You’ve heard that a “rose by any other name smells just as sweet.” Coffee and espresso offer just as many varieties as roses – each with their particular fragrance, texture, and composition.
In the United States and Canada, coffee used to come with two options: cream or sugar. Now, even chain restaurants carry a dizzying number of different choices, from lattes to cappuccinos, espressos, and mochas.
Want to crack the code? Here’s a guide to the most common specialty coffee drinks.
Espressos and Americanos = Black
Espresso coffee comes in “shots,” small 1.5-oz. portions of extremely strong coffee brewed produced under pressure.Many people think of espresso as the “essence” of coffee, layering all of the rich, complex flavors found in the beans into one intense mouthful.
Espresso is usually drunk quickly, not sipped, and freshly pulled shots have a layer of small, light colored bubbles called the “crema” on top. Believe it or not, espresso can easily be brewed at home.
Want something a little closer to your standard American drip coffee? No matter where you are in the world, if you ask for an “Americano,” you’ll get a couple shots of espresso diluted with hot water to fill a regular coffee cup.
This might taste watery if you’re used to espresso, but compared to drip coffee, an Americano may actually seem quite strong.
Keep in mind, a 2-oz. shot of espresso contains less caffeine than an 8-oz cup of drip coffee (even though it tastes stronger), so you might need more shots in your Americano to get the buzz you’re used to.
Cappuccinos, Lattes, and Macchiatos = Milk
This family of drinks combines espresso with steamed milk and foam in different proportions for a rich, smooth accompaniment to your morning routine.
A properly prepared cappuccino follows a ratio of thirds: 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, and 1/3 milk foam on top (really enthusiastic and talented baristas often decorate this foam with fancy patterns).
Lattes have a much higher proportion of steamed milk with very little foam on top, making them an easy beverage to enjoy if you’re not a fan of the strong taste of espresso.
Espresso macchiatos, on the other hand, are traditionally the strongest of these three drinks, with only a touch of foam dotting the top of the espresso. The macchiatos served in many chain coffee shops also include extra milk or other flavors though, so be sure to clarify what you’re looking for when you order.
Mochas (and Flavored Lattes) = Milk + Sugar + Chocolate (or Other Flavors)
Traditional mocha coffees are made like cappuccinos, with a shot of high-quality chocolate syrup mixed into the coffee.
Most American coffee chains, however, brew them more like lattes made with chocolate milk – still delicious, but not quite as strong as the original version.
Variations like s’mores, peppermint, and gingerbread flavored mochas pop up everywhere during the holiday season, so if you need some sugar and caffeine to keep you going during a marathon shopping trip, try one of these drinks.
Not much of the original coffee flavor or character comes through all the flavoring, so if you’re just entering the world of specialty espresso drinks (and you normally take your coffee with milk and sugar), start with one of these.
And remember, American coffee chains pride themselves on customer service, so if you want a flavored coffee with a little more character, just ask them to reduce the amount of flavoring – and don’t forget to tip your barista!
So tell us… What’s your favorite specialty coffee drink?
About Mike Quinn
Mike Quinn spent 20 years in the US Army and traveled extensively all over the world. As part of his military service, Mike sampled coffee and tea from all virtually every geographic region, from the beans from the plantation of an El Salvadorian Army Colonel to "Chi" in Iraq to Turkish Coffee in the Turkish Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. He spent nearly a decade in the Republic of Korea where he was exposed to all forms of traditional teas. Mike formerly owned and operated Cup And Brew, an online espresso and coffee equipment retail operation.