What Is A Mocha? Espresso And Chocolate And Milk – Oh My!

Ask dedicated bakers which two flavors they love combining more than any others, and they’re likely to tell you “chocolate and coffee.”

In fact, they may tell you even more than you want to know, since there are so many different types of coffee and chocolate. Some experts believe, for example, that coffees with strong nut flavors pair better with milk chocolate, coffees with floral overtones work better with light chocolate, and dark-roasted coffees are a perfect match for dark chocolate.

For run-of-the-mill dessert eaters – or coffee drinkers – those details aren’t important. Coffee and chocolate go together like macaroni and cheese. Or for the more cultured among us, like hummus and pita.

That could explain the soaring popularity of mocha espresso drinks. They’re not quite as trendy as latte, the most popular coffee drink in America. They’re getting closer, though, and that could be due to the fact that mochas are really just lattes with an extra dose of deliciousness provided by chocolate.

How do you make a great mocha? Who came up with the concept? And just as importantly, can you make one at home? Or do you have to go to Starbucks, Dunkin’ or a local coffee bar to get a good one?

You have questions. We have answers.

Who Invented the Mocha?

Those familiar with coffee’s interesting history might assume that the mocha has a long and storied history.

The nations of Ethiopia and Yemen were virtually the only sources for the coffee beans that were first shipped throughout the world. Among the best: Arabica beans from the important mountains of central Yemen, revered for their earthy and chocolate-like flavors. They were shipped from the Yemeni Red Sea port of Al Moka, whose name was often shortened to “Moka,” so the beans became known in Europe as “mocha beans.”

That’s a great story. However, the city of Al Moka is long gone, beans from the region are now extremely rare – and sadly for those who love great endings to great stories, that’s not where today’s espresso, milk and chocolate drink originated.

Instead, it’s just a clue. The chocolatey mocha beans were quite popular in Italy. And it’s believed that’s where espresso and chocolate were first mixed in 16th century coffee houses. More specifically, espresso/chocolate drinks known as bavareisa and bicerin were regularly served in the cities of Turin and Venice. By the 18th century, some Italian shops were adding milk to them.

Was the name mocha eventually transferred to the beverage that resembled the taste of mocha beans? No one knows for sure. The trail goes cold until a reference to caffè mocha in a 1892 Betty Crocker recipe. And the mocha we know today arrived much later, as a variation on the caffè latte that grew rapidly in popularity in 20th century American coffee shops. Best guess? The idea for mocha was born in Italy, but the name is probably American.

How a Mocha is Made

We’ve already established that mocha, more accurately known as caffè mocha and sometimes called café mocha, is a mixture of espresso, milk and chocolate. That doesn’t mean, though, that you just put the three ingredients into a glass and give them a good stir as you would for chocolate milk.

A proper caffè mocha is carefully created and layered. And one of the charms of this coffee beverage is that it’s “customizable.” Different types of chocolate (white chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate) provide subtle flavor varieties, different forms of chocolate (chocolate syrup, melted chocolate, hot chocolate, chocolate powder, solid chocolate) each alter the texture a bit – and different toppings (cocoa powder, chocolate shavings, whipped cream, marshmallows) can give the coffee drink its finishing touch.

Baristas even build a mocha coffee differently. Most often they use two shots of espresso, mix the chocolate into the coffee until it’s melted and/or fully incorporated, and then add twice as much steamed or hot milk. Unlike other espresso drinks, a caffè mocha doesn’t require frothed milk and doesn’t always have a crema; the milk foam is optional, but we still think a milk froth is cool for any upscale coffee beverage.

That recipe isn’t universal, though. For instance, the Barista Institute recommends coating the cup with chocolate first, then adding a single shot of espresso instead of a double shot, and finishing with the steamed milk. Others prefer creating what’s essentially a caffè latte first, and then mixing in the chocolate. The different techniques create slightly different-looking mocha lattes – but they’re all yummy, and they’ll certainly satisfy all coffee lovers with a sweet tooth.

What’s In a Name?

Caffè mocha, mocha coffee, white mocha, cappuccino, macchiato, mochaccino – it’s easy to get confused, especially when staring at a coffee shop menu.

