What is an espresso macchiato? The short answer is two shots of espresso with a dollop of milk foam – but a macchiato is not just any other drink.
The proportions of this traditional beverage allows the drinker to discern a coffee’s complex flavors with a hint of milk to balance the palate. Connoisseurs use it to test the fundamental technique cafes use to craft espresso beverages: Properly pulled espresso shots saved with microfoam.
Many small factors harmonize when a barista pulls the perfect espresso shot. The roast and origin of the coffee beans, the coarseness of the grind, how firmly the grounds are tamped, how long the shots are pulled and if they are saved with microfoam before they burn… Even ambient temperature and humidity can affect how a shot tastes.
We are blessed to have a handful of excellent cafes in the Bowl of Edmonds. Last Tuesday the 13th, I decided to test a septet of cafes in the Bowl by ordering an espresso macchiato at each one (14 shots in three hours, wheee!). To better document the macchiato at each cafe, I came up with a short list of criteria to rate each drink by.
Price: Expect to pay between $3 and $4 for your typical macchiato (including tax and the tip.) The delicacy of a well-crafted macchiato is worth it. I’ll list the price sans tax and tip.
Smell: Important to start with this as it allows you to detect some of the more delicate flavors. If you can’t smell the coffee through the foam, give it a light swirl.
Espresso: Perhaps the most crucial part of the drink. When coffee beans are roasted, their sugars caramelize. These sugars, and their flavors, are extracted into your shot of espresso. Even beans from the same part of the globe can have vastly different tastes! It is normal for these sugars to burn when the shot is pulled, but the whole shot can burn if not saved with microfoam in time.
Foam: When aerated properly, milk foam will eventually fold into microfoam, a glossy and viscous creme made up of tiny milk bubbles. Pros can float a quarter on top of their microfoam. Pouring the foam into the espresso allows the two to meld together, saving the shot and intermixing the flavors. Also, latte art takes practice and diligence, and is a dying technique in the age of to-go cups. Show appreciation to those rare baristas who go the extra mile!
Overall: Some elements of the drink cannot be defined so easily, and will be described here. Ultimately, a good macchiato should surpass the sum of its parts.
Before heading into the Bowl, I stopped by the WinCo on 220th Street Southwest to pick up a bottle of San Pellegrino. Sparkling water helps to cleanse the palate between drinks, and while some cafes serve their drink with a small glass of seltzer, not all do. Better to be prepared.
Heading west to the Bowl, I stopped at Five Corners at the top of the hill to try my first macchiato of the day at Caffe Ladro.
Caffe Ladro – 9:46 a.m.
Ladro bears a ’90s coffeehouse aesthetic with a few modern touches. Black and brown dominate the color scheme, with accents of custard yellow and maroon. Their espresso machine is a La Marzocco, the gold standard in professional rigs. Baristas weren’t sure of the roast’s origin, but guessed it was a proprietary blend of Guatemalan and Nicaraguan beans.
Smell: A strong, smoky aroma that did not overpower the sinuses. Likely roasted recently.
Espresso: Smoky overtones of roasted chestnut, citrus bitterness without acridity. The taste of freshly-roasted coffee bean oil was present, but the oil itself was not (a good thing in my book). Slightest hint of lime-like sweetness.
Foam: Smooth and buttermilky creaminess, just a light dollop poured into a heart. 100 percent microfoam, melded into espresso crema seamlessly.
Overall: The Ladro macchiato tasted very European, with bitter and smoky flavors front and center. Although not too bitter, it lacked in creaminess and sweetness towards the end. The espresso was very rich and complex, but did not overpower — subtle and unassuming.
The only thing that detracted from my experience at Caffe Ladro was a dirty demitasse spoon. Looked like some chocolate sauce got baked onto the back in the dishwasher. Very surprised by this; usually Ladro has fine attention to detail.
After finishing up at Ladro, I drove into the Bowl of Edmonds and parked across from the library on the corner of Main and Durbin. Now, my walk began in earnest. I headed west to my second stop, Ganache Patisserie at 407 Main St.
Ganache Patisserie & Cafe – 10:13 a.m.
Ganache had a very bright and ultramodern look, with solid browns, black and whites broken up by pastel lime. Ganache uses both a Fonte espresso machine and Fonte’s Italian roast, a blend of South American and Northeast African beans.
Smell: Dry and bitter, with whiffs of cranberries and coffee cherry.
Espresso: Very robust and acrid coffee flavor. Shots likely burned, hard to detect the complexities.
Foam: The milk had been aerated, but not enough to create true microfoam. Large dollop placed on top, about one-and-a-half tablespoons. Floated on top of shots, failed to meld well.
