Macchiato Thoughts

In Seattle, a Cortado is a Macchiato, so I ended up ordering a number of Macchiatos so I could enjoy my favorite drink on vacation – a Cortado. Ordering so many Macchiatos to get my Cortado made me wonder what exactly a Macchiato is to me, so I went looking.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Macchiatos. I’ve occasionally had them over the years, but I can’t say I’ve ever gotten the gist of the drink. Back in the Flying Five days, I drank a decent bit of straight espresso, and also a lot of Cortados, and I explored the in-between region some, but really only to pass through on the way to finding Cortados.

I’ve ordered a decent number of Macchiatos, and it’s amazing how many different drinks you get from the same name. Putting Starbucks’ interpretation of this drink name aside, I’ve been places where a Macchiato is espresso with exactly one tablespoon of foam placed on the top, period. Then, on the other end, visit Seattle and ask for a Macchiato and you’ll be enjoying a very nice 1:1 Cortado.

Personally, I think the Microfoam revolution is to blame. Back in the old days before we figured out how to make delicious creamy texture-y Microfoam, a Macchiato was clearer. Translated from Italian, Macchiato means “marked”, and you could make a strong argument from that that a Macchiato should be espresso with some foam on top. But, as James Hoffman points out in his Macchiato post on his blog, even that tradition-based description is flawed: apparently in Italy, baristas were marking espresso with milk way before anyone figured out how to steam milk and make foam.

For me, microfoam changes everything, and it made me realize that I hadn’t tried to find my Macchiato in the age of microfoam. So, I went looking. And what I found surprised me.

I started off by playing with ratios of milk to espresso. I took a shot of espresso, and started adding milk a bit at a time. It didn’t seem this way to start, but a rule of thumb emerged: for it to be a different drink for me, the drink character had to be different in some way.

Here’s what I mean: when I took a teaspoon, or something like 0.1 oz of milk and added it a shot of 1.8 oz espresso, it didn’t really change the character of the drink much. It tasted basically like espresso with a tiny bit of milk in it. But, not really different.

It wasn’t until I got to about 1:4 milk to espresso that I felt that I had a different drink. Let me back up and be detailed here: I’m using my Bezzera Strega lever espresso machine, and for this exploration, I was using Storm King espresso from Thump coffee (a new arrival to Denver). And, as is typical for me, I was obsessively weighing both the shot and the amount of microfoamed milk that I was adding.

As straight espresso, I get a big chocolate note from this espresso, as well as a deep cherry note. As a 1:4 ratio, the chocolate note fades a bit and morphs into a big deep cherry-chocolate note. Really enjoyable, and really a different note than the espresso alone.

So, perfect, for me, a Macchiato is 1:4, which seems to fit with tradition: in my mind, you’re still “marking” the drink, and it neatly fits my rule of thumb in that it changes the espresso character. 1:4 is my Macchiato, case closed, right?

Well, I was enjoying the espresso so much, I kept looking and I found what for me is yet another drink down below the happy Cortado-land that I typically live in. At 1:2, for me, the deep cherry-chocolate note changes: a milk-chocolate note emerges and the cherry starts to fade somewhere in the direction of peach for me.

And, of course, I couldn’t stop myself from also making a Cortado and drinking that as well. In the Cortado with Thump’s espresso, I get a very pleasant faded milk-chocolate note, and a nice peach note. Interestingly, despite having had many Cortados with this espresso before this exploration, I never thought to call that note “cherry”, it was always “peach”.

So, if I take my rule of thumb seriously, I have to call this drink at a 1:2 ratio a different drink that lives between Macchiatos and Cortados. I’m sure this varies by individual taste, type of espresso, pump vs lever, pressure profiling and probably the phase of the moon too.

But, for me, it’s a drink that stands on its own, and is worth a look.