuccino. A flat white coffee is a very similar espresso drink to a cappuccino in terms of flavor profile and size. A key difference is the presence of thick foam atop a cappuccino, whereas with a flat white, there is less foam. In more modern versions, the foam would be of a similar texture, with more density present in the cappuccino.

The caffè latte is like the cappuccino’s older brother. If you like your drink on the milkier side, but the café you’re at doesn’t offer a large cappuccino, opt for a latte with extra foam.

Coffee bean recommendations

When it comes time to buy coffee to craft the perfect cappuccino, how do you know which to choose? Here are a few of our recommendations depending on whether you prefer a traditional cappuccino or something a little more versatile.

For a traditional cappuccino

Deep, dark roastiness meets bittersweet chocolate and raisin in Oren’s Italian Roast, reminding us of something that’s very traditionally Italian.

For a decaf cappuccino

Joe’s Nightcap House Decaf has deep cocoa, toasted almond, and molasses notes that pair perfectly with foamed milk for a more subdued and comforting cappuccino.

For a versatile cappuccino

Hang Tough from Stay Golden is full of deep-chocolaty goodness, sweet almond, and lemon candy. It’s the perfect accompaniment to frothed milk as espresso, or on its own as brewed coffee.

For a surprising cappuccino

Airship’s Sumatra Kerinci Honey is earthy, yet sweetly satisfying with notes of ripe plum and grapefruit fruity-floral notes.

Now that you’ve got a tasty grasp of different types of coffee beans, check out our coffee brewing tips to help you make the best cup in the comfort of your own home. And don’t forget to take our coffee quiz to learn which brew is best for you!

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