If you regularly find yourself staring at the menu in your local coffee shop paralyzed by choice, we sympathize. There are so many espresso drinks to choose from, and all of them sound and look the same. How do you decide between half a dozen drinks that are all espresso with steamed milk?
In this article, we’re going to compare and contrast two popular espresso drinks, the Americano and the Macchiato, to help alleviate some of your confusion. At a glance, they might seem similar, but they are actually quite different, and most people have a strong preference for one over the other. We’ll start with a quick overview of each before we dive into some more subtle differences and conclude with an easy-to-follow guide to help you decide which is right for you.
Overview of Americanos:
Americano coffee – also called café Americano or caffé Americano – is the name for an approximate one-to-one mixture of espresso and hot water. Unlike the other espresso drinks you can order at the café, the Americano has no milk of any form in it. This sets it apart from most other espresso drinks and makes it a good choice for people who don’t like milky coffee.
Origin of the Americano
Legend has it that Americano coffee’s origin can be traced back to Italy during World War II. American soldiers in Italy were unhappy with the widely available espresso since they were used to drinking filter coffee in America. In an attempt to recreate ordinary black coffee using espresso, they mixed the Italian espresso with hot water, inadvertently creating a new drink. It’s impossible to verify this story, but it is plausible and corresponds with the time period when Americano coffee started becoming popular.
Isn’t an Americano Just Black Coffee?
Yes and no. An Americano is indeed just espresso watered down to approximately the strength of an ordinary cup of coffee, but it doesn’t taste the same as regular filter coffee. Since espresso is brewed with extremely fine grounds and high pressure, it has a different taste and texture than filter coffee, and those differences carry over to the Americano.
Who Should Try an Americano?
Some people prefer the taste of espresso but don’t like how strong it is or can’t stomach its high acidity and strength. Drinking an Americano gives them some of the same flavor and texture they love about espresso without the overbearing strength and acidity.
If you are just getting into espresso, the Americano is a great first drink to learn how to make. It’s no more difficult than pulling a shot of espresso, but it can help you diagnose your technique since mixing the espresso with water accentuates flavors that might get lost in a more concentrated shot.
Overview of Macchiatos:
Macchiato – caffé macchiato in Italy – is an espresso-based drink that has just a dash of milk added, to use cooking parlance. All espresso drinks form a continuum, from no added milk for straight shots of espresso and Americanos to lots of milk added in a latte. Macchiatos are the next step up on the milk ladder from straight espresso. The word macchiato means “stained” in Italian, which creatively gets the point across that the milk is just a small part – a stain – on the otherwise unaltered espresso.
It’s All About the Milk
How much milk is added to a macchiato isn’t defined too specifically, but most recipes use one to two ounces of steamed milk per shot of espresso. Steaming milk is a huge topic on its own, and there are many people that spend a lot of time thinking about how to steam milk to get the most velvety microfoam possible. The agonizing over steaming technique is justified if you’re making a latte or cappuccino since they contain relatively high volumes of milk but is less important for a drink like a macchiato that only uses a small amount of milk.
Making Your First Macchiato
We mentioned that Americanos make excellent drinks for beginners since they’re simple to make and don’t require any milk steaming. Macchiatos are what beginners graduate to after they master their shot-pulling technique. On top of making the perfect shot of espresso, you also need to steam milk.
Steaming milk properly is not as easy as it seems, and it’s best to start small when you’re new. Since a macchiato only uses a small amount of milk, it’s the perfect drink to practice with since you won’t waste tons of milk making mistakes. It’s also a good choice because when you inevitably make flat milk without much microfoam, it will have a much smaller impact on your enjoyment of the drink since there’s hardly any milk in a macchiato.
When to Choose a Macchiato
If you’re wracked with indecision at the counter and can’t choose between an Americano and a macchiato, here’s an easy way to choose. If you want a more concentrated drink that packs a punch without being overly strong, choose a macchiato. The milk cuts the strength a bit compared to pure espresso but doesn’t water down the coffee as much as an Americano.
Americano vs Macchiato: Which is Right for You?
If you’re still not sure whether you should try a macchiato or an Americano, we have a simple solution for you: try both! A fun experiment is to make two shots of espresso and use one to make an Americano and the other for a macchiato. Trying them both at the same time will give you a firsthand appreciation for the similarities and differences and most likely make it clear to you which is right for you.
We like to drink macchiatos when we’re in a hurry and want something we can finish quickly. They’re only a few ounces, and it takes only a few sips to finish. Americanos are usually around 6-8 ounces depending on how many shots of espresso are used. If you have time to enjoy a larger drink and want to sit for a while, an Americano is the better choice.
If you’re looking for a drink to make at home, complete beginners should start with an Americano since it doesn’t require any additional skills or equipment beyond those needed to make a shot of espresso. It’s also a great drink to start developing your palate since you will be able to taste different flavors in an Americano that are easy to miss in a concentrated shot of espresso.
Once you get comfortable and know your way around an espresso machine, you’re ready to take a stab at a macchiato. They’re one of the easiest espresso drinks to make since they only need a little bit of steamed milk, and you don’t need to be overly particular about your frothing technique.
Both Americano and macchiato are delicious espresso drinks that make excellent choices at your favorite coffee spot or at home if you have an espresso machine. An Americano is somewhat similar to filter coffee but has a distinct taste thanks to the espresso. Macchiato is a different beast altogether since it contains steamed milk and is smaller and stronger than a regular cup of coffee.
If you need a quick energy boost and don’t mind a stronger drink, you’ll be pleased with a macchiato. If your stomach doesn’t like high amounts of acidity and you’d prefer a more manageable strength coffee but love the taste and texture of espresso, go with an Americano.
Featured Image – Left: Americano (Source: Marco Verch Professional Photographer, Flickr), Right: Macchiato (Source: Bex Walton, Flickr)