Many people across the globe are known to enjoy drinking coffee in the many forms it can be made. It’s commonly used as a pick-me-up in the morning as well as a hangover cure, an after-dinner refreshment or the perfect warm drink to share with friends in your favourite café. It’s even a versatile drink to sip on the go. But where has this caffeinated tradition come from and how will you know exactly what you’re getting when you order one? Read on to find out all you need to know about café au lait…
What is Café Au Lait?
‘Café au lait’ is the French term for hot, fresh filter coffee paired with steamed milk. Nowadays, this drink is usually made with equal parts coffee to milk. Originally, however, this beverage was served without milk, which is often known as a ‘black americano’, or a ‘long black’. In this form, the coffee tastes pure, strong, and to some people’s taste, bitter. The addition of milk makes this drink sweeter, more creamy and therefore more palatable for those that find the taste of straight black coffee too intense.
Café au lait is often less expensive than other kinds of coffee-based beverages (such as café latte) which consist of one or two shots of espresso (depending on how strong you like your coffee) and hot frothed milk. For this reason, café au lait is the easiest way to get your coffee fix from home, as no specialist frothing equipment is needed, just good quality coffee, hot water, and the milk of your choosing.
Therefore, café au lait has become a reliable and extremely popular choice for many people since its first introduction; whether it’s what you drink in the morning to wake you up, something you and your friends chat over at your favourite café or a boost whenever you need an easy, quick and satisfying dose of caffeine.
Interestingly, many coffee franchises, such as Starbucks, refer to café au lait as ‘café misto’, however, this term just describes the American version of café au lait which contains drip-brewed coffee and 2% milk, to which flavoured syrups are frequently added. This is definitely not the same as your humble, traditional café au lait, and you can be sure that a French barista would agree profusely.
The History of Café au Lait
It is believed by some that the French tradition of café au lait all started with the introduction of coffee to the Europeans by the Turks in the early 1600s. However, it has also been reported that the French first developed their taste for coffee during their civil war; chicory was used to add body and flavour to the brew when coffee supplies were scarce.
Despite it reportedly not being their ‘cup of tea’ (or rather cup of coffee) to begin with, many cafes in Paris soon opened and it wasn’t long before this novelty caffeinated drink became a common accompaniment to the conversation and social situations. However, although the Turks had introduced coffee to France in its most essential form – black coffee, it was the French who then decided to add milk into the equation, perhaps drawing from ideas that were reportedly first laid out by a Dutch trader.
Over time, café au lait has become extremely popular with Americans in particular, although they seem to have made some slight adjustments to the way that coffee was first made in Europe. For example, coffee shops in New Orleans often make café au lait with scalded milk, as opposed to steamed.
How is it different from a Café Latte?
As mentioned earlier, there is a clear distinction to be made between café au lait and café latte. As the former is black coffee with the addition of milk, a café latte refers to a luxurious drink containing silky, full-bodied frothed milk and a shot or two of rich, dark espresso.
Differing from the self-effacing café au lait, the term ‘café latte’ encompasses many different types of drink, ranging from a latte to a cappuccino, a flat white, and numerous others. Baristas can be seen performing latte art on drinks such as these.
Many factors determine the quality of a café latte: the temperature to which the milk has been heated, the consistency and quality of the milk, the way that it is poured and how the ratio of froth to milk to espresso impacts the overall taste experience of the coffee.
On top of this, the quality of the coffee beans and the manner in which they are ground is integral to ensuring a tasty cup of coffee, but this goes for café au lait too. Under-extracted coffee grounds will mean that the coffee tastes acidic and sour, whereas if the coffee grounds are over-extracted, your cup of coffee will lack flavour and leave a bitter taste in your mouth.
How is it different to Café Crème?
Whilst your regular café au lait is filtered coffee with the addition of hot milk, exactly what the term ‘café crème’ refers to is highly contested. Some say that café crème should be an espresso with a splash of crème added to it, whilst others say that it should consist, exactly like a café au lait, of coffee and milk, although perhaps less milk than café au lait.
There is also a theory that café au lait and café crème are, in fact, the exact same drink; café au lait is what you make at home, whereas if you’re going to a café for your fix of coffee-with-milk, you will order a café crème.
It is believed that the name of café au lait morphed into being synonymous with that of café crème fairly recently. Although café crème actually contains no crème (or cream), the name has been claimed by French cafes at the risk of forgetting the old term ‘café au lait’.
Additionally, in France, café au lait has been traditionally served in a large bowl at breakfast time as the perfect accompaniment to a classic petit dejeuner.
How to make a Café Au Lait?
- Either a Moka pot or a French press
- A pan for heating milk
- Frothing wand (if you would like your milk to be frothed)
- A coffee mug (or a bowl if you’re going down the more authentically French route)
- Your favourite blend of coffee
- Hot water
- The milk of your choice
- Sugar (entirely optional, and usually not included if using the traditional French way of preparing café au lait)
Steps to Make
- First, boil your water and pour it into the Moka pot or French press. Leave to brew for 5-10 minutes.
- Whilst the coffee is brewing, heat the milk of your choice in a pan over a hob.
- If you wish, froth the milk whilst it heats to create a smooth, airy texture.
- Remove the milk from the heat just before it boils for the best temperature for your coffee.
- Press the coffee and pour the desired amount into your coffee cup/bowl.
- Using the equal 1:1 ratio, pour the milk or milk alternative into the cup/bowl.
- Enjoy your freshly made café au lait!
- Make sure to choose the right kind of coffee beans. Depending on how your coffee to taste, make sure to select the beans accordingly. For example, many fruity coffees that originate from Central America can lose flavour when mixed with milk. Java, Brazilian or Sumatran beans may generate a richer, more satisfying flavour for your coffee.
- Use whole milk, or the barista version of your desired plant milk to really make this drink as creamy and decadent as you can.
- Pour the coffee and the milk in the cup at the same time. Therefore, you won’t have to stir it afterwards, meaning that all that lovely milk foam isn’t compromised.
- If you’re feeling like a cold drink, cool the coffee and milk before mixing in a blender with ice, or adding a handful of ice after the mixing. And there you have it, an iced café au lait!
It has been clear for many years now that coffee is an important part of many peoples’ day to day lives. This classic French way of drinking coffee has carried through centuries and is timeless in its simplicity and quality.
Knowing the history and some of the details behind what goes into making a café au lait (coffee with milk) means that we can fully appreciate the journey and development of this drink, making every sip taste even better than the last.