March 2, 2020

What Is a Cortado?


A customer walks into your coffee shop and orders a cortado. Depending on your perspective or where you are in the world, you could give them many drinks. For some, a cortado is a certain ratio of coffee to steamed milk. For others, it’s a small flat white or latte. Some even say it’s up to the customer.

With so many opinions on what a cortado is, there’s plenty of room for miscommunication – whether you want to order one, or serve it to customers. Despite this, it remains a coffee menu staple – but due to a variety of factors, it might not be for long.

Keep reading to explore the many existing variations of the cortado, and what the future could hold for them all.

Lee este artículo en español ¿Qué es un Cortado?

Many serving sizes, ratios, and presentation styles exist for the cortado.

Not much is known about the cortado’s origins, apart from the fact that it comes from Spain’s Basque Country. The term cortado, or cut, refers to the milk cutting through the intensity of the espresso, toning down its acidity while retaining the coffee’s flavour.

Traditionally it’s served with little froth and a 1:1 milk to espresso ratio. The milk is steamed until a very light foam is created before being added to the espresso, and is served in a small glass with a metal ring base and a metal wire handle. Based on its appearance, it’s often confused with an Australian/New Zealand flat white, macchiato, or piccolo latte.

Nino Tusell is the Owner of Tusell Tostadores, a roastery in Barcelona, Spain. He says, “In Spain, a cortado is one shot of espresso plus a little milk. [It] could be a ratio of 1:1 or 1:0.5, [with] less milk than coffee most of the time.” Visit Spain and you’re likely to be presented with this traditional form and ratio. However, venture further abroad, and you’ll encounter other versions of the drink.

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The recipe for a cortado always starts with fresh shots of espresso. Credit: Rea Café

The Cortado Around the World 

A Specialty Coffee Association article on milk-based drinks admits that “While the idea of standardisation is attractive­ – we all want a standard to work from – it’s important to understand that [drinks] are a product of culture.” For the cortado, this is especially applicable.

Often, its ingredients depend on what the customer requests. Camilo Cárdenas is a barista at Brew92, a café and roastery in Saudi Arabia. He says, “Traditionally [the cortado] was just black coffee and a small dash of milk, hot or cold. Then, when people asked for it in coffee shops, it got adapted as an espresso with a small quantity of steamed milk. In my workplace, we serve it with a double shot and steamed milk. [It’s] a bit smaller than a flat white”. 

Adrian Valentine Yong is a roaster at Malaysia’s Mountain Coffee Roasters and says, “I’ve met a few people who order cortados, and each of them interprets it differently… It’s how we make an espresso macchiato (double espresso with a dash of milk). Another type… would be similar to a flat white (double espresso and warm milk). I’ve also experienced people who request half-and-half (equal parts heavy cream and milk) with a double espresso, [and] some ask for ristretto shots.”

For others, it’s all about the ratio. Paula Chaverri Echandi, the owner of Café Sikëwa in Costa Rica, says “[The] cortado as I know it is one espresso plus one ounce of hot milk.” Bruno Danese is the owner of Japan’s Hoccino Coffees, and says it’s “1:1 espresso and steamed milk… a cortado can be as small as three ounces or as big as 16 ounces, as long the coffee to milk ratio remains the same.”

Other baristas and coffee professionals have different ideas. Frederik Westborg Schiøtz, an Educator at True Intent Coffee in Denmark, says it’s a “Double-shot [with a] minimal amount of foam, preferably with no latte art.” Lanz Castillo, owner of Candid Coffee in the Philippines, says it’s a one-ounce double ristretto with two and a half ounces of steamed milk, while Melaleuca Head Barista Johnsy La Jessica Sartiani says that in Italy, it’s called a macchiatone and consists of a single espresso shot with milk, served in a 50 ml cup.

Many recipes for a cortado require a 1:1 espresso to milk ratio. Credit: Neil Soque

Significant Variations 

As the cortado spread from Spain to cafés around the world, its recipe evolved to meet the needs of local consumers. A significant change it underwent occurred when it reached the USA. Here, serving sizes for coffee beverages have steadily crept up over the past half-century, and it’s not uncommon to find 20-ounce beverages on offer at US coffee shops. 

A famous variation of the cortado is the Gibraltar, which Time Out USA says was invented by the Blue Bottle Coffee Company in San Francisco in 2005. This variation is served in a four and a half ounce Libbey Gibraltar glass tumbler, and features two shots of espresso and two shots of steamed milk. For this reason, many third-wave coffee shops find the Cortado synonymous with this glass.

Rodolfo Ruffatti Batlle is Managing Director of a green coffee import business in Berlin, and says that many popular versions of the Cortado exist, including the Cuban cortadito. This version is popular in Cuba and Cuban immigrant communities. Translated as “little cut”, it starts with Cuban espresso, which is a dark roast espresso whipped with spoonfuls of sugar to create a caramel coloured shot with a thick foam. To this, frothed milk is added, with the option to thicken the drink by replacing the milk with evaporated milk for a treat or in place of dessert. 

An important component of the cortado is steamed milk. Credit: Red Band Academy

Mainstream Adoption of The Cortado & Its Future

As the cortado made its way to major coffee chains such as Starbucks, and Costa Coffee, each one developed their own take on it. The Starbucks cortado is made with two ristretto shots topped with milk, while Costa Coffee (the world’s second-largest coffee chain) describes their cortado as “small and luxurious”. Caffè Nero, the fourth largest chain in Europe, prepares theirs with 1:2 parts espresso to milk and 0.5 cm of micro-foam.

Increasing prices may be why the relatively smaller cortado remains on menus today, as some businesses move to cut costs by hiking prices and shrinking sizes. Costa Coffee recently reworked its serving sizes and prices in certain stores, based on industry trends and consumer feedback – possibly indicating a move towards smaller drink sizes with a premium price tag.

Mike Chapman owns the 1914 Coffee Company in Canada, and acknowledges that inconsistency over serving sizes, ratios, and volumes can get frustrating for coffee shop owners. He says, “Some days I want to rename my café the Metric Café where it would be up to [the customer] to detail specifically what [they] want… and be charged accordingly.” Talor Brown, the Owner of Talormade Oslo in Norway, says that “[A cortado] can be anything from a macchiato to a latte, and it’s maddening to cost.” 

If dairy consumption continues to plummet as it’s been doing for the past few years, it may fall out of favour with customers and coffee shops alike. Cargill, an international company in the food, agriculture, nutrition, and risk management sector, released a White Paper in 2018 stating, “Consumer attitudes about dairy are changing around the world… usage… has been in decline over the past two decades as consumers – particularly in dairy’s most prominent markets – act in response to worries over allergens, hormone usage and perceived unhealthfulness of some dairy products.” Steamed dairy milk gives the cortado its silky texture, low viscosity, and creamy mouthfeel, which means that cortados made with alternative milk could fall short.

With so much confusion surrounding what a cortado is, coffee shops might decide to remove titles altogether. Research indicates that many customers are confused over the number and complexity of coffee drink options presented to them. To simplify orders and pricing, coffee shops might move towards asking customers to describe their desired drink instead.

Two cortados served in Libbey Gibraltar glasses.

It’s apparent that the cortado has many distinct variations, and that what you order (or serve customers) will depend on where you are in the world. Use this exploration of what the cortado is to create a personal recipe that suits your unique tastes – or that of your customers.

Enjoyed this? Then Read Barista Basics: How to Texture Milk in 14 Steps

Written by Janice Kanniah. Feature photo caption: A cortado, served on a saucer with a teaspoon. Feature photo credit: Jos Dielis under CC BY 2.0

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