Who invented frothy coffee?

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While you’re sat sipping your cappuccino in the morning or standing quietly seething in the long line at Starbucks on the way to work; do you ever ask yourself, “Who invented frothy coffee”? “Who’s responsible for my creamy caffeine addiction”? “When did foamy coffee become a thing”? And “how on earth did baristas make foam before electrical milk frothers”?

Although the exact dates are lost in the mists of time you won’t be a shock to learn it was the Italians who invented frothy coffee. However, you may be surprised that frothy coffee only really became a thing after the Second World War. We’ve only been drinking cappuccino in the way we understand it since the end of the 1940s.

portrait of young woman with cappuccino coffee

So, who invented frothy coffee?

Although we can’t really pinpoint who and when the popular theory is that frothy coffee such as cappuccino began to become popular in Europe with all the GIs stationed there after the war.

Whether the troops were the catalyst or, and this is much more likely, they discovered a few backstreet baristas making this new concoction, we don’t know. But one thing we know for certain is modern day style frothy coffees didn’t exist before the war.

Cappuccino is a new thing then?

Not exactly. After all there isn’t anything new under the sun. Cappuccino is a version of a drink made with coffee, cream and sugar called Kapuziner which was popular in Vienna in the early 18th century.

Kapuziner made its way over to Italy and eventually morphed into cappuccino probably around 1920/30 when espresso machines became more widely used in cafes around the country.

At that time however it would be wrong to describe cappuccino as a ‘frothy coffee’ in the way we know it today. The drink was made with steamed milk and could have been topped with a whipped cream. As we mentioned earlier foamed milk didn’t become a part of the drink until much later.

But, by the 1950s cappuccino was becoming popular around Europe and it was pretty much made as it is today; equal parts of espresso (with a touch of crema), steamed (heated) milk and frothed milk.

italian cafe

By the 1980s cappuccino had travelled around the world and was becoming the favourite drink of coffee enthusiasts in the United States as well as Australia and elsewhere.

But it was the expansion of Starbucks in the 1990s and the explosion of cafe culture in general which really propelled cappuccino in particular and frothy coffee as a whole into the daily lives of most of us.

Interestingly we will now drink cappuccino at any time of the day. But in Italy it was very much a morning drink. That dogma is still held in many parts of the country, and I remember being soundly admonished and lectured by a waiter in a Rome cafe when I had the audacity to try and order a cappuccino at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I ended up with an espresso (or caffe).

Anyway, let’s return to another question we posed right back at the start of the article.

How was milk foamed before milk frothers?

After all, there were no automatic or even battery-operated handheld milk frothers around then. So, how did those early coffee innovators froth their milk?

It’s likely that some enterprising barista in a Rome cafe discovered that milk foam could be made in a French Press or similar homemade device.

The French Press, also known as a cafetière or coffee plunger depending on where you are in the world, works on the same principle as a manual milk frother. By plunging the handle up and down the milk in the carafe becomes aerated, making bubbles which bind together and thicken to create a textured foam.

Brew the espresso, heat some milk, add the foam from the French Press and you have a cappuccino – more or less as we know it today.

So, to add to the list of things the Romans did for us; roads, our calendar, plumbing – you can add frothy coffee. And I’m sure we all thank them for that.

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