what is a macchiatoIt can seem that a new name for coffee is made up every day.  It can get very confusing trying to work out the difference between a frappe and a frostino, or a ristretto and a macchiato or even a cappuccino and an americano. To try and help, we are writing a series of articles explaining exactly what all these different terms mean.  Let’s start with macchiato.


What’s the Origin of the Word Macchiato?

First things first – how do you pronounce this Italian word?  Like most Italian words every letter is pronounced so you need to make sure you clearly enunciate both ‘c’s. Try saying ‘mac – key – ar – too’ slowly, then when you feel confident speed it up.

The literal English translation of macchiato is stained or marked.  I know, that doesn’t sound particularly appetising! However the reason it has such an unappealing name is that it originated as a slang term used between baristas and waiters in busy kitchens to make sure the right drinks were served.  Customers overheard the phrase and started using it themselves until it became common usage.  The espresso is marked or stained by the milk, hence the name.  Macchiato can also be translated as spotted and that is the way I prefer to think of it – espresso with a spot of milk.

Why Was Macchiato Invented?

To understand a macchiato you need to understand that the Italian way of drinking coffee is completely different to ours.  We start our day with the strongest coffee possible to wake us up and tend to have a milder milkier drink in the evening so the caffeine doesn’t keep us awake.  If you do that in Italy you will instantly identify yourself as a tourist.

Italians usually start their day with a cappuccino, although a latte is also acceptable.  The milkier coffees are regarded as breakfast drinks and are never drunk after 11am. Italians traditionally believe that milk interferes with digestion so they avoid milky coffee in the evenings and with meals.  Instead, after 11 am and after meals Italians drink a shot of espresso.  However, some drinkers preferred a small amount of milk in their espresso and so the macchiato was invented.  The addition of milk changed the appearance of the espresso or ‘stained’ it so it became known as macchiato.  In Italy, a macchiato is considered the perfect afternoon drink.

What is In a Macchiato?

A macchiato is basically a cross between a cappuccino and an espresso.  A macchiato has the least amount of milk added to it of all the coffee varieties. The milk is intended to be complementary to offset the bitterness of the espresso and allow extra flavours to be tasted.  So if you find an espresso to strong and bitter but a cappuccino too weak and milky this is the drink for you.

To make a macchiato, a shot of espresso is topped with one to two teaspoons of steamed milk or foam.  The small amount of milk added means that a macchiato is only slightly bigger than an espresso.  This means that a macchiato is usually served in a demitasse cup. The cup probably won’t be full to the top but that is to be expected.  If you would like a bigger drink then you can ask for a double shot of espresso. You will obviously get more coffee but with the same small amount of milk.

You may have noticed we said steamed milk or foam.  Both can be used, or a combination of the two.  It can vary but the key point is that the milk is just a small part of the drink.  If you have a preference for only milk or foam it is best to make that clear before your drink is made.  Personally I like a teaspoon of steamed milk and a teaspoon of foam on my macchiato.

Different Kinds of Macchiato

You may hear someone order an espresso macchiato and wonder why they have bothered to add the word espresso.  Or you order an espresso and they ask if you want it long or short.  As often happens, the original macchiato has evolved and changed and can be a very different drink depending on what part of the world you are in and which chain of coffee shops.

Espresso Macchiato

This is the original, traditional macchiato with a shot of espresso and a spot of milk.  In Italy it is also called a caffé macchiato.  If you want to be sure you are getting the right drink it is worth taking the precaution of ordering an espresso macchiato.

Latte Macchiato

This the opposite of an espresso macchiato.  Instead of espresso with a spot of milk this is milk with a spot of espresso. The milk can be vary between steamed, a combination of steamed and foam or iced milk.  The Italians would only ever serve this to children but it is popular in other parts of the world.  It is usually served in a tall glass cup and it is very milky. The espresso is added to the centre of the milk to making a brown spot in the middle of the white.

Starbucks Macchiato

Starbucks are the main culprits for confusing people about what a macchiato really is.  One of Starbuck’s most popular drinks is a Caramel Macchiato.  According to a Starbuck’s spokesman they are “taking the actual movement of the Macchiato, staining or marking the milk, and building beverages out it, which I think is cool and unique”.  The Caramel Macchiato was created in 1996 to mark Starbucks’ 25th anniversary.  This drink is a mix of milk and vanilla syrup that is ‘marked not once, but twice: first with espresso, then with caramel sauce in a crosshatch, double-circle design’.  It is a very sweet milky drink and can be served hot or iced.  Starbucks often bring out special edition macchiatos but they are mainly variations of the flavour of the syrups added to the milk.

If you want a real macchiato at a Starbucks you need to ask for an Espresso Macchiato.  They will give you a double shot of espresso with a large dollop of foam.  You get more milk than you should but it is as close as you are going to get in Starbucks. You can also ask for a Latte Macchiato is made with steamed full fat milk, topped with foam and then two shots of espresso poured down the middle.

