Back in the 1980s, Wendy’s fast food restaurants sponsored a highly successful advertising campaign featuring a diminutive elderly Jewish woman (Clara Peller, she quickly became a cultural icon from these spots). When presented with the hamburgers of Wendy’s competitors, she famously asked, “Where’s the beef?!”

These days, it seems like we need a similar campaign for the coffee content in most cappuccinos and lattes. Because whenever I buy milked-based espresso drinks in this country, my reaction is almost always, “Where’s the coffee?”

Clara Peller famously asks, 'Where's the beef?' as part of a record deal Clara Peller as immortalized in an episode of The Simpsons

To understand why this is the case, you first need to understand that milk is the new coffee flavoring. Back in the 1990s — when the coffee business was lamenting a decades-old decline in coffee consumption combined with a dearth of new, young coffee drinkers to replace the aging ones — the industry introduced coffees with spray-on chemical flavorings. This desperation move hoped to entice young, flavor-variety-seeking consumers to put down their Diet Cokes and, for the first time in their lives, consider coffee as an alternative. Hence the era of “hazelnut French vanilla creme” coffee was born to appeal to the millions who simply did not like coffee. (“It’s, like, not even coffee.”)

The flavored coffee fad lasted only a few years. But following closely in its wake was the popular rise of Starbucks and the proliferation of milk-based espresso drinks. By “cutting” the coffee, these drinks also offered something to consumers that the flavored coffees did not: appeal to the insatiable American appetite for 44-oz Super Big Gulp®-sized beverages. (Americans may love their caffeine — but not that much caffeine. At least at once.) Ironically, the story of specialty coffee’s booming success in America is really the story of the dairy industry’s revival. Our coffee houses have literally become milk bars.

The rise of coffee-flavored milk

Milk has become flavored coffee’s new flavor of choice. But given the volumes of each involved, it’s actually the other way around: we are a nation of coffee-flavored milk drinkers. And it shows in what passes for a typical cappuccino or latte. There is so much milk, our typical cappuccino would be considered a caffè latte in Italy; I often find myself ordering caffè macchiatos to get something close to a legitimate cappuccino. (And a legitimate macchiato is almost unheard of without playing backseat driver to the barista.) Newly introduced mutants like Gibraltars are typically interpreted just as variations on how much milk you want to wallow in.

Compare the photos below. The first is a photo of a medium cappuccino recently purchased at a downtown Peet’s Coffee, served, by design, in a Peet’s 16 oz. mug. Now contrast with the second photo of a regulation Intelligentsia 4.75 oz. cappuccino cup, which meets the Italian standards for a single cappuccino. (Note the foreground penny and quarter for comparisons.) Poured inside the Intelligentsia cup is a double shot of espresso (about 2 oz.) — twice the amount of espresso designed for the cup and the amount contained within the Peet’s mug — and yet there’s still plenty of room for milk. Even if you double the regulation cappuccino size to about 10 oz., what’s with the Olympic-sized pool that Peet’s is serving as a medium cappuccino?

Unless I’m planning on a “to go” cup for scalding reckless bike messengers who cut off pedestrians in crosswalks, I don’t understand why my medium cappuccino has to be such a gargantuan soup of steamed milk.

The Peet's Coffee & Tea medium cappuccino: 'Where's the espresso?!' For size comparison, an Intelligentsia cappuccino cup with a double shot of espresso

UPDATE: Feb 23, 2008
Even as far away as London, coffee experts are lamenting the comical, standard sizes of American coffee drinks: Foodie at large: The dark art of coffee making – Times Online. To quote how the situation that depresses London area roaster, Jeremy Torz:

“Quality shot up in the Nineties, but the American market has commercialised it,” he says. “It would be difficult to sell a small 6oz cappuccino, the traditional Italian size, for much more money, so to make a viable business out of it, they started to make the drinks bigger. And how do you do that without overdosing everyone on caffeine? You add more and more milk.”

So we entered the Alice in Wonderland age where the smallest latte you can buy in Starbucks is the “tall”. “What should be a silky textured, sensual drink has become a 32oz big gulp suited to the movie theatres of middle America,” says Torz scornfully.

UPDATE: Oct. 2, 2015
Oddly enough, eight years later the New York Times suddenly notices and decides to chime in on this topic: Is That Cappuccino You’re Drinking Really a Cappuccino? – The New York Times.