In its simplest form, a café latte and a café au lait are the same thing. They are drinks that combine coffee and milk. The drinks are European in origin and have been part of the European breakfast table for generations. However, there are differences. One is recognized as Italian. The other is recognized as French. The milk to coffee ratio is different and the amount of foam on top also varies. Whereas a café latte will have foam on top, the café au lait usually does not. A café au lait is typically served in a small bowl while a café latte is traditionally served in a glass.
I argue that the café au lait in the United States is a different type of drink. It is made with coffee and chicory and scalded milk. It is also customary to have it with beignets. This was made popular by Café Du Monde in New Orleans. However, I have seen this combination all over the country.
These are good drinks but I think they taste different. To me, the café latte vs. the café au lait is a duel of Olympian magnitude between two coffee giants, spanning decades. They both mean the same thing: coffee with milk, similar to a café con leche (Spanish), milchkaffee (German), or café com leite (Portuguese).
A café latte is made with a shot of espresso, steamed milk, and a small amount of foam on top. It is popular to use two shots of espresso. Café lattes have more milk than the cappuccino. They also have less foam. It is one part espresso and three parts steamed milk. Café lattes are also popular for the artwork that a barista can make with them known as latte art. Latte art comes in the traditional “rosetta” or can be much more intricate, and it is both impressive and mesmerizing.
Café lattes are heavier in milk than a cappuccino. Due to the American sweet tooth, the café latte is also a popular drink to be served with syrup (i.e. vanilla, hazelnut, peppermint, white chocolate, tapioca, caramel, cookie dough, etc.). It can also be the base for other popular espresso concoctions, such as the pumpkin spice latte and the peppermint mocha. All of these drinks are café lattes with “stuff” added to them.
Disclaimer: It is not recommended to order a “latte” in Italy. This means milk in Italian and they will assume you are asking for a glass of milk. Please say “café con latte” or “café latte.” They will understand that you want coffee with milk. However, it is recommended to tell a friend to order a “latte” in Italy and watch them make a fool of themselves. Fun times!
A café au lait is made with brewed coffee and steamed milk. It is one part coffee and one part steamed milk. It typically does not have foam on top but you can certainly get foam depending on where you go. As stated earlier, the “American” café au lait will have chicory in the coffee. This is primarily due to the shortage of coffee during the American Civil War. The South had to be creative so they used chicory as a coffee substitute. This fusion has stuck ever since.
The café au lait can be served in a small bowl. It may have a strong taste due to the use of a darker roast bean, but not stronger than a latte in my opinion. Some places will use espresso but using regular coffee is recognized as the customary way to make it. Again, this all depends on where you go. Unlike the café latte, which is heavier in milk, this drink is perfectly balanced between coffee and milk. This drink appears mild, having a hazelnut color and being served lukewarm. This is a good drink to have with a heavy pastry. I recommend using a pour-over or a French press for this.
I prefer the café latte to the café au lait. However, I can appreciate both. They have an old world charm that makes them enjoyable to drink.
Bobby Steel is the founder and writer of the blog “The Coffee Owl Society.” He is very passionate about coffee and wants to share his love for coffee with others through stories and education. When Bobby is not blogging, he likes to take long walks with his wife to the coffee pot. He believes that life should be enjoyed with friends, family, and coffee.