Which is the true cappuccino? Espresso with whipped cream and sprinkled chocolate; espresso with 6oz of creamy milk and mircofoam; or a any size drink containing 1/3 espresso, 1/3 milk, and 1/3 foam?

Here’s a hint: it’s a trick question.


Larger American coffee chains are known for a variety of cappuccino sizes, while independent coffee shops often claim that the drink ought to be one size and one size only. Things only get more confusing when it becomes clear that nobody even follows the rule of thirds that Pinterest infographics champion (1/3 espresso, 1/3 milk, 1/3 foam). What caused all this mess to begin with?

Monkeys and Monks

Embedded in the tomes of the internet is the story of Franciscan monks as the origin of the name ‘cappuccino’. In Italian, ‘cappuccio’ means hood or cowl, and the ‘-ino’ ending indicates that the object is small. Literally, ‘cappuccino’ means “little hood”. The color of these hoods was a shade of brown that reminded Italians of the capuchin monkey, and the monks were often known as Capuchin monks.

A coffee with cream and sugar, often called a “Kapuziner” in Vienna, somewhere along the way was named a “Cappuccino” in Italy, since the color of the coffee reminded its drinkers of the Capuchin monks.

I cannot prove the validity of this story of the earliest from of a cappuccino, but it’s the best guess we have at an origin.

The Age of Crema

Early espresso machines in the early 1900s led to innovation in coffee drinks. Photographs from the 30’s show the cappuccino to be a coffee with whipped cream, topped with cinnamon or chocolate. This early form of the cappuccino still exists in many parts of the world.

The cappuccino continued to evolve as espresso machine and refrigeration technology progressed throughout the first half of the 20th century. Espresso machines generated more and more pressure, refrigerators became commonplace in coffee shops, and steam wands became safe to use for longer segments. These innovations enabled baristas to carefully texture warm milk, giving birth to the modern cappuccino. In these days, a cappuccino was a morning-only drink that never exceeded 180ml (6oz).

The Modern Cappuccino in America

If you go on a coffee tour of your city, you may be surprised at the variation you will find surrounding cappuccinos. Sizes, ratios, and temperatures are everywhere. Only in the last few years have some trends become clear, and some recipes standardized in America.

The Big Boys and Wannabees

Mom and pop shops litter the nation in cities and towns of all sizes. Often, they build their menu around and feed on the existing market of the big coffee players, Starbucks, Peets, and others. The cappuccinos served at these locations typically come in multiple sizes, are very hot, and generally don’t follow the rule of thirds that has become widely known since Pinterest launched.

You will rarely find a cappuccino smaller than 8oz in these establishments. Art in the foam of these cappuccinos is a fool’s game, because the foam is generally made of large bubbles, and very hot.

The Independents and Specialty

A new wave of coffee shops has shaken the coffee industry around the globe in the last 10 years. Specialty coffee shops have some values that differ from large companies. One of these is a dedication to the coffee taste, which leads drink sizes to be on the smaller side. A cappuccino in these shops never exceeds 6oz, like the Italian standard. Departing from that tradition though, these shops tend to include less foam in their cappuccinos for the sake of creamier milk and foam art.

You can expect a slightly cooler drink from one of these shops, which is a strategy for keeping the steamed milk sweet and the microfoam crisp enough for art.

The True Cappuccino?

Here’s what we know for sure:

  • The cappuccino has evolved over the last one hundred years, even in Italy
  • It was most likely coffee with cream and sugar originally
  • There now exist at least three major approaches to building the drink
    • Whipped Cream and Chocolate (older tradition)
    • Scalable in Size (corporate tradition)
    • Small with Art (specialty tradition)
  • The newest variation in the cappuccino comes from the specialty coffee industry

The pursuit of the “original, true cappuccino” is one that will only end in disappointment. The drink’s vague history and rapid evolution are witness to its variability.

It’s no serious disruption to the world if there exist multiple approaches to crafting the beverage (even if it can be confusing). While dependable standards are comforting, the rapidly changing global coffee industry is still relatively new. Coffee has never been drank so widely, has never generated so much money, and has never been stagnant.

A Personal Note

Personally, I believe the specialty coffee industry’s approach to the cappuccino is an improvement on the early cappuccino that was favored by baristas of the Age of Crema. No, it’s not the exact same, but it shouldn’t be. Today’s cappuccinos should be better than those of a century ago. Some major improvements have been made, such as using higher quality coffee beans and steaming the milk for creaminess and sweetness rather than foam height. We should welcome such improvements, and be open to more in the future.

The cappuccino will continue to evolve. We should embrace the variations that celebrate the coffee, but be weary of those that come about in the pursuit of money.

It’s time to let the 20oz cappuccino die. It’s time to embrace the slow change of one of the world’s favorite coffee drinks.