Overall: Pretty sure the shots were both under-extracted and burned, giving the drink a watery charred flavor without many subtleties. Even though this one was burned, the macchiato at Ganache was still better than your typical bakery espresso!
[I visited Ganache a few days later for a second tasting. The barista captured the full flavor profile of the espresso with that extraction. The macchiato had bitter sweetness of fresh raspberries, with anchoring caramel undertones. The foam was about 70 percent microfoam and melded well from the start, but there was too much and it diluted the sweetness of the final sips.]
The barista at Ganache let me know they had a special deal going, and their coffee drinks were buy one, get one free that morning. Customers can follow them on social media to find out when they have special deals. I passed on the free drink just then (let’s not push it to 16 shots, am I right?), and continued heading west on Main Street.
The weather was partly cloudy, with a light breeze zipping through the air. I could see the Olympics looming over the Salish Sea and ferry terminal as I paused to cross the street. I headed down to Waterfront Coffee Co., a literal stone’s throw from the railroad tracks.
Waterfront Coffee Co. – 10:43 a.m.
The interior reminded me of a rustic boathouse, with lots of sun-faded creams, tans, and crimsons dominating the color scheme. Like many others, Waterfront also uses a La Marzocco espresso machine. The roast was Caffe Vita’s Del Sol blend of Indonesian, African, and Central/South American beans.
Smell: A sharp and acrid bitterness, devoid of any citrus or sweetness.
Espresso: This was a very strong extraction featuring a full range of herbal and earthy bitterness in the palate, reminiscent of dandelion. No caramel sweetness or crema, tasted slightly burnt as well.
Foam: The foam had nearly been aerated enough, but not quite. There was only a drop of incidental microfoam in the center, and the foam failed to fully integrate with the espresso after the second sip.
Overall: This macchiato was so strong it was almost a turn-off. The shots were either burned or highly overextracted, possibly both. Because the foam and espresso weren’t mixed well, the drink lost a lot of potential secondary flavors and complexities. I’ve had Caffe Vita’s Del Sol roast in a macchiato before, and there have been many more flavors than this.
But sometimes that’s the way life goes. Macchiatos are unique little snapshots of a place and time – obviously not every macchiato you get will be the best, but there will never be another one like it. You just have to enjoy it for what it is.
[I went back to Waterfront Coffee Co. later in the week to give them another try. The espresso had a dry taste of lemon and cranberry, with subtle smoky undertones. The foam was mostly micro, but was plopped on top with a spoon and still failed to fully meld with the espresso.]
Leaving the waterfront, I walked back into downtown headed east on Main Street. There’s still construction crowding out the northern sidewalk between 1st and 2nd, so I crossed the street and head to the fountain at 5th and Main to my next destination: Starbucks, the Czar of Coffee.
Starbucks – 11:14 a.m.
While Starbucks isn’t by any means a mom-and-pop cafe, they are a staple of consistency in the world of modern espresso. The interior of this location has been recently remodeled, with lots of mahogany, tan, creme and white. This location is outfitted with a Mastrena, the only fully-automatic espresso machine I’ll taste from today. Starbucks’ Espresso Roast is a blend of beans from Latin America and Southeast/Pacific Asia.
Smell: The scent of bean chaff and oil produced by roasting and grinding dominated all others.
Espresso: Smoky and mesquite flavors up front. The mouthfeel was smooth with a little citrusy bitterness, none of which was unpleasant.
Foam: Although the microfoam-to-foam ratio was about 70 to 30, Starbucks’ default use of 2 percent milk instead of whole means the foam wasn’t as creamy or glossy as it could have been. Admittedly, I should have ordered it with whole milk to be completely impartial. Blended moderately with the espresso.
Overall: The complexity of the shots was dominated by the resin and oil built up in the machine over its lifetime of use. The taste of the espresso itself was flat, round, and reminiscent of a blank canvas – good for mixing into flavored coffee drinks but a little low-key and boring for an espresso macchiato.
One other mark in Starbucks’ favor is that I can pay with my Sir Paul McCartney gold card. I get some serious street cred when I pull him out of my wallet.
After I finished my macchiato, I changed heading to walk south on 5th Avenue. Eight shots in, and I felt pretty good. If I kept up this pace, I could probably finish before the caffeine rush turned me into a jittery wreck. I reached my next destination before I could ponder too long on the negative health effects of my java journey — Red Twig.
Red Twig Bakery & Cafe – 11:32 a.m.
