Half-caf, triple shot, no-foam latte. What the heck does that mean? It’s not as complicated as it sounds once you know how to break it down. Most coffee drinks are some combination of espresso and milk. So, first thing’s first: what’s espresso?
Espresso is created when coffee beans are finely ground and then pressed with nearly-boiling water, resulting in a shot of strong coffee with crema, or creamy foam, on top. Espresso is enjoyed in tiny cups, often with the addition of sugar or milk. It’s thicker and more concentrated than brewed coffee, and is the base of most coffee drinks. A single serving of espresso (one shot) is about one ounce, so a double shot is two ounces, a triple shot is three ounces, etc. Espresso beans are naturally caffeinated, but they are also available in decaf. By default, you’ll get the supercharged beans unless you ask for the tame stuff, or ask for half-caf, which means half caffeinated and half decaffeinated.
Next comes the milk. At coffee bars and cafes, a wand that adds steam is submerged in a metal canister of milk. The steam wand not only heats the milk, but also adds air. The more air you whip into the milk, the frothier it becomes.
The milk can be of any variety, so if someone asks for a skim latte (or a skinny latte), what he or she is asking for is a latte made with skim milk. You could also ask for 2%, or a non-dairy milk such as soy, almond, or cashew milk. Generally, if you don’t specify a milk type, your drink will be prepared with whole milk. If someone asks for a “steamer,” he or she is asking for steamed milk (no coffee).
Building an Espresso Drink: The Basics
As stated, coffee drinks are made with espresso and milk, but the proportions differ slightly from beverage to beverage.
A cappuccino is espresso, a little steamed milk, and a lot of frothed milk (or foam). You might hear someone request a “dry” cappuccino, which means he or she wants less steamed milk and even more foam. Because of the frothiness of cappuccino, your cup should be light and airy.
A latte is similar to a cappuccino, with espresso on the bottom, followed by steamed milk, and just a hint of froth sitting on top of the drink. Sometimes designs are made with the milk, like these examples of latte art.
Caffe Mocha or Mocha-chino
A variant on the caffe latte, a caffe mocha adds chocolate, usually in the form of cocoa powder or chocolate syrup. Like a latte, the milk is mostly steamed, though you can always request extra foam if that’s how you like it. Sometimes it’s also topped with whipped cream.
Macchiato translates to “marked shot,” and can be thought of us as an upside-down latte. Usually, when building a coffee drink, the espresso is the first ingredient poured into the cup. In the case of macchiato, the steamed milk and foam are poured first, and the espresso is poured over the top. The espresso gradually falls through the milk; the intention is each sip is supposed to taste a little different (it gets lighter and sweeter towards the bottom, especially if you get something like Starbucks’s caramel macchiato, which has vanilla syrup on the bottom and a swirl of caramel syrup on top, which, like the espresso, falls to the bottom as you drink).
If you ask for coffee in Europe, what you’ll get is espresso. What we think of as coffee in the United States is made from the same beans, but it’s brewed differently, and the water-to-coffee-bean ratio is also different. The difference between European coffee and American coffee is what spurred the creation of the Americano. During World Wars I and II, GIs in Europe craved something similar to the coffee they had at home. So the Americano takes concentrated espresso and adds hot water to dilute it. The consistency is closer to American drip coffee (which is called that because it uses the drip, or pour-over, method). It’s also why coffee is sometimes called a “cup of joe” – named for those GI Joes.
Brewed Coffee Drinks
Some coffee drinks use brewed coffee as a base rather than espresso.
Cafe au Lait
Cafe au lait is French for coffee with milk, and that’s precisely what it is. It’s drip (or sometimes French press) coffee topped with steamed milk.
When you really need a punch of caffeine, order a red-eye, which is a cup of brewed coffee with an added shot of espresso.
Whether espresso-based or coffee based, vanilla, caramel, pumpkin spice, and Irish cream are just some of the flavors you can add to your drink. These flavors are usually found in the form of syrup, but you may also see them in powdered form.
Some coffee houses will also flavor their coffee beans, so a French vanilla coffee means the beans have been roasted with French vanilla flavoring.
Cold coffee drinks, such as iced lattes, are made the same way as described above, but cold milk takes the place of steamed milk, and the drink is served over ice. Therefore, an iced cappuccino and an iced latte are essentially the same thing, since there’s no differentiation in steamed milk and frothed milk ratios. It’s all just milk as it comes from the refrigerator. However, when it comes to iced coffee, there are a few variations.
Iced Coffee and Cold-Brewed Coffee
Iced coffee is brewed coffee served over ice. Because the ice will water the coffee down, it is usually a stronger, more concentrated brew.
Cold-brewed coffee is growing in popularity, and you’ll find it in hip cafés. Rather than being brewed with near-boiling water, the coffee grounds are steeped in cold or room-temperature water for about 12 hours or longer, when the grounds are filtered out. The result is a coffee with lower acidity and a different flavor profile than traditionally brewed coffee.