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Home » Cafe Au Lait vs Latte: What’s the Difference?

Cafe Au Lait vs Latte: What’s the Difference?

There’s nothing worse than splurging on a drink at a fancy coffee shop only to find it’s not what you expected. We’re here to save you from that fate!

Cafe au lait and caffe latte both have the same ingredients: coffee and milk, but they’re very different. Let’s explore the two so you can confidently order your favorite.

What is Latte?

Latte is a shortened version of caffé latte, which is Italian for “coffee with milk.” Traditionally, in Europe, a latte will be 8 ounces, of which ⅙ is espresso, ⅔ is steamed milk, and the remaining ⅙ is a thin layer of foam on top.

Lattes are often served in tall and narrow glasses so that the distinct coffee, milk, and foam layers are visible. 

They are commonly topped with latte art, stylized images on the top surface. Skilled (home)baristas make latte art by pouring the steamed milk and foam.

Watch our video below to learn latte art. You’re welcome.

Lattes are one of the milkiest espresso drinks. Surprise, surprise: they have a mild and creamy flavor. You might call them the “gateway drug” into strong coffee drinks.

Want to try to make your own? Use a good latte machine and check out our guide on how to make a latte.

More recently, many flavored lattes have become popular in cafés and shops, some of which don’t even include coffee! These include turmeric, pumpkin spice, chai, and matcha lattes, among many others.

Related: What is Breve Coffee?

What is a Café au Lait?

Although café au lait also means “coffee with milk,” this French drink is quite different from its Italian counterpart. And confusingly, it can vary around the world. In fact, many North American cafes, including Starbucks, call the café au lait the Caffe Misto. No idea why.

In its native France, they make café au lait in coffee shops using a one-to-one mix of espresso and steamed milk. Unlike a café latte, the café au lait doesn’t have any milk foam. It’s traditionally served in a small, wide glass bowl, making it easy to dunk pastries in your coffee drink. Yum!

Elsewhere, it’s more often made with strong brewed coffee in place of a shot of espresso and served in a cappuccino cup for better heat retention. French press coffee, with its oily mouthfeel and heavy body, is a popular choice. 

The cafe au lait is probably the most democratic and accessible milk-based coffee out there.

This makes the café au lait an ideal drink to enjoy at home because you don’t need a latte machine (1).

The most famous regional variation of the café au lait is found in New Orleans. It combines chicory coffee and scalded milk (2). The chicory makes it slightly bitter, which they often serve with the very sweet, sugar-coated donuts called beignets.

café au lait vs latte infographic


The difference between a latte vs mocha is that a mocha includes chocolate and steamed milk, and espresso. The usual ratio is equal parts dark chocolate and espresso, topped off with steamed milk.

The difference between a latte, cappuccino, and macchiato comes down to the ratio of the three ingredients: a shot of espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk. A latte has the most milk of the trio, a cappuccino is the foamiest, and a macchiato is just espresso with a dash of milk.

The difference between a latte and a flat white is very slight. Generally, flat whites are a bit smaller than lattes and a bit stronger, with a slightly higher ratio of espresso to milk.

  1. Kanniah, J.C. (2020, October 12). What is a Cafe au Lait? Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/10/what-is-a-cafe-au-lait/
  2. Smith, K.A. (2014, March 5). The History of the Chicory Coffee Mix That NewOrleans Made Its Own. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/chicory-coffee-mix-new-orleans-made-own-comes-180949950/
Julia Bobak
I love trail running, rock climbing, coffee, food, and my tiny dog — and writing about all of them. I start every morning with a fresh Americano from my home espresso machine, or I don’t start it at all.