Milking It

If friends gathered at a coffee shop order a latte, a flat white and a café au lait, aren’t they asking for the same thing? Well, yes – and no.

Confusing? Not really. While all involve coffee and milk, café au lait is the simplest presentation. Traditionally the drink calls for espresso and steamed milk in equal amounts, although warm milk will suffice if no steam wand is available. At Captain + Stoker, however, owner Tyler Ellis prefers his house blend drip coffee – The Stoker – at a two-to-one ratio.

“You don’t want to drown out the flavor of the coffee,” he explains.

Like pastel on canvas, milk softens the brew while providing a rich hue. The coffee itself is fruity, with impressions of blueberry tinged by heavier birch, a wicked little zing of citrus zest and the nutty, bittersweet notion of scored toast – all soothed by the wash of milk, making them appear as nuances rather than bold strokes.

Café au lait can be forgotten, especially in the trendy world of the coffee shop. It’s a pedestrian form with versions similar to the French style found in many countries. And it’s one of the older coffee drinks, with references dating back to the 1600s. And, Ellis admits, “the older demographic seems to enjoy it more.”

Flat white is more espresso than milk, and therefore more intense. Latte is a little more playful, with a foamed topping. Café au lait finds a simple balance – one that has endured.

“It’s very popular,” Ellis says.

CAPTAIN + STOKER, 398 E. Franklin St., Monterey; 206 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove. 901-3776,

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