Cream of the Crop: Breve Coffee Explained

These days, most of us are familiar with milk-based espresso drinks such as cafe latte and cappuccino. Even though hipster favorites like the flat white and cortado shook things up a little in recent years, we're still on solid ground when it comes to the Italian classics. We know what we like and we know how to order it.

These days, most of us are familiar with milk-based espresso drinks such as cafe latte and cappuccino. Even though hipster favorites like the flat white and cortado shook things up a little in recent years, we’re still on solid ground when it comes to the Italian classics. We know what we like and we know how to order it.

Breve coffee is a little less well-known for a lot of people, which leaves people asking:

  • What is a breve coffee?
  • Is breve coffee a type of cafe latte?
  • Does breve have anything to do with espresso at all?
  • And how the heck do you pronounce breve, anyway?

In this article, I’ll answer all these questions and more. I’ll even show you how to make a breve coffee at home. Before we go any further, though, let’s clarify what a breve coffee actually is.

A breve coffee, also known as a cafe breve or just breve, is an espresso-based drink made with steamed half-and-half, rather than milk. It’s really that simple. Except when it isn’t. Keep reading to find out more.

Breve Coffee: What's the Story?

At this point, I think it’s only fair that I address the question of how to pronounce the word “breve.” After all, the last thing you’re going to need tomorrow morning is a sniggering barista as you’re trying to order. 

Breve is actually an Italian word meaning “short.” It’s pronounced “bre-veh.” As it happens, the word is also used in music and phonics, but it’s pronounced “breev” by musicians and linguists. 

Why the breve has an Italian name is anyone’s guess. Its origins aren’t even Italian, and it isn’t necessarily short.

Still, when you learn how many calories are involved you might agree that it should probably be on the smaller side. 

Closeup of a breve coffee from a super automatic espresso machine.

That said, breve is a North American invention and although it’s based on the cafe latte, that’s where the Italian connection ends.

If you show up in a cafe in Italy and try ordering a breve, you’ll most likely get little more than a puzzled look in return.

No one seems to know which genius first came up with the idea for making a latte with half-and-half instead of milk.

Even so, breve coffee has become a cult favorite among those who seek an extra element of decadence and luxury. Not to mention a boost to their caloric intake for the day!

Breve vs Cafe Latte

Although breve coffee evolved as an American take on the cafe latte, in reality, I find that it’s more akin to a classic cappuccino. That’s because of the way half-and-half reacts when you steam it.

Since half-and-half has a much higher fat content than whole milk (10-12 percent, compared to 4 percent), you end up with fluffier and more stable foam.

Breve coffee is much richer and more frothy than cafe latte. You can create microfoam when steaming half-and-half, but overall the consistency of a breve will be thicker, with a dense layer of foam on top.

Fusion Confusion: Breve From Starbucks and Dutch Bros.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the breve has been used and abused by large coffee chains. It’s been humiliated in the same way as latte macchiato and cappuccino.

The result is often a Frankenstein’s monster that’s about as far from the original as it’s possible to get. If you’re thinking of experimenting with a breve coffee at either Starbucks or Dutch Bros., you should be aware of what you’re getting yourself into:

  • At Starbucks, breve refers to half-and-half, rather than a specific drink. That’s because any drink can be made “breve.” You can order a latte breve, cappuccino breve or mocha breve. So, when you order a tall breve at Starbucks, you might just end up with a cup of steamed half-and-half.
  • Dutch Bros. is an Oregon-based company with a devout following. The Dutch Bros. breve coffee is made with something called “Kick Me Mix,” which is their version of half-and-half. They love to throw the kitchen sink at their “coffee” creations, so be ready for syrup, whipped cream and any number of toppings.

How To Make Breve Coffee

As with most other milk-based espresso drinks, breve coffee recipe only requires two ingredients:

  • Fresh, high-quality espresso beans
  • Fresh, cold half-and-half

Thanks to the wide variety of plant-based alternative milk options we now have access to, making a vegan latte or cappuccino is no problem. Making a non-dairy breve coffee might be a little more challenging, though. Vegan creamer is out there, but I haven’t tried it.

You could also try a blend of non-dairy milk, such as almond, soy or oat, and coconut cream. It all hinges on whether you can find the right balance of fat content and flavor.

Closeup of an espresso being extracted.

Ideally, you should prepare espresso using an actual espresso machine. However, a well-calibrated super automatic espresso machine will work nicely.

You could also get fairly decent results using a moka pot and a milk frother. That said, you won’t be able to produce true espresso using this method.

Breve Coffee Preparation

Whichever preparation method you’re using, remember to preheat your cup. Steamed half-and-half is quite foamy, so the temperature will drop relatively quickly.

Some people like to steam the half-and-half before pulling a shot of espresso, claiming it needs to “rest.” I disagree — as the steamed half-and-half sits, it tends to separate and you’ll have a hard time creating a silky, homogenous texture.

  1. Using a portafilter machine, pull a shot of espresso by using 7 grams (0.24 ounces) of freshly ground coffee. The extraction time should be around 25 seconds, and the resulting shot volume should be 20-25 milliliters (0.67-0.84 fluid ounces).
  2. Meanwhile, use the steam wand to heat the milk. Create microfoam by holding the pitcher at a slight angle and immersing the tip of the wand just under the surface for a few seconds. You’ll hear a gentle hissing sound. Then immerse the wand further to create a whirlpool effect. The half-and-half will begin to increase in volume and it’ll be ready when the temperature reaches 140-160 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Gently tap the pitcher on your work surface to eliminate large bubbles, then swirl to create a homogenous texture. Pour over the espresso as quickly as possible. You may even be able to create a pretty pattern on top.

Your breve coffee shouldn’t be as foamy as a cappuccino, but there’ll be a nice, dense layer on top. Steamed half-and-half creates a creamy, sweet foam, so feel free to experiment with bold, full-bodied espresso beans.

Breve Iced Coffee

Pouring espresso into cold, frothed half-and-half.

There’s no reason why you can’t throw together an iced breve coffee. Although steaming really brings out the sweetness in half-and-half, it’ll still be decadent and delicious on the rocks. For an extra textural twist, try frothing the milk using a manual milk frother. I’ve had great results using the Bodum Latteo.

The Heart of the Matter: How Many Calories Are in Breve Coffee?

In my recent guides to latte macchiato and cappuccino, I got a little bent out of shape about having to answer this question. However, whereas drinking a cappuccino or an espresso macchiato every day will do little to increase your waistline, regular breve coffee consumption is a different matter. Let’s look at the evidence:

  • 240 milliliters (8 fluid ounces) whole milk contains around 150 kilocalories
  • The same amount of half-and-half contains a whopping 320 kilocalories

Let’s face it: you were never going to get something even richer and creamier than a whole milk cappuccino without some kind of catch. If we take the breve for what it should be — a special treat to be enjoyed once in a while — there’s nothing to worry about.

However, if you’re ordering a 16-ounce Starbucks breve every morning and loading it up with vanilla syrup and sprinkles, you’re in for trouble. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

What’s your experience with breve coffee? Have you tried a vegan breve and loved it? Leave your comments below!

 

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