There has been some confusion over what a café macchiato is, particularly in North America, due to the Starbucks caramel macchiato. The caramel macchiato is a successful drink, and thus, other coffee chains have created similar concoctions under the name “macchiato,” which further confuses things. To put it simply, the caramel macchiato is NOT a café macchiato. In fact, the café macchiato is something completely different. The genius of the café macchiato is its simplicity.

Although delicious, the Starbucks caramel macchiato is not a true café macchiato.

Some coffee chains in America make macchiato drinks with the same formula or a similar variation of it. That formula consists of steamed milk with espresso dropped into it. Flavored syrups and sugary sauces are then added. It comes closer to a café latte with “stuff” in it. Many independent coffee houses, quality-focused espresso bars, and serious coffee connoisseurs know that this is incorrect. Guess what? Now, you know too.

Macchiato means “stained” or “marked” in Italian. This term is used because of how the drink is made. The drink is a double shot of espresso with a splash of milk in it. The “mark” comes from the barista adding a small dollop of foam on top of the drink. But why does the barista do this? In Italy, the barista will prepare multiple espresso shots during the busy hours for efficiency. However, some customers don’t want the fierce strength of the espresso. Therefore, milk is added to tame the espresso or to give it a sweeter taste.

Adding a splash of milk to an espresso will not really change the color of the drink, though. The color gets mixed with the crèma of the espresso. The barista adds a dollop of foam on top so they know which drink has milk in it. In other words, the dollop of foam on top “marks” the drink that has a splash of milk in it. I told you it was simple!

A real café macchiato.

Just a quick disclaimer, I actually do like the caramel macchiato. Although I know this is not a café macchiato, I find it to be a tasty, sugary, guilty, treat. You can get a genuine café macchiato at Starbucks by asking for an espresso macchiato. Also, you can get a traditional macchiato at a lot of other coffee houses. Independent coffee houses are a great source for traditional/real coffee drinks. Now that you know what it is, it should be easier for you to identify the correct version.


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.

A version of this post was originally published on The Coffee Owl Society, here.



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