Long and Short Macchiato

I wish I could give you a definitive answer as to what makes a long or short macchiato but I can’t.  In theory, a short macchiato is a traditional espresso macchiato.  If you ask for a short espresso macchiato you should be safe.

A long macchiato is much more complicated with a lot of variables.  For some, topping up a macchiato so the cup is full makes it a long macchiato.  For others, a single shot macchiato is a short macchiato and a double shot macchiato is a long macchiato.

Most Australians, and countries and shops influenced by Australia consider a long macchiato to be a double shot of espresso topped with steamed milk half filling a latte glass. This is not conclusive as in Perth they will fill the glass up with milk and in Melbourne they will half fill the latte glass with water and add a spot of steamed milk on top.  An Australian friend told me that asking for a definition of a long mac (the abbreviation of macchiato commonly used in Australia) is the quickest way to start an argument!

How Do You Make a Macchiato?

how to make a macchiatoFirst make a double shot of espresso.  If possible freshly grind the beans.  The main taste of the drink will be espresso so you want to have high quality beans.

Next steam the milk.  You only want a couple of teaspoons of milk so use the smallest amount your machine will allow. Give the steam wand a blast to make sure it is clean and up to temperature.  Put the tip of the wand in the milk as it heats up.  When it gets to 37 C (or when it feels warmer than your hand if you don’t have a temperature gauge), put the wand deeper into the milk and angle it so it is creating a vortex.  Don’t let the milk go over 70 C but remove the steam wand as soon as it gets to 65 C.

Tip the espresso into a demitasse cup. Using a teaspoon, take one spoon of steamed milk and drip it into the centre of the espresso.  Then scoop up a teaspoon of foam and place it on top of the steamed milk in the centre of the cup.

Enjoy your homemade macchiato!


Hopefully this has cleared up any confusion about what exactly a macchiato is.  However, just to be sure here are the answers to the most commonly asked questions about macchiatos.

What is the difference between a latte and a macchiato?

A latte is espresso blended with steamed milk and topped with a small layer of foam.  A latte is usually two thirds milk to one third espresso.  A macchiato is an espresso topped with a small spot of milk, either steamed or foamed or a combination of the two.  A macchiato only has one or two teaspoons of milk.  You can also get a latte macchiato that is very similar to a latte.  The main difference is that a latte macchiato does not blend the espresso and milk, instead there is a layer of milk, a layer of espresso and then a small layer of foam.

Why is Starbucks’ macchiato different?

One of Starbucks most popular drinks is their Caramel Macchiato.  This is a drink made mostly of milk with vanilla syrup, caramel syrup and espresso added to it.  It is a very sweet, milky drink and can be hot or cold.  If you want a traditional macchiato at Starbucks you need to ask for an Espresso Macchiato.

Is a Macchiato Sweet?

No.  A macchiato has the least amount of milk to espresso ratio of all the coffee drinks.  The primary taste is the espresso with just a hint of milk.  Some may think a macchiato is sweet because they have had a Starbucks’ Caramel Macchiato which does have a lot of syrup in it and is very sweet.

Is a Macchiato Stronger Than a Latte?

Both macchiatos and lattes can be made with one or two shots so they can both contain the same amount of caffeine.  A latte has much more milk added to the espresso though, which both makes it a longer drink and makes it taste less strong than a macchiato.

Should You Stir a Macchiato?

You wouldn’t usually stir a macchiato.  The small spot or stain of milk tends to sit in the middle of your drink, becoming lighter towards the edges.  A macchiato is usually served in a demitasse cup so it’s a bit small to try and stir.  The milk isn’t really there to be blended with the espresso but more as a topping to enhance the flavour.  Having said that you will not substantially alter the taste of your macchiato by stirring it.  If you are drinking a latte macchiato then it would probably be best to stir it as the milk and espresso are served separated into layers.  If you are drinking a Starbucks Caramel Macchiato then you shouldn’t stir it as it is designed to be drunk in layers.

How Do You Drink a Macchiato?

A macchiato is a small drink of coffee served in a demitasse cup.  Since only one or two teaspoons of milk are added a macchiato isn’t much bigger than an espresso.  You wouldn’t usually add sugar as the splash of milk is there to mellow the bitterness instead.  Like an espresso you would drink it straight down in a couple of mouthfuls.

Final Word

I hope this article has inspired you to try a macchiato.  While nothing beats the blast to the taste buds that an espresso delivers but sometimes you want something slightly mellower.  The small amount of milk adds just the right amount of sweetness and smoothness so you can really enjoy the subtle flavours of the espresso. Just remember to ask for an espresso macchiato to ensure you get the right drink!