Finding the Perfect Macchiato

Aron Solomon

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Aron Solomon

I’m a coffee achiever. On every trip I’ve taken in over three million miles of pre-pandemic air travel, I’ve sought out and often found the world’s best coffee.

My daily coffee drink is one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated coffee drinks - the espresso macchiato, more commonly known as simply a macchiato.

Ales Pospisil, a coffee expert in one of the world’s great coffee cities - Prague - has a superb YouTube coffee channel and a wonderful video explaining all the espresso drinks, including a section on the macchiato. The problem with their description is that the definition has become too loose. The macchiato is defined in this video “You mix a single shot of espresso with just a little bit of foamed milk - the ratio is 1:1 or 1:2” shows the problem.

James Hoffman is a world barista champion, and the founder of an award-winning coffee company in London. He’s arguably the world’s foremost coffee expert today. In his video explaining the different types of coffee drinks, he discusses how the traditional meaning of some of these coffee drinks has changed because of the Third Wave coffee movement and what people are looking for in their coffee in these upscale coffee establishments.

So what, exactly, is the problem with these coffee purveyors and their Third Wave macchiato? Well, it’s not a macchiato, it’s a tiny latte. Great for those of you who want a really small latte, not so great for those of us who want an actual macchiato.

I’ve honestly never had a proper macchiato at a modern, Third Wave coffee shop. I’ve had excellent tiny lattes branded as macchiatos, but only in a real (read: “old school”) Italian cafe have I had great macchiatos. Luckily, one is steps away. Montreal’s Cafe Italia is a 4th generation family-run cafe in the city’s Picola Italia neighborhood, where I live. While a lot of similarly-situated cafes in this city deeply understand the macchiato, I don’t believe that many do as well as Cafe Italia, a place as old school as old school can possibly get.

In a conversation I recently had with a few people in line at Cafe Italia, one of the baristas said:

“A real macchiato is a completely different drink than most people are used to getting. If someone’s new here, they expect a drink that highlights the milk, but it’s the opposite. In a real macchiato, the little bit of milk just enhances and releases the taste of the coffee.”

And that’s what it’s really all about. The key to the perfect macchiato actually lies in its name. The term macchiato denotes a stained espresso. Essentially, an espresso “stained” with a little bit of milk - absolutely not a milky coffee drink with anywhere near a 1:2 coffee to milk ratio.

When it comes to the macchiato, I also need to say something here about milk. I have been plant-based (eating a vegan diet) in the past although I am not currently. And I understand that a lot of people don’t like to drink cow’s milk, but instead choose from a whole bunch of other milk alternatives for their coffee. Some of these alternatives are deeply horrible, such as almond milk, which, to me, tastes hideous in coffee but fine by itself. And some of these alternatives are getting very good, including an outstanding one that James Hoffman himself has collaborated on called Rebel Kitchen Mylk. But for a true macchiato you have to use regular milk - it honestly just doesn’t taste right otherwise.

In my decades of experience, the best macchiato is also one that is not only properly prepared, but taken where the experience of drinking it is singular. What I mean by that is that every great macchiato has different flavors in it, but the best macchiatos you’ll ever drink are those in which all of the flavors play together in harmony. That’s not really an abstract concept - explained simply, it means you’re not tasting milk and coffee but rather one unified thing. And an intangible part of that harmony comes from feeling aligned with where you’re drinking your coffee.

No matter where you choose to take your coffee, part of the fun of drinking it comes from exploring new coffee drinks. Take a look at the videos posted above, as they’ll surely inspire you to try something fun and new in your coffee rotation. Whatever you think is the perfect coffee is the perfect coffee for you - all of this is entirely subjective. Enjoy!

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Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital, who has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world.

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