Milk In Coffee: A Brief History…

A hand pouring milk into coffee
Photo by
Alberto Bogo on Unsplash

Adding milk to our coffee is commonplace. As all latte and cappuccino lovers would know, achieving the ideal texture and temperature of the milk can make or break our beverage. By introducing small air bubbles of the milk (via the steam wand), the milk creates micro-foam. When a cup of espresso is made, beside an espresso shot, the texture and temperature of the milk are very important. Microfoam is created by introducing very tiny bubbles of air into the milk which makes characteristic steamed-milk cream. Most consumers, by default, expect every cafe to have a range of delicious milky coffees available. However, the history of milk and coffee is quite unknown to latte aficionados. So here’s a quick rundown on how milk ended up in coffee. 

During his journey to China in 1660, the Dutch ambassador, Nieuhoff, noticed the Chinese elite of the Qing Dynasty adding milk to their tea. Nieuhoff followed that inspiration by adding whole milk to coffee. What culminated was a new way of drinking coffee; a trend that quickly spread across Europe. In 1867, William Deam Howells utilised the term “Caffe e latte” for the first time, in his essay “Italian Journeys”. 

Meanwhile, in Austria, Viennese cafes were making specialty coffee beverages by incorporating espresso, spices, whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa powder. This beverage was commonly consumed by the Capuchin friars, which is indicative of the friar’s brown robes. This drink was named ‘kapuziner’, and is still, to this day, being served in Viennese cafes. If you are connecting the dots, then you would notice that both ‘capuchin’ and ‘kapuziner’ could only lead to one word: cappuccino. It is from the Viennese kapuziner that the cappuccino that we all know and love came to be. 

Jump to Italy in 1930, and the better-known version of the ‘cappuccino’ is starting to appear in cafes. While it initially featured a more Viennese style (of whipped cream and a sprinkling of cinnamon and chocolate), it was soon replaced by steamed milk. 

Jump to 1940, and the Milanese cafe-owner, Achille Gaggia is adding a spring-piston lever to the coffee machine; an addition which led to the phrase “pulling the shot”. What Gaggia didn’t know is that the resulting brew left a thin layer of froth on top of the espresso. Consumers were initially suspicious of this, but Gaggia quickly marketed this as “Caffe crema” which could only come from the creaminess of high-quality coffee. When baristas started to combine crema with steamed milk, they were able to create a medley that highlighted the creaminess of the milk along with the rich flavour of the espresso. 

Jump to today, and our cafe menus are filled to the brim with milk and coffee options. From macchiatos to flat whites, the addition of milk has wound up in coffee in all shapes and sizes.