What Is a Cafe au Lait? A Taste of Paris in Every Sip!

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

Our review process | Our team

Bonjour! Today, I want to explore the delicious world of milky coffee and answer this: What is a cafe au lait?

Bonjour! Today, I want to explore the delicious world of milky coffee and answer this: What is a cafe au lait?

A café au lait embodies French coffee elegance. It’s a breakfast staple at Parisian cafés and, in my opinion, France’s answer to the latte. But how does this coffee differ from other milky coffees?

Let’s unpack this quintessential French delight. And later I’ll show you how to make this delicious beverage that marries robust coffee with creamy milk.

Overview: What Is a Cafe au Lait?

So what is a café au lait? Isn’t it just a fancy name for white coffee? Far from it!

Café au lait hails from France and translates to “coffee with milk.” But here’s the twist – instead of adding milk to a regular cup of drip, the French upped the ante. They mix equal parts brewed coffee and frothy, steamed milk for a delicious flavor.

Now, here’s the secret: The type of coffee beans, roast profile and type of milk make all the difference. Traditionally, a café au lait uses a dark-roasted French roast or espresso blend. This gives it a bold flavor and punch that regular drip coffee can’t match.

And as for the steamed milk, it’s gotta be whole milk. This is what gives this brew its creamy, luscious taste and texture.

Cafe au Lait: A Brief History

The café au lait as a beverage has an interesting history.

It dates back to 18th-century France and was popular with the aristocracy. In fact, Marie Antoinette herself enjoyed this coffee when she frequented her fave coffee shops in the city of Ua. Undoubtedly, the founding fathers must have also come across it during their time in France. Incidentally, a version of this coffee was popular in New Orleans during the American Civil War.

Typical parisian cafe

Unlike European café au lait, it combined ground coffee with chicory to make things go further in what were turbulent times. This version of the cafe au lait used, and still uses, scalded milk (milk warmed to below boiling point).

By the 19th century, the café au lait was a staple in Parisian cafés and French households. It quickly became a cornerstone of French coffee culture.

The Cafe au Lait Today

Today, café au lait is present at almost every French breakfast. The French enjoy it served in a traditional café au lait bol (bowl). This oversized mug, made of quality porcelain, often has no handles and comes with a saucer. These bowls also have a wide mouth, allowing you to indulge in the aroma of your coffee as you sip.

Typically, you’d also dunk your breakfast accompaniment into the coffee, eat and then sip away. Favorite accompaniments include croissants, scones, assorted pastries or baguette with butter and jam.

This coffee is also popular as an after-brunch coffee. Here, it goes perfectly with a square of deliciously dark and bitter French chocolate. Interestingly, you’ll find a chicory coffee version of cafe au lait version in New Orleans, only here they enjoy it with powdered sugar beignets.

As a rule, don’t hurry when drinking this white coffee; like with Italian espresso, you must take time to truly enjoy it. Rush it, and you might just have Julia Child turning in her grave!

Cafe au Lait Around the World

Café au lait has made quite a name for itself and has many variations globally.

In Italy and Australia, the closest equivalents are the latte and flat white, respectively. These use an espresso base topped with thicker layers of steamed milk and foam. Like the Italian cappuccino, the cafe au lait is strictly a morning coffee.

Australian Coffee as a Social Ritual

In Germany and Scandinavia, you’ll find it as milchkaffee or milkkaffe, respectively. Further south in Spain, café au lait translates as caféconleche (caféambllet in Catalan country). Similarly, in neighboring Portugal and in Brazil you’d order it as cafécomleite. Some of these variations use evaporated or long-life milk, as fresh milk can be hard to come by.

Caférenversé, literally “reverse coffee,” is the Swiss version. It has a steamed milk base topped with espresso. Also, in the Netherlands, koffieverkeerd or “wrong coffee” is the equivalent. It’s so named because the Dutch hardly ever drink their coffee with milk.

Further East, this coffee makes an appearance as tejeskávé in Hungary and kawabiala in Poland. Here at home, its closest equal is NOLA-style chicory coffee, with origins in the American Civil War or the richer, more frothy café breve.

Now onto Asia. The Vietnamese have a unique heritage centered on iced Vietnamese coffee. Known as caphenau or caphesua da it uses sweetened condensed milk instead of fresh. Still in Asia – Indonesia to be exact – you’ll find the cafe au lait as kopisusu.

Even Africa has its own version of this elegant milk coffee. Kenya and Tanzania enjoy the café au lait as kahawayamaziwa. It has popularized coffee in these countries, which traditionally prefer a spiced Indian-style tea, similar to a chai latte at breakfast.

Cafe au Lait vs Latte: What’s the Difference?

This goes to the heart of the question, “What is a cafe au lait?” While a café au lait and latte are both milky coffees, these two beverages are very different.

For a start, cafe au lait is a white coffee consisting of equal parts strong brewed coffee and steamed and foamed milk. On the other hand, a latte has a shot or two (or three!) of espresso topped with thicker layers of steamed milk and a tiny bit of milk froth.

Casabrews Espresso Machine Cappuccino Latte Art

This difference in constitution also implies a difference in method. To make a cafe au lait, pour a 1:1 ratio of brewed coffee into milk. It results in a balanced and creamy beverage. In contrast, for a latte, you would use a higher milk-to-coffee ratio of 2:1. The focus here is more on the creamy and velvety texture of milk rather than the intensity of the coffee.