Bearing in mind that different coffee houses may put different spins on each of these drinks, here’s a cheat sheet to help you get your bearings.

  • Caffè mocha: The espresso, steamed milk and chocolate drink we’ve been discussing.
  • Mocha coffee: Essentially a mocha, but with coffee instead of espresso. We’ll discuss making this one at home, in a bit.
  • White mocha: A caffè mocha made with white chocolate instead of milk or dark chocolate. It’s usually slightly lighter and a little less bitter.
  • Cappuccino: No chocolate here; it’s one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, one-third milk foam. (That’s different from an Americano, which has no milk at all, just espresso and hot water.)
  • Macchiato: Similar to a cappuccino, but with different proportions of espresso, milk and foam.
  • Mochaccino: This is why we included the last two. A mochaccino is basically a cappuccino or macchiato with chocolate added to it; it has less milk and more microfoam than a caffè mocha. In truth, though, a mochaccino can really be anything the barista or coffee store wants it to be. Mochaccino is more of a marketing term than a traditional coffee one. 

There are other ways to switch up a mocha. You’ll often see black-and-white mochas (also called marble mochas or zebra mochas) which use both dark and white chocolate, iced mochas, and “adult” mochas made with a shot of liquor. Bailey’s Irish Cream and Kahlua are two great choices, but straight spirits also can give caffè mocha a terrific zing.

Flavorings like vanilla or almond extract can vary the drink’s flavor nicely, and some people like to go off the reservation by adding mint, salt, hazelnut, chili powder or even peanut butter to their drink. Like your coffee and coffee drinks sweet? Some add sugar to their mocha, especially if it’s made with dark chocolate or cocoa powder.

Mochas average about 150mg of caffeine (when made with a double shot of espresso). That’s about 150% the caffeine content of a regular cup of coffee – but if you like to enjoy an after-dinner mocha, no worries. Most places will be happy to make you a decaf mocha.

Of course, you don’t have to rely on a barista to whip up a delicious caffè mocha for you.

Making a Mocha at Home

Preparing your own mocha is a relatively simple but enjoyable task, if you own an espresso machine. The fact that there’s no “definitive” recipe for a caffè mocha makes it even easier.

The Coffee

The keys to good espresso, as you probably know, are its deep flavor and luxurious crema. An easy-to-use Nespresso machine won’t quite duplicate the intensity or complexity you get from an espresso machine, but it will be a close approximation.

A French press can produce large amounts of rich, flavorful brewed coffee (a good choice if you’re making mochas for a party). It’s also a decent substitute for a pricey espresso maker. An AeroPress (available on Amazon) works much like a French press, but is less complicated and faster to use. It creates a mellower brew, but if you’re not a perfectionist you can still make a great mocha with it.

Just have a regular old drip coffee maker? You’re not out of luck. Simply brew the strongest coffee you can (a dark or French roast is the best type of coffee to use). If you’re experimenting, using less water than usual will make the coffee stronger.

The Milk

This is easier than for most coffee drinks, since hot milk is often used instead steamed milk to make a mocha. If you want the authenticity of steamed milk but don’t have a frothing wand, though, you can put the milk in a blender, whisk it by hand, or simply shake it in a jar until foam develops. Microwave for five seconds, and poof! Frothed milk (or something very similar).

The Chocolate

Cocoa powder and chocolate syrup are the simple choices, but you’ll get a richer mocha if you mix flaked chocolate or chocolate chips into your espresso. (Unsweetened cocoa powder may require a little sugar to make it palatable.) Dark, milk, white chocolate? Totally depends on your personal preference.

Assembling Your Mocha

Brew your espresso or coffee, mix in the chocolate, add the milk, and spoon some froth onto the top if you like. If desired, top with your choice of whipped cream, chocolate shavings or sprinkles, or add any other ingredients you want to use to spice things up.

Will it be as good as the mocha at your favorite coffee emporium? Not quite. But it won’t cost you 4-5 bucks per cup, you won’t have to go out on a cold winter’s day for a delicious hot mocha – and even better, you can amaze your family and friends with your newfound barista skills.

Fact Checked by Jordan DeCicco

Written by Joel Fuster

3 min read

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