September 14, 2020

What Is A Café Con Leche?


Although the words “café con leche” literally translate into English as “coffee with milk”, making the drink isn’t quite that simple. There are dozens of different beverages made with espresso and milk. By combining the two, you can make everything from a macchiato to a latte.

While the café con leche originated in Spain, today it is popular in Spanish-speaking communities all across the world. To learn more about what makes it unique, and why it’s so popular, I spoke to three Spanish baristas.

Read on to learn more about the drink and how it’s made.

Lee este artículo en español ¿Qué es un Café Con Leche?

How Is A Café Con Leche Made?

The café con leche is usually prepared by combining equal parts of espresso and whole dairy milk. While the espresso should be prepared as normal, the milk is scalded, rather than steamed, heated, or added cold.

Milk is scalded by heating to just under its boiling point with a steam wand. In the past, scalding was used to kill bacteria and make milk safe for consumption. Now that milk is pasteurised, scalded milk is often used in coffee shops and for baking.

When scalded milk is added to espresso, it creates a rich, creamy, and naturally sweet drink, but lacks a thick layer of foam or microfoam. Plant milks can be used, but they might react differently to scalding and could affect the drink’s texture and taste. 

Jonathan Yanez is the head barista at Noa Specialty Coffee in Barcelona, Spain. He describes the café con leche as “very traditional”, saying that it “can be compared to the traditional Italian latte”. 

“It consists of an espresso base to which we usually add the same amount of milk,” Jonathan tells me. “It tends to be hotter and less creamy than a latte. People here in Spain order it in a glass, instead of a cup.”

You may also like What Is a Spanish Latte?

Preparing A Café Con Leche At Home

If you want to make a café con leche at home, you don’t need an espresso machine. Jonathan says that it can be made simply with a number of home brewing methods, including the moka pot and French press. 

Jonathan recommends brewing a coffee that’s more highly concentrated than usual, with a coffee-water ratio of 1:10 or 1:11. After brewing your coffee, scald your milk by heating it in a pan. Use a thermometer to check and take the milk off the heat around 82°C.

Once the milk is heated, stir and swirl it to add air and make it more creamy. Finish by pouring the milk over your coffee in a 1:1 ratio. 

For making a café con leche at home, Jonathan recommends using a Brazilian coffee. He uses one from Quality Blends Roasters, a roastery in Vilafranca del Panades.

Juan José Molina Gamez owns Rafelnunyol, a coffee shop in Valencia, Spain. Juan recommends using single-origin coffees from Peru, Brazil, Ethiopia, or Colombia. However, he says that in his coffee shop, it can be a challenge to get consumers to accept this, as house blends tend to be more popular in Spain.

What Makes It Unique?

Not much is known about who or when the café con leche was invented, only that it originated in Spain. 

Jonathan says: “Basically all the espresso-based drinks have the same origin. The key thing that makes all of them different is the recipe, the amount of espresso versus milk gives us different flavours by [making the drink] stronger, softer, milkier, or balanced.”

The café con leche is very popular in Spain, although it is also drunk in Spanish-speaking communities around the world. Certain areas and communities, however, have their own take on the beverage.

For example, Cuban communities in Miami have their own style of café con leche which is different to the “true” Spanish version. The Cuban version is made with a more concentrated coffee, but uses a higher volume of steamed (not scalded) milk, and plenty of sugar.

This “Cuban café con leche”, hugely popular in communities across Florida, is often enjoyed as a breakfast staple.

Who Does The Café Con Leche Appeal To? 

“In my personal experience, the customers who normally order a café con leche are the ones who are 30 or older,” Jonathan tells me. “These are people who have always visited neighbourhood’s cafés and don’t know much about specialty coffee.

“They keep ordering it because they’re used to it as a tradition. They like their coffee strong and hot, with little milk, and also have it with sugar.”

Victor Sanchez is a barista at Barista Fresh Kfstore in Barcelona, Spain. He agrees that the drink appeals to older coffee drinkers in Spain. “As a barista, I see that the customers who most often drink it are people between the ages of 40 and 70… I believe that because it’s a custom.” 

Spanish coffee culture has been heavily shaped by tradition, and a lot of older customers who are unfamiliar with specialty coffee tend to stick to drinks like the café con leche. However, there may be a future for the café con leche among younger audiences if baristas help customers to understand its unique appeal. 

Furthermore, Jonathan thinks it could evolve and serve as a “gateway” to specialty coffee for customers who enjoy more traditional beverages. “If baristas take a bit of our time to explain it properly, we could introduce specialty coffee to customers who have a more traditional mindset,” he tells me. “This would positively impact how this beverage is perceived among specialty coffee drinkers more widely.”

Jonathan says he has already seen some changes. Today, he says, more and more customers ask for milk of a specific type and temperature, and don’t add sugar so they can better taste the coffee. “It has been a process,” he says. “But the drink is evolving, and it could become more popular in the future.”

The café con leche might not remain popular on future coffee shop menus if it continues to exclusively appeal to older audiences who are more used to traditional Spanish coffee culture. Victor says: “I think that over time it will only exist in small towns and cities, where there are bars that serve it like this.”

However, if younger specialty coffee drinkers start trying the beverage – both in Spain and beyond – it may well become more popular. Jonathan tells me that “many specialty coffee shops offer their own variation of the café con leche”. Perhaps there is a future for this classic Spanish beverage after all.

Enjoyed this? Then read Specialty Tea: An Introduction to Tea Cupping

Photo credits: Zulio, J.G Barah, David Sanchez

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