Moreover, these differences result in very different coffee flavors. When comparing a cafe au lait and a single-shot latte, the former tends to be more robust. It uses more coffee than a latte’s single espresso shot. The ‘lait also uses a French roast blend, giving it a stronger flavor.

And so it is with the caffeine kick. Typically, a café au lait has more caffeine than a latte. The amount of caffeine varies depending on the amount and strength of brewed coffee. Coffee blends have, on average, 80-120 milligrams of caffeine. An espresso shot, in comparison, has 70 milligrams of caffeine.

So, a typical 12-ounce (355-milliliter) café au lait would contain 70-90 milligrams of caffeine. In contrast, a single-shot latte of the same size would contain 68-70 milligrams. 

If ordering at a coffee shop, always check caffeine amounts with your barista beforehand.

How to Make a Cafe au Lait

Making an authentic café au lait at home isn’t that difficult. You can enjoy French café culture with good brewed coffee and heated milk.

Here’s how:

What You’ll Need: 

  • Freshly brewed strong coffee (dark-roasted French roast or espresso blend)

  • Cold milk (whole milk is authentic, but you can use half-and-half, 2% milk or vegan milk)

  • Sweetener (sugar, simple syrup or honey)

  • Optional: Toppings (cocoa powder, powdered cinnamon, powdered nutmeg)

Equipment

  • Coffee maker of choice (French press, moka pot or espresso machine)

  • Automatic milk frother or espresso machine with steam wand

  • Small heavy-bottomed saucepan (for steaming and frothing milk)

  • Hand-held milk frother or whisk

  • Cafe au lait bol (you may use a cappuccino cup, latte mug or oversized coffee mug instead)

  • Spoons (for stirring and serving)

  • Optional: Thermometer

Cafe au Lait Taste of Paris

Steps

  1. Brew a strong cup of coffee using your preferred method.

  2. Alternatively, you may use an espresso machine to brew a double-shot espresso base. Add some water to your espresso base to make up the required volume of coffee.

  3. Adding espresso is by no means authentic, but it is an acceptable alternative. Whichever method you choose, automatic or manual, aim for a robust French coffee shop-style brew.

  4. Next, heat up your milk. If using a saucepan, pour in cold milk to heat.

  5. Traditional cafe au lait uses whole milk. However, you may use non-dairy milks like almond milk, oat milk or soy milk. You may also use half-and-half for a more decadent coffee or 2% milk for a skinnier version.

  6. Heat the milk over medium-low heat, whisking constantly to prevent scalding. Your milk should be hot but not boiling (150-160 degrees Fahrenheit or 65-70 degrees Celsius). Use a thermometer to track the temperature and then turn off the stove.

  7. Alternatively, you may steam milk with an automatic milk frother or espresso machine with a steam wand. Remember, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the best results. Now, assemble your café au lait.

  8. Pour hot coffee into a café au lait bol. If you can’t get a hold of a bol, a cappuccino cup will do. Failing that, use a large latte mug or your favorite oversized mug.

  9. Top the hot-brewed coffee with steamed and foamed milk. Use a spoon to hold back the milk froth if you prefer more milk than foam.

  10. If you have a sweet tooth, now’s the time to add that sweetener. Using your stirring spoon, stir in your sweetener until dissolved.

  11. Now, all that’s left to do is to enjoy your coffee drink! Grab a cozy spot, take a sip and savor the creamy, rich goodness of your homemade café au lait.

Pro Tips

  • Experiment with milk to coffee ratios to suit your tastes. For a stronger café au lait, add more coffee. For a creamier one, add more milk.

  • If you’re feelin’ fancy, mix it up with half-and-half. Or why not go healthier with almond milk, oat milk or 2% milk for a lil’ twist?

  • Don’t have an automatic milk frother or espresso machine with a steam wand? No problem! Achieve similar results by using a hand-held milk frother and manual espresso maker. Or shake hot milk in a Mason jar until frothy.

  • Get creative with your flavorings! Add a dash of powdered cinnamon, powdered nutmeg, cocoa powder or flavored syrup like in coffee shops.

Final Thoughts: Cafe au Lait–The Perfect Milk/Coffee Blend

As I wrap up this exploration, I hope I’ve answered the burning question of “What is a cafe au lait” comprehensively for you.

This French-inspired brew is more than just your average cup of joe. It’s the perfect blend of delicious coffee and creamy milk, an elegant beverage as comforting as it is indulgent.

So, why not channel your inner French god or goddess and occasionally treat yourself to a café au lait? You may not be able to get to Paris every year, but with this coffee, Paris will undoubtedly come to you.

What’s your preference with milky coffees: cafe au lait or latte? Please let me know your thoughts in our comments section below!

Cafe au Lait FAQ

Café au lait consists of equal parts strong brewed coffee and steamed milk. A latte consists of a shot or two of espresso topped with steamed milk and a little milk foam.

No. Flat whites use a shot or two of espresso and microfoam milk. Café au lait uses equal parts brewed coffee and regular steamed milk. Also, café au lait hails from France while the flat white is an invention of Australia and New Zealand.

Café au lait is rich, slightly sweet and exceptionally creamy. The sweet flavor of the gently heated milk compliments and balances the strong coffee flavor.

The Starbucks coffee shop equivalent of café au lait is the Caffe Misto. It consists of equal parts French-pressed coffee or drip coffee and frothed, hot milk.

Your coffee expert
Team Image
Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Table of Contents