What Is A Café Au Lait?

There are dozens of milk-based coffee drinks available on the average coffee shop menu. For those without a way to brew espresso or a steam wand, they can be difficult to replicate at home. 

The café au lait is a notable exception. While it will be prepared with espresso in many cafés, it can be made with any highly-concentrated coffee at home. It is simple and easy to prepare, and variations of it are drunk all across the world under different names.

Read on to learn more about how you would make one, and precisely why so many versions of it exist.

You may also like What Is a Flat White & How Is It Different From a Latte?

The Drink With Many Names 

The café au lait hails from France. Its name directly translates as “coffee with milk”

In Europe, the café au lait is made by adding steamed milk to a shot of espresso in a 1:1 ratio. The drink is topped with little or no foam. In the US, however, it is often prepared by adding steamed milk to concentrated filter coffee.

Nicolas Clerc is a barista at Télescope Café in Paris, France. He says that the café au lait consists of a single espresso shot in a 170ml cup, combined with warmed milk. Nicolas says this creates a drinking-temperature beverage that isn’t foamy which can be enjoyed immediately.

According to Tom Clark, who is the co-founder and President of Coutume Café in Paris, France, the café au lait is enjoyed in an oversized mug or even a bowl. He tells me that this is to allow the drinker to dunk their pastries into the coffee during breakfast.

Many versions of the beverage exist across the world. In Poland, it’s called the kawa biala, in Germany, it’s known as milchkaffee, in Hungary, it’s tejeskávé, and the Dutch version of the drink is koffie verkeerd (this directly translates as “wrong coffee”, as the Dutch generally drink coffee with very little milk). In Brazil, it is also known as a café com leite

There are also drinks which contain the same ingredients, but are prepared differently. In Spain, for example, the café con leche is made with scalded milk, not steamed milk. In Switzerland, however, the café renversé is made by adding espresso to milk, rather than the other way around.

What The Café Au Lait Is – And Isn’t 

Tom says: “The cafe au lait is probably the most democratic and accessible milk-based coffee out there. It certainly has its role at the breakfast table and it’s as good as the quality of the ingredients.”

The café au lait differs from the café latte and flat white, even though all three are often mistaken for one another. The flat white is an espresso with a small amount of steamed milk and a thin layer of foam, while the latte is espresso topped with two distinct and thicker layers of steamed and foamed milk. Nicolas says that it differs from other drinks as the “cappuccino is foamier, the flat white is stronger, and the latte is milkier”.

Many coffee shop chains – such as Starbucks – refer to the café au lait as a “caffe misto”. This drink is made as an American café au lait drip-brewed coffee and 2% milk, to which flavoured syrups are often added. However, Tom notes that “the prevalence of the espresso machine” has caused the beverage to “morph into a latte with an espresso base”.

It’s important to note that the beverage must be made with warmed or steamed milk, rather than cold milk (which is just a white coffee). Steaming milk caramelises the lactose it contains, making it sweeter and more creamy. However, Tom says: “Depending on the café, it may be served with milk warmed over the stove-top (common in regional France) or textured milk.”

As the café au lait has been adapted in many different countries across the world, it technically has many variations. However, one particularly interesting version of the drink comes from New Orleans.

Café du Monde is a coffee shop in the city’s French quarter that has served its famous variation of the café au lait for more than 150 years. The café au lait served at Café du Monde combines chicory and coffee to create an intense, bitter brew with a thick mouthfeel.

This dates back to the American Civil War, when coffee was so scarce that it was frequently mixed with chicory so it would last longer. To offset the intensity of the drink, the coffee shop serves its café au lait with beignets – a deep-fried French pastry that is coated with sugar.

Will The Café Au Lait Stay Popular?

Nicolas believes that the café au lait will remain popular on menus for some time.

He notes, however, that there is some variation; the drink is prepared differently in different countries. Customers in France and in the US, for example, will get considerably different drinks when they ask their local coffee shop for a café au lait.

“In France, it’s quite common to be asked [for a café au lait], but customers expect a smooth cappuccino, not a dark drip coffee with unsteamed milk.” He adds: “I like to listen carefully to what clients want, and [meet] their expectations as close as we can.”

Tom also points out that coffee shops will need to note that many consumers are moving away from consuming dairy milk. “I’m sure it’ll always be enjoyed by some but honestly, I see milk drinks reducing over time.

“Coffee culture is evolving in parallel with the changing culture around dairy, and it’s promoting dairy-free alternatives. As well as this, we have the fact that people are discovering delicious specialty coffee served simply as a [black] filter coffee.”

Sadry Alexandre Abidi is a roaster at Café Moxka in Lyon, France. He says that he thinks that as more alternative milk options become available, the drink will evolve to accommodate them. “Milk-based coffees are very popular,” Sadry explains.

“Nine years ago when we started, it was very hard to find anything other than UHT milk.” Today, he says, it is a different case for coffee shops; and popular milk-based beverages may naturally evolve.

The café au lait is an important part of European coffee history. Despite the dozens of variations that exist around the world, it has still been popular for hundreds of years, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Its two simple ingredients mean there is huge potential for experimentation and evolution as coffee consumer trends change. For example, in years to come, it may be more and more common to see the café au lait made with plant milk in specialty coffee shops.

However, whether it changes or not, one thing is certain: this sweet, creamy beverage is a staple for many, and it’s a great platform for tweaks and changes. So next time you’re visiting a coffee shop, maybe it’s worth asking how your barista would make a café au lait. You never know; it might surprise you.

Enjoyed this? Then read A Guide To Working With Plant Milks

Photo credits: Joan Dragonfly, WordRidden, Christopher Bowns 

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