Macchiato vs Espresso: How Do These Drinks Differ?

Espresso is a beloved drink amongst coffee lovers. It came into our world and is here to stay. Especially considering that it is the base for many other popular drinks. These drinks include the caffè macchiato.

In this post, we will take a closer look at these two delicious drinks so you can decide which of them is the right choice for you. First, I will give you a quick breakdown of what each of them is and then give you a detailed comparison. If you want, you can skip to the comparison between an espresso and a macchiato.

What is an Espresso?

Espresso is really strong coffee made by forcing hot water under high pressure through finely-ground coffee beans using an espresso machine. It is usually served in small cups.

Espresso has a rich and intense flavor, with a strong, full-bodied taste. It often has a layer of crema, a creamy foam that forms on top of the espresso shot.

It can be served as a standalone drink, but quite often is used as the base for other coffee drinks such as a caffe latte, cappuccino, or macchiato.

Origin of Espresso

We have Italy to thank for this wonderful invention. The idea of extracting a concentrated shot through pressure already started way back in the 19th century. It soon caught on and became quite popular.

An inventor by the name of Angelo Moriondo patented an early version of an espresso machine in 1884. At that time it was not widely adopted, but it was the foundation for the machine that we know today.

However, in 1901 Luigi Bezzera came and changed the game. His machine included quite a few important innovations, including a boiler, a steam wand, and a pressure release valve. This allowed for better temperature control and the ability to produce high-pressure water to extract the coffee quickly.

Throughout the 20th century, the espresso machine was refined and improved. One of the people who played a big role in this was Achille Gaggia. He introduced the lever-operated piston espresso machine in the 1940s. This machine allowed for greater pressure control and the creation of crema, the creamy foam that forms on top of espresso shots.

Italy played a crucial role in popularizing espresso and establishing it as a cornerstone of Italian coffee culture. Espresso bars, where people could gather to enjoy a quick and concentrated shot of coffee, became social hubs in cities like Milan and Rome.

From Italy, the espresso culture spread globally, with variations in brewing techniques, serving sizes, and accompanying traditions adapting to different countries and coffee cultures. Today, espresso is enjoyed worldwide, and the espresso machine has become a standard piece of equipment in countless coffee shops and homes around the globe.

What is a Macchiato?

The term “macchiato” comes from the Italian word “macchiare”. This word means “to stain” or “to mark.” So, a macchiato is an espresso-based beverage with a small amount of milk added. The drink is often referred to as “caffe macchiato” in Italy, which translates to “stained coffee” or “marked coffee.”

A traditional macchiato consists of a shot of espresso “stained” or “marked” with a small amount of foamed milk. The milk is usually spooned or poured gently on top of the espresso, creating a visible mark or stain.

Unlike larger milk-based drinks like lattes or cappuccinos, the macchiato has a more intense espresso flavor because it has so little milk in it. Of course, the ratio of milk to espresso can vary based on personal preferences and regional variations. For example, an espresso macchiato in Italy typically has a very small amount of milk, while a latte macchiato has more milk and is closer to a layered drink.

Macchiatos are usually served in smaller cups, around 2 to 3 ounces.

Origin of the Macchiato

Like the espresso, the macchiato has its root in Italy.

The original macchiato, known as “espresso macchiato” or “caffe macchiato” in Italy, is believed to have been created as a way to modify the intensity of an espresso shot. The addition of a small amount of milk slightly alters the flavor profile.

In traditional Italian coffee culture, an espresso macchiato is typically made by adding a small dollop of milk foam or a spoonful of hot milk to a single shot of espresso. The amount of milk used is minimal, just enough to soften the intensity of the espresso without overpowering it.

Variations on the Macchiato

Although the original version remains a popular choice among coffee enthusiasts we humans get tired of things quickly. We like to spice things up. This is precisely what happened to the macchiato.

For example, some cafes or coffee chains offer larger versions of macchiatos, such as “latte macchiato,” which has a greater proportion of milk and espresso layered in a glass.

