The first time I walked into a coffee shop, I was immediately was overwhelmed by the number of drinks on the board. I had no idea what a single drink on the menu was, and I felt stupid asking the barista for a suggestion. One name popped out as something familiar that I thought I'd heard before—a cappuccino. Although it took me a couple more visits after that initial drink to begin to enjoy the taste of espresso, the cappuccino remains my favorite beverage for that delicious level of foam on top.

What is a cappuccino, you ask? Don't sweat it if you don't know. A cappuccino is an Italian coffee beverage made of espresso and steamed milk. The most traditional recipes use an equal ratio of espresso, steamed milk, and frothed milk. Cappuccinos typically have no flavored syrup or sweetener in them, but they can be added. Today, cappuccinos are a common name on most coffee shop menus, from your local coffee shop to Starbucks.

History of the Cappuccino

Rebecca Buechler

Around the beginning of the 20th century, espresso machines became more popular and people in Italy began to spend more time around coffee shops. This is when the first drinks called cappuccinos appeared, served “Viennese style”—that is, topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

The word "cappuccino" is derived from the Italian cappuccio, which was the name of the brown hood Capuchin friars wore. When the cappuccino was first introduced in Italy, it was named after the Capuchins because the mix of coffee and milk was similar in color to the hoods the friars wore

After World War II, improvements to modern espresso machines and a simplification of the recipe created the cappuccino we know and love today. Cappuccinos became a popular coffee beverage in Europe, usually drank with breakfast. In the 1980s, the trend spread to America, and the drinks became larger and were no longer enjoyed only in the morning. 

Latte vs Cappuccino

coffee, chocolate, espresso, cake
Jessica Mickelson

Cappuccinos include many of the same elements as lattes, and to the inexperienced coffee drinker these beverages appear to be the same. Both use a standard single shot of espresso, but the milk is where the differences come out. Lattes have more steamed milk and less foamed milk. The steamed milk is what mixes with the coffee, so a cappuccino has a stronger coffee taste.

How to Make a Cappuccino

Rebecca Buechler

I went to Hendershot's Coffee Bar, a local coffee shop in Athens, to ask a barista about his process for making a cappuccino. First, milk goes into a steaming pitcher. Next, he dips the end of the steaming wand into the milk and turns it on, releasing the steam. The end should stay under the surface and at an angle, and he lowers the pitcher as the volume grows. The milk gets steamed to 65 degrees Fahrenheit and should about double in volume before removing the wand. The barista taps the pitcher onto a flat surface, which compresses the foam.

The barista will also make a shot of espresso with the machine, or two if it’s a larger size. This is poured into the bottom of the cup. Last, the tricky part is pouring the milk; the now-foamed milk should be poured starting from the center, but moving in a circle motion towards the outside edge.

This may sound pretty complicated, but you can make a cappuccino at home without all the fancy equipment, too.

Cappuccino Variations

Rebecca Buechler

Cappuccinos today mean a lot more than just a standard cappuccino. Cappuccinos can be made with any kind of milk along with plant-based milks, such as soy or coconut milk. If you don’t like the plain espresso taste, you can get your barista to add a pump of whatever flavors the store has available. You can also order “dry” or “wet” cappuccinos, which have less or more steamed milk than normal.

Finally, if hot drinks aren’t your thing, try an iced cappuccino. Baristas don’t typically like the sound of this drink, but if you need your foam on an iced drink, go for it.

Gone are the days when you used to confuse quality cappuccinos for the option that’s called a cappuccino on the coffee beverage machine in gas stations—now you can sophisticatedly order one at your local coffee shop and sip away, convincing everyone you know much more about coffee than you actually do.