These days we have a lot of ways to stay caffeinated. From cappuccinos to coffee, mochas to macchiatos, what’s really the difference between all these brews? Unless you’re a skilled barista or an all-around coffee aficionado, knowing the difference between drinks on a menu can be challenging. You’ll likely stick with one or two out of habit or comfort, but there might just be something you’d like more if you knew what it actually was. Love strong coffee? Go for the macchiato. Don’t like foam? A latte is your best bet.

Mike Witherel, owner of Coffee Buddha, explains the differences between classic coffee house drinks.
Mike Witherel, owner of Coffee Buddha, explains the differences between classic coffee house drinks.

The difference between the most popular coffee house drinks usually lies in the cup’s ratios of espresso, milk and foam. Coffee foam is technically just steamed milk, but it’s been gently whipped to add air and give it that frothy texture.

Mike Witherel, owner of Coffee Buddha in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania says, “We do our best to educate without hopefully coming across as pretentious. I learned on a classic style and I appreciate the classic style drinks, so we try to do things with the correct ratio.”

Starbucks and other national chains have altered the age-old cup sizes and content ratios leaving consumers to expect a certain drink to look and taste one way, while traditionally it’s another.

“The commercial places, and no disrespect to them, but they sort of create their own drinks using the names of the classic drink,” says Witherel.

For example, the Caramel Macchiato at Starbucks is actually by definition more of a latte. It has steamed milk, and it’s typically 12 or 16 ounces.

“It’s confusing, and if I don’t explain that to someone they sometimes get a surprised look when they’re expecting a nice drink they can drink for a half hour instead of a two ounce drink,” says Witherel.

Witherel helped decode what other classic ratios coffee drinkers should expect at a traditional coffee house:



Espresso is very finely ground dark coffee. It’s very strong, so it’s typically served in one or two-ounce cups. You can ask for sugar to accompany it if you think the taste is too bitter. It’s a small drink, but don’t let it fool you — it will give you a caffeine jolt. “It’s also the base to many other common coffee drinks,” says Witherel. These include cappuccinos, macchiatos, lattes, mochas and Americanos.


Cappuccino is a classic coffee drink originally from Italy. The milk to coffee ratio is: 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, 1/3 milk foam. “A cappuccino should be equal thirds of coffee, steamed milk and foam,” says Witherel. “Those gas station cappuccinos out of the machine, where it’s 20 ounces of some coffee drink — that’s not a cappuccino.”


If you love the flavor of coffee, order the macchiato. It has a bolder flavor than other common coffee drinks and will typically be made with high quality espresso beans. “A classic macchiato will be a two or three ounce shot of espresso with just a spot of milk foam,” says Witherel. Macchiato translates to “spotted” in Italian. “The name refers to just the mark of foam left on top of the espresso.”

latte / caffe latte

The “Caffe Latte” literally means “milk coffee” in Italian. They’re still a very popular breakfast drink in Europe. A layer of smooth foam — most often poured with a pretty design — gives the latte its signature look, but the ratio of milk to coffee is the most important factor.  “Lattes are going to be a 1 to 4 ratio of espresso to steamed milk,” says Witherel. “You can have a double or triple shot of espresso 12 to 16 ounces of steamed milk.”


This drink is for the chocolate lovers. The mocha has a milk to espresso ratio similar to a latte, but it’s the addition of chocolate that sets this drink apart. Some coffeehouses will make their own chocolate ganache, but others will just break up chunks of quality chocolate. Mochas are most often served with whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa powder on top.


The name is a reference to the fact that American coffee isn’t typically as strong as European coffee. The term is common throughout Europe, but is seen in coffeehouses in the U.S. as well. The barista will take regular espresso and add filtered water to lessen the strength of the brew.

Visit Coffee Buddha at 964 Perry Highway, Pittsburgh, PA or watch for special events postings on Facebook.





Meghan is a full-time writer exploring the fun facts behind food. She lives a healthy lifestyle but lives for breakfast, dessert and anything with marinara. She’s thrown away just as many meals as she’s proud of.