Legend has it, coffee was discovered when Ethiopian shepherds noticed their goats were getting frisky and having trouble sleeping after eating from certain bushes.
It reached America during the Colonial period, where it wasn’t as successful initially because, um, people preferred to drink alcohol. It wasn’t until the Boston Tea Party, after which many Americans refused to drink tea, that coffee really started becoming popular. Today, coffee is the second most traded commodity on earth (oil is the first)!
The basic brew has been transformed in so many ways that looking at a cafe menu can feel overwhelming…especially before you’ve had your coffee. Here’s a quick and dirty explanation on the makeup of some of the most popular drinks.
1. Espresso and Drip Coffee
The main differences between espresso and drip coffee are how finely ground the coffee is and the brewing time. Espresso is more finely ground and espresso machines generate high pressure to force water through the tightly packed ground coffee, thus shortening the brewing time. This produces a “shot,” or a small amount of pretty concentrated coffee.
Drip coffee, on the other hand, is made with loose ground coffee, through which water filters by the power of gravity (woo!). Because hot water is in contact with the coffee grounds for much longer, this creates for a more caffeinated beverage.
An Americano is a shot of espresso with hot water. It is served without milk (add milk and you will be judged). The effect is a diluted espresso that is less bitter than black drip coffee.
A traditional macchiato (vs. a Starbucks one…) is a shot of espresso topped with a small amount of frothed milk. It delivers a very potent espresso flavor, with the frothed milk cutting the intensity of a pure shot of espresso just a little.
Frothed milk (as opposed to steamed milk) is milk in which air has been incorporated to form a foam. This creates a new texture for the milk and a slightly sweeter taste.
For all intents and purposes, this basically tastes like espresso, though, so imagine the “gotcha” moment for somebody ordering their first non-Starbucks macchiato…
A cappuccino is one part espresso, one part steamed milk, and one part frothed milk. If made properly, every sip should include equal parts of each. The steamed milk cuts the intensity of the espresso much more than in a macchiato but nowhere near as much as in a latte.
A latte is two parts steamed milk and one part coffee. More milk means a more diluted espresso flavor, so the drink is gentler tasting and can also be more easily flavored with syrups like hazelnut or pumpkin spice.
It’s kind of like the gateway version of coffee.
A mocha is a desert-y drink that is kind of like a latte with cocoa powder or chocolate added. When you get a mocha, you’re pretty much getting an adult hot chocolate, where adult means caffeinated, not spiked. It’s ok to just get the hot chocolate.
For extra credit:
Usually not on the menu (but something any decent barista can make), the Gibraltar/Cortado is a little like the secret handshake of coffee geeks. They are two names for the same drink, which is a shot of espresso with some steamed milk. The intensity of the espresso flavor is somewhere between that of a macchiato and a cappuccino.
The name Gibraltar came from the Gibraltar glass in which it was originally served, so if your barista apologizes for not having the right type of glasses, just smile magnanimously and wave it off.
Now go forth and order like a pro.