Batman would feel right at home in Red Twig, with a color scheme consisting entirely of black and very dark grays and browns (and strangely, very little red). Red Twig also uses a La Marzocco machine, pretty standard. As luck would have it, they were roasting some beans when I arrived! I had a short conversation with their roaster, who told me they order Atlas’ green Rosebud Espresso Blend and roast it on-site. Rosebud is a blend of Ethiopian, Colombian, and Brazilian beans.
Smell: Pungent scent of mesquite bitters, with a lingering hint of roasted chestnut.
Espresso: A rare and delicate balance between sweet, nutty, and floral flavors without any bitterness or earthiness weighing it down. Not bitter enough to be European, not creamy enough to be American, this blend eschewed tradition.
Foam: One tablespoon of nearly-pure microfoam poured on top added delightful butteriness. Despite not featuring any latte art, this macchiato was poured with enough skill to blend the espresso and foam to the last drop.
Overall: The espresso in this macchiato bucked the traditional taste paradigm in a delightful way, and in tandem with the microfoam delivered a rich combination of nutty and floral sweetness. This macchiato nailed balancing the flavors of the espresso and the foam to create an elevated taste profile.
I left Red Twig and continued heading south on 5th Avenue. I crossed the street, passing by a small crowd waiting to have lunch at Las Brisas. Contemplating lunch, I stepped into Cafe Louvre for macchiato number six.
Cafe Louvre – 11:47 a.m.
Cafe Louvre felt like a restaurant, with very private tables for a cafe and a distinct dining section. The atmosphere was fairly dark with many grays, blacks, and reds, but there was some white here and there. Their espresso machine is an Aurelia II Digit, and they use Caffe Umbria’s Gusto Crema roast, a blend of Brazilian, Colombian, and Guatemalan beans.
Smell: Very bright and lively scent, citrus and floral notes rose through the foam.
Espresso: This macchiato tasted very Italian, using dried berry and fruit flavors to strike an even balance between bitter and sweet. Earthen undertones and aftertaste stabilized the mix and added some desired complexity as well.
Foam: The foam was almost there! Really, it wanted to be microfoam so badly, but didn’t quite make it. It melded with the espresso very well, but they added a bit too much. Once fully melded it diluted the espresso’s bitter and earthy flavors.
Overall: This traditional macchiato exchanged herbal bitterness for fruity bitterness, and the earthy flavor of the espresso gave it a moist mouthfeel. Once the foam fully melded into the espresso, a hint of oyster mushroom developed.
I felt classy dining at Cafe Louvre! Lots of intellectual folks practicing foreign languages over lunch and meeting for social clubs. As aforementioned, the tables felt private; it’s a good place for quiet conversation over coffee.
After I left Cafe Louvre, I headed south on 5th Avenue towards my final destination. Edmonds seemed slow at that moment, even for a weekday with gloomy weather. Still not a drop of rain. Not feeling any jitters yet either, I entered Walnut Street Coffee confident I could finish the walk before the caffeine caught up with me.
Walnut Street Coffee – 12:13 p.m.
This cafe looked like a converted two-car garage, cinderblock walls and large windows facing the street and parking lot. Lots of cool colors, including white, cyan, grey, oak and a pastel lime. Walnut uses a Synesso espresso machine, and their beans are Espresso Vivace’s Espresso Vita blend.
Smell: Woodsy and smoky with a hint of pollen, like morning air after a campfire.
Espresso: The body of the espresso consisted of equal parts chocolate, caramel, and roasted nut flavors, and carried no hint of bitterness or earthiness. The espresso also imparted a blackberry sweetness with a similar tartness.
Foam: Microfoam at its finest, smooth and consistent from edge to edge with an almond-leaf design. The foam was sweet without being buttery, and poured to meld with the espresso from the first sip to the last.
Overall: This drink delivered the creamy unison of foam and espresso one should expect from a macchiato. Together they created a rich and smooth flavor like chocolate chip ice cream. The taste was clean, without a trace of resin or oil from the espresso machine. This was the sweetest macchiato I’d have all day, definitely in the American style.
After finishing up at Walnut Street, I headed next door to Girardi’s to eat some lunch (I had the cioppino), review my notes, and prepare myself for the caffeine rush.
Getting the low-down on seven downtown cafes in three hours, with the drink that encapsulates the essence of modern espresso. Not a bad way to spend a morning walking around Edmonds.
— Story and photos by Thomas Fairchild
Thomas Fairchild is a coffee aficionado who learned the art of sourcing and roasting beans at Spotted Cow in Mill Creek. After moving to Seattle, he accrued a broad knowledge of coffee by working in a variety of independent and chain coffeehouses for six years. He now resides in Edmonds with his family, and continues to sample espresso at new and established cafes around the Salish Sea and abroad.