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Cafe au Lait - What is it and how does it relate to a latte?

Coffee, latte, mocha, espresso... you know what all these are, but what is a cafe au lait? Isn't it just a different way to say latte? No! We'll explain.

cafe au lait, coffee and milk

What *is* Cafe au Lait?

Cafe au lait is coffee with milk. Literally. That's the translation of cafe au lait. It is a French term and a French drink. In that respect, cafe au lait is similar to a latte. It differs in that a latte is an Italian drink made with espresso, while a cafe au lait is a French drink made with coffee.

In actuality, many European countries have their own version of coffee and milk. In Spain, it's called cafe con leche. In Poland, they have kawa biala or white coffee. Germany has milchkaffee or milk coffee. And depending on the type of coffee, how it's prepared, the milk, its quantity, and how it's prepared, can determine even more descriptive names like cappuccino, meia de leite, and more. In Switzerland, the French-speaking areas have a popular version that starts with the milk and espresso is added. It is appropriately named cafe renverse or reverse coffee.

Here in the US, cafe au lait is typically a strong coffee that has been made with a French press or brewed with a drip coffee machine (rather than an espresso). It is then combined with steamed milk. It is typically served in a regular coffee mug rather than the bowl a latte is normally served in. However, you may see cafe au lait served in colored, ribbed bowls in traditional French restaurants or cafes in contrast to the rounded, smooth, white bowls you see lattes served in. When visiting New Orleans, your cafe au lait will likely have chicory and be made with scalded milk instead of steamed. The difference between them being the scalded milk is heated in a pan to just before boiling, whereas steamed milk is heated with a steamer wand.

Making a Cafe au Lait at Home

You can easily make your own cafe au lait at home. It is up to you whether you choose to be a "purist" and use a French press to make your coffee as you can just as readily brew it with your drip coffee maker. The coffee you use should be a dark roast with a strong flavor. Our Sumatra Black Satin and our After Dinner Blend are two of the best choices.

Next, use a steam wand to steam your milk. If you don't have a steam wand, that's okay! In the US, it is customary to make a cafe au lait with scalded milk instead. Heat your milk in a small saucepan until just before it boils. Or, if you would rather use your microwave to heat your milk, that's fine, too. The best milk to use is whole milk with 2% a close second. If you are vegan or lactose intolerant, soy milk is your best choice.

When combining the coffee and milk, you will want equal parts of both. If you like, you can add foam to your drink, but that is not the tradition. But it's your drink and you make it however you want to.

As for sweetening your cafe au lait, you can sweeten to taste after adding the milk to the coffee. Sugar is fine, but vanilla sugar is better. You can buy vanilla sugar, make your own, or simply add a drop or two of vanilla extract to your cup.

To make your own vanilla sugar, add two cups of sugar to a large bowl. Take two vanilla beans and slice them lengthwise. Scrape the seeds into the sugar. Mix the sugar and vanilla beans well either by hand or with a hand mixer. Add the sugar and vanilla bean mixture to an airtight container, add the pods, and place in a cool, dry place for around 2 weeks.

Enjoy your cafe au lait!

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