Within the coffee world the cortado has already made its way through the elements in the Diffusion of Innovations curve, having reached critical mass in the US just a few years ago. However, since you’re likely a person living your life in the real world, you’ve probably just seen “Cortado” as just another item on the menu – then ordered your usual.
A cortado is actually a Spanish coffee drink and has permeated most Spanish cultures from Cuba, Latin & South America, and on to parts of Europe. Any honest coffee shop in the United States will admit that our cortado emphatuation is just now catching up to the rest of the world. Blue Bottle Coffee can be credited with starting the Cortado trend in the States in the early 2000’s in Oakland, California, near the epicenter of Modernist Cuisine. Along with being credited as one of the pioneers in coffee’s current Third-Wave trend, Blue Bottle is also the innovator of NOT offering WiFi in their cafes. Again, a less-honest shop staff may have you believe that they were among the first to think of those things.
Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. The basis for most coffee drinks is nothing more than a shot of espresso with steamed milk. A macchiato, cortado, cappuccino, and latte are all just some sort of variation of espresso with steamed milk. A cortado, however, has a couple key differences. A cortado sits midway between a macchiato and a cappuccino. It is served in a 6 oz Gibraltar glass with roughly a 1:1 ratio of espresso to milk. The cortado is all about balancing the taste of great espresso with the taste of great milk.
Getting the milk right in a cortado is essential. It should be steamed for volume, taste, texture, and temperature. The optimal serving temperature is just a touch above 140°F. Why? Because at 140° the milk’s sugars are in their simplest form, completely dissolved, and the proteins which normally hold the surface tension are relaxed. In effect this allows the milk to coat the maximum area of your taste buds with the maximum level of sweetness. Any hotter than 140° and sugars start burning, any cooler than 140° and the milk isn’t optimal. So, if your barista hands you a tepid drink and repeats something their boss told them that sounds scientific, feel free to laugh yourself out the door.
That’s a cortado and done correctly it’s a beautiful thing. When you find a shop and a barista that can consistently nail getting a cortado right it’s a place worth going back to. Essentially, a cortado is a litmus and it tells you if the barista know what they’re doing and how much they care about the process.