coffee drinks

Photo by Brian Legate (Flickr)

The evolution of coffee culture over the last 20 years is one of those things that makes a guy like me seem old. See, back in my day, we had two types of coffee: regular and decaf. If you wanted an espresso or a cappuccino, you had to go to a fancy Italian restaurant and order it with your dessert. Fast forward to this precise moment in time, and now we live in a world where this happens:

Today, this woman wanted a latte with half nonfat and half soy, a triple shot with one regular shot, one decaf shot, and one half-caff shot, heated to a specific temperature, double-cupped, one Splenda and one Equal stirred into the shots.

Look, I’m just going to say it. You kids today with your complicated drinks. I’m all for freedom of choice and expression. But could you maybe express yourself after I’ve gotten my medium coffee? It’ll just take a minute. Besides, according to these baristas having a laugh at your expense on this reddit thread, a lot of you don’t even know what you’re ordering: the guy who ordered a cappuccino and then complained about all the foam; the customer who ordered a white mocha and was confused to find the espresso based drink was brown; the woman who ordered a skinny, weak, decaf latte, which is known to the rest of the world as “warm milk.”

This is not coffee.Photo by Kenny Louie (Flickr)

This is not coffee.
Photo by Kenny Louie (Flickr)

In all fairness to these people, the differences between the various espresso-based drinks are subtle at best.  It’s hard to keep track of what keeps a Long Black from being an Americano, when they’re both made of espresso and hot water.  When is a Latte really a Macchiato? And at what point does one stop referring to the chocolate flavored sugar bomb one gets from Starbucks every morning as coffee?

If you’re the sort of person who’s never quite sure what you want when you get to your favorite coffee place, or if you find yourself disappointed with the drinks you’re getting, it might just be that you don’t know what you’re ordering. Coffee menus operate at a level of specificity that can border on the bureaucratic, and we’re here to help you work your way through all the red tape. The next time you find yourself hemming and hawing over your decision at the counter, remember that I’m probably right behind you in line getting impatient with the wait, and wondering why you didn’t refer to this handy little guide. If this still doesn’t help you figure out what you want, just look at what other people are buying and go with the most popular drink.

Espresso: This is the basic building block of all the drinks to follow. And just like all those drinks, espresso is defined more by the process of making it rather than its ingredients. You can use any type of bean for espresso—the phrase “espresso bean” only tells you that it’s been roasted for a longer period of time, resulting in darker colors and a more oily surface. The resulting bean is finely ground and then packed tight before near-boiling water and steam are forced through during the brewing process. The drink itself is thicker and darker than coffee, with the oils creating a creamy surface (known as the “crema”).

Americano: The legend around this drink’s origin centers on US soldiers’ watering down their espressos to mimic the coffee they were used to back home. The Americano consists of a single shot of espresso with enough hot water added to make an eight-ounce cup of coffee.

Long Black: This is an American turned upside down, which makes sense since it’s a popular

Photo by Alpha (Flickr)

Photo by Alpha (Flickr)

drink in Australia and New Zealand. Here, the hot water is added to the cup first, and then two shots of espresso are added. Pouring the espresso into the water, rather than the other way around, ensures that crema stays on the top, where it has more impact on flavor. Long Black afficionados will tell you the result is a complex and tasty drink that hits several notes an Americano simply can’t—which is a nice way of deflecting attention from the fact that they need their espresso watered down, too.

Cappuccino: Equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and milk froth. The trick is to pour the warm milk into the espresso and hold the foam back till the end. The cap of foam is said to have insulating properties that keeps the rest of the drink warmer, longer.

Photo by John Keane (Flickr)

Flat White
Photo by John Keane (Flickr)

Flat White:In Australia, Flat White is practically synonymous with “coffee.” It’s a variation on cappuccino; after the milk is steamed, the froth at the top layer is folded back into the milk at the bottom to create a thicker, but non-frothy, texture that’s then poured into the espresso.

Macchiato: Because of Starbucks, there are literally millions of people who think a macchiato has caramel syrup in it. That’s just not the case. A macchiato another cappuccino variation, except without the steamed milk. Only the milk froth goes into it—a small amount at that—and it’s added to the cup before the espresso.

Latte: A latte is like a cappuccino—espresso and steamed milk—but the foam is held back and donated to poor children who can’t afford costume mustaches.

Mocha: A mocha is a variation on the latte, itself a variation on the cappuccino. Here the difference is the addition of chocolate syrup to the espresso and steamed milk.