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Friars, Monkeys and Coffee? The Interesting Etymology of Cappuccinos

For millions of people around the world, the morning doesn’t officially start until they’ve had a cup of coffee. In the United States alone, coffee drinkers sip an average of 450 million cups each day.

Cappuccinos are one of the most popular options for those looking to get their caffeine fix. But have you ever stopped to wonder where the name “cappuccino” came from? You might be surprised that the etymology of cappuccino is related to a religious group. Let’s dive deeper into the fascinating etymology to learn more.

Espresso vs Cappuccino

You might assume correctly that “cappuccino” is an Italian word. “Espresso” also comes from the Italian term meaning “pressed-out” and refers to the way this drink is prepared. But the word “cappuccino” has nothing to do with how the beverage is made and instead refers to its distinct light brown color.

Cappuccino comes from the Italian word “Capuchin,” a member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin formed in 1529 an austere branch of the first order of St. Francis of Assisi engaged in missionary work and preaching.

But who are the Capuchin Friars? And how did they inspire the name for one of the world’s most beloved drinks?

A Unique Link to the Catholic Church

Coffee isn’t necessarily associated with Catholicism, but if it wasn’t for this religious group, the drink we know as a “cappuccino” might be called something else.

The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin was a group that formed within the Catholic Church in 1529. Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, the Capuchin friars lived a life of poverty and simplicity. Members of the order wore a plain, hooded light brown robe. The color of the robe was unique at the time and the word “capuchin” was often used to describe anything of a similar light red-brown hue.

Food historians trace the first usage of “capuchin” in reference to a coffee drink to 18th-century Vienna, except here it was known by the German word “kapuziner.” This Viennese beverage was made by adding whipped cream to coffee, which created a light brown color. This shade reminded locals of the robes worn by the Capuchin friars who preached in their city and the name “Kapuziner” stuck.

The Italian Evolution

In the early 20th century, this Viennese coffee drink started gaining popularity in Italy. As espresso machines became widespread, the Italian version of this drink was made with espresso and a spot of milk instead of coffee and whipped cream. While the recipe changed, the name was only translated to the Italian form. Instead of kapuziner, the drink was called a “cappuccino”- still in reference to the brown color of the Capuchin friar robes.

As refrigeration technology advanced in the 1900s, milk was more available to add to coffee drinks. Once cappuccinos made their way to America, the drinks were prepared with enough milk to make the color a much lighter shade than the original. Although cappuccinos are no longer the exact color of the Capuchin friar robes, the name still serves as a reminder of the drink’s fascinating history.

Coffee and Monkeys?

Interestingly, the Capuchin friars inspired more than just the term “cappuccino.” When Portuguese explorers first encountered the distinctly marked primates in the Americas, the light brown fur on their heads and shoulders reminded them of the hoods worn by the friars. This led them to name these creatures Capuchin monkeys.

This term is also found in women’s fashion. Cloaks with long hoods resembling the friar’s robes are also called capuchins.

The next time you order a cappuccino, think about the origin of this word. It is fascinating to stop and reflect on its history, the friars that inspired it and to think about how many people have enjoyed a cappuccino since it was first created in the 1700s.

If you want to learn about other unique food etymology stories, check out the ALTA Beyond Word Blog.

Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator. You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.


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