However, the original macchiato remains a popular choice among coffee enthusiasts and continues to be enjoyed in Italy and beyond.

Me holding a Starbucks caramel macchiato.
Starbucks Caramel Macchiato

Here is a list of some of the variations on the traditional version of the macchiato:

  1. Latte Macchiato: In contrast to the traditional macchiato, the latte macchiato features a larger quantity of milk. Steamed milk is poured into a glass or cup, followed by a shot or shots of espresso. The milk and espresso layers remain distinct, with the espresso “marking” or “staining” the milk. The latte macchiato is most often served in a tall glass.
  2. Caramel Macchiato: This variation adds a sweet and caramel flavor to the macchiato. It typically consists of a base of steamed milk with a shot of espresso and a layer of caramel syrup. The caramel syrup is drizzled on top, creating a visually appealing presentation. Starbucks’ version of this drink also includes some vanilla syrup at the bottom.
  3. Hazelnut Macchiato: The hazelnut version of the drink incorporates a hazelnut flavor. It usually includes a shot of espresso, steamed milk, and hazelnut-flavored syrup. The hazelnut syrup adds a nutty and slightly sweet taste to the macchiato.
  4. Vanilla Macchiato: This variation combines the rich flavor of vanilla with the macchiato. It typically includes a shot of espresso, steamed milk, and vanilla syrup or flavoring. The vanilla adds a sweet and aromatic element to the macchiato.

It’s important to note that the specific recipes and variations can vary between different coffee shops and regions. These are just a few examples of the popular macchiato variations you may encounter.

Differences Between an Espresso and a Macchiato

​The main difference, well technically the only difference between an espresso and a macchiato is the presence of milk in a macchiato.

The Difference in Flavor Profiles

It stands to reason that the added milk in the macchiato is what causes it to taste different from espresso.

While espresso has a strong and intense flavor profile that tends to be bold, robust, and concentrated, that strong taste is mellowed by the milk in a macchiato. The milk adds a subtle sweetness and smoothness to the overall taste of a macchiato.

It is important to notice that the milk in a macchiato’s job is not to overpower the taste of the espresso. Its job is to enhance the flavor. As opposed to an espresso where the absence of milk gives the true flavors of the coffee beans time to shine. This results in a pure, intense coffee taste.

The Amount of Caffeine

In terms of caffeine content, the difference between an espresso and a macchiato depends on the size of the serving and the number of espresso shots used. So, it is really hard to give you a hard and fast rule. However generally a standard single shot of espresso (about 1 ounce/30 ml), typically contains about 63 milligrams of caffeine.

This means that a double shot of espresso would contain about 126 mg of caffeine. The dash of milk added to a macchiato doesn’t change that. This means that a double shot of espresso, for example, has the same amount of caffeine as a macchiato made with two shots of espresso.

Yet, it’s important to note that caffeine content can vary based on factors such as the type of coffee beans, the brewing method, the size of the serving, and individual variations in coffee preparation. The figures mentioned above are general estimates and may not apply to every specific case. It is also worth noting that espresso shots can vary in size, which also influences the amount of caffeine in your drink.

Health Considerations

Because the only difference between these two drinks is the added milk in the macchiato, there really is not a huge difference in terms of healthiness. 

The milk adds a bit of calories to a macchiato, but the amount is so little that it almost isn’t worth mentioning. As I mentioned earlier, the caffeine content in the two is the same depending on the number of shots added. So, caffeine is also not a consideration. If you want to cut back on caffeine, rather look at the beans that you are using.

However, it is important to note that this is only true for the original versions of each of these drinks. Any added ingredients like syrup completely change the playing field.

Final Thoughts: Macchiato vs Espresso

Whether you prefer the bold intensity of an espresso macchiato or the creamy indulgence of a latte, there is an espresso-based drink to suit every palate. So next time you step into your favorite coffee shop or fire up your espresso machine at home, consider exploring the world of espresso variations and indulge in the delightful symphony of flavors that awaits.

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