Recently a Coffee Review reader sent in a request that we post information on our website about cortado, a relatively obscure coffee beverage in North American cafés. I searched the reference pages, thinking some mention of it had to be buried in the “espresso cuisine” section. But no, no cortado was to be found.
Most serious coffee drinking café denizens are able to precisely define the differences between espresso and macchiato or latte and cappuccino without the blink of an eye. Cortado, on the other hand, is one of those second tier beverages like café con panna or an affogato. Sure, professional baristas will know what these are, but average coffee consumers are bound to draw a blank. By second tier I simply mean that these beverages are not often found on the menus of cafés in North America and therefore less frequently ordered, though they certainly have the potential to be delicious.
In Spanish, as in Portuguese, the word cortado translates to cut. In the case of the coffee drink, cortado is simply a serving of espresso that is cut with an equal part, or slightly more, hot milk. Typically a cortado is served in a small glass with very little, if any, froth. The cortado is common in Spain and Portugal as well as various Latin American countries. Naturally, alongside the diaspora of these cultures, cortado can be found in restaurants and cafes throughout the world.
Over the past half century, in the United States at least, coffee cup sizes have steadily crept up from six to eight ounces, then twelve to sixteen, and now twenty and even a mind boggling, heart pounding thirty ounces! Consumer demand and a desire for higher margins seem to be the drivers behind this escalation. In this climate, weighing in at about four ounces, little room is left for the diminutive cortado in most mainstream cafes.
Of course not all cafes fall into lock step with mainstream coffee trends, and recently there has been a small but distinct backlash against the “bigger is better” movement. You may recall the momentary flurry of media attention that Chicago based Intelligentsia received a couple of years ago when it decided to stop serving coffee in twenty ounce cups. An increasing number of cafes are focusing on a more basic, perhaps more traditional, assortment of coffee sizes. With ristretto shots of espresso and five ounce traditional cappuccinos, the humble cortado could fit quite comfortably on the menus of these cafes. In fact, it is increasingly available in select cafes but often served with more froth on top than a traditional cortado and occasionally with different names such as Piccolo or Gibraltar. Even when not listed, it is usually possible to order cortado off the menu.