How Layers in a Latte Form


A layered latte made at home by Bob Fankauser, a retired engineer in Oregon, who wanted to know how espresso poured into heated milk created those layers.

Bob Fankhauser

Any good barista will tell you that if you want to make a nice latte you pour milk into the espresso — not the other way around.

But there’s another style of latte out there, too — the layered latte, or #layeredlatte as you’ll find on Instagram. Created by accident, or by baristas experimenting with new drinks, these striped beverages start with a glass of heated milk and then pour in the espresso. They’re not as pretty or popular as a unicorn Frappuccino or a rainbow latte, but they have their own charm.

Bob Fankhauser, a retired engineer in Portland, Ore., accidentally created his own layered latte at home and wanted to know why these pretty layers form. “It’s a really intriguing phenomenon,” said Mr. Fankhauser. “There’s no obvious reason that the liquid should organize itself into different density layers.”

Last year, Mr. Fankhauser sent an email including photos of his accidental layered lattes to Howard Stone, a chemical engineer who studies fluid dynamics at Princeton University and inspired him and a graduate student to test this out. The team published their results Tuesday in Nature Communications. Anyone can try this at home, but chefs creating layered jellies or bioengineers developing synthetic human tissues may find this one-step process useful, they suggested.

Researchers at Princeton University observed espresso poured into heated milk, finding that a phenomenon called double-diffusive convection creates different density layers in the liquids.

Nan Xue, Sepideh Khodaparast and Howard A. Stone

After recreating the latte with their own espresso and milk, the team created a simulated coffee drink, injecting heated, dyed freshwater into heated, denser saltwater to test the scientific parameters that make this spontaneous layering possible. Pouring hot espresso into warm milk at a certain speed, they found, induced an interaction between temperature and density that caused the drink to separate into layers of different densities.

The same basic phenomenon, called double-diffusive convection, creates layers of water in the ocean. There, water containing different amounts of salt has different densities, just like espresso and denser milk in a latte. When the liquids try to mix, layered patterns form as gradients in temperature cause a portion of the liquid to heat up, become lighter and rise, while another, denser portion sinks. This gives rise to convection cells that trap mixtures of similar densities within layers.

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