Basic Coffee Drinks

We’ve all been there. You’re craving something delicious and caffeinated, but after stepping into the coffee shop you’re at a loss. Menus galore, all of them brightly colored. Some of them chalked. Someone, somewhere decided that coffee shop menus need to be hand-written in colored chalk. I don’t know who this person is but they need to be shot. It only adds to the confusion.

There are drink types. Lists and lists of what you could have. Simple names. Fancy names. Funny names. But where are the helpful guides that explain just what a “flapamocha macapacaphina” is?

Here’s an explanation of basic coffee drinks.


Shot-in-the-Dark: a shot of espresso added to a regular brewed cup of coffee. For those who like their coffee intense.

Espresso: simply shots of espresso. After an espresso shot is “pulled” from the machine, it expires in 30 seconds. What I mean by this is that the heat causes the flavor of the espresso to become more and more bitter with each passing second. A freshly-pulled shot will primarily be a light caramel-color that darkens from the bottom-up. By 30 seconds the entire shot will have turned black.

Timing is important. When ordering straight-up espresso if must be drunk immediately. This means waiting at the coffee bar expectantly, so that as soon as the shots are pulled they can immediately be drunk. Adding sugar does not stop the process, and since doing so takes time, by the time you drink the espresso it will be extremely bitter. Adding another liquid such as milk or water –even a small splash–does, so if you do not want to drink your espresso immediately and straight, ask the barista to add a bit of milk.

Many people insist espresso is too strong to be drunk straight. The problem is that by “strong” they mean “bitter.” Good espresso, made correctly and drunk in a timely fashion is delicious. It has depth and breadth of flavor. You can actually taste the nuttiness and various delicate flavors of the bean.

Observe the difference between a good shot of espresso and an expired shot of espresso:









There are several variations on espresso for those who cannot drink it straight.

Espresso Macchiato: contains espresso and a dollop of milk foam. The espresso shot is pulled directly into an espresso cup and the dollop of foam is immediately added. This prevents the shot from expiring.

Espresso con Panna: consists of espresso and a dollop of whipped cream. Similar to above, only whipped cream is immediately added instead of foam.

Americano: an Americano is made with shots of espresso and water. It is the most similar drink to brewed coffee. The espresso gives it a stronger coffee flavor, yet in my opinion the drink tastes more watery than brewed coffee.

The advantage to this drink is cost. It is the cheapest drink next to brewed coffee. If you are strapped for cash but want a latte, the easiest thing to do is order an americano with just a splash of water. You can add milk  from the coffee shop’s condiments bar. If you want a flavored latte, merely order an americano with a splash of water and a shot of flavor, then add milk to taste.

The disadvantage to this method is that the drink will be cold. This works best in summer, when an iced drink is desired anyway. Merely order an americano over ice. The barista will pour the espresso shots directly over the ice, melting and slightly diluting the strong coffee flavor.

Latte: a latte is steamed milk and shots of espresso. The fat content and type of milk will affect the taste of the drink. e.g. whole milk vs. fat-free milk vs. soy milk.

Starbucks has traditionally used whole as their stock milk. This means if you order and do not specify which type of milk you want they would use whole. I believe this has changed more recently. During Christmas break I went to Starbucks as they asked if I preferred whole or non-fat.

If you are calorie-conscious at all, I recommend asking what the stock milk is at your favorite shop. Because lattes are simply milk and espresso, and each espresso shot is roughly one liquid ounce, a 16oz unflavored latte will contain 14oz of milk. That’s a lot of milk. Thus, if you frequently order milk-based coffee drinks the fat percent can make a surprising difference.

Lattes are the most popular and versatile drink.  they are very simple to change up – all you need is a shot of flavored syrup.

Breve: the only difference between a latte and a breve is that instead of milk, half-and-half is used. To each his own, but the calorie content is astronomical.

Mocha: a mocha is steamed milk, espresso and chocolate syrup. For all intents and purposes, a mocha is a latte with chocolate. The quality of the chocolate syrup that is used is very important to the overall taste of the drink. Never get a mocha from a shop that uses chocolate-flavored syrup. The absolute best-tasting syrup is Ghirardelli. It mixes well with the milk, giving the drink a great flavor and smooth texture.


Cappuccino: a cappuccino is steamed milk and espresso. The difference between a latte and a cappuccino is the amount of foam in the steamed milk. A “dry” cappuccino is shots of espresso poured over foamed milk. Quality foam is the consistency of marshmallow fluff.

I personally dislike this drink because I hate the taste of milk foam. It is more tolerable when flavored, but if I’m seeking a marshmallow-fluff experience, I’ll go buy a jar and grab a spoon.

Caramel Macchioto: this is the sweetest and my favorite drink, especially iced. It has layered flavor: Vanilla flavored syrup joins the steamed milk. The the espresso is added. Caramel is drizzled over the top of the foamed milk, and slowly sinks through the foam, dragging hints of espresso down through the drink. It is a taste experience.

I especially enjoy it iced, as ice is added to the vanilla syrup and milk. The espresso shots on top melt the ice slightly, and the caramel sinks between the ice cubes. It’s flavor you can see in a clear cup, and it’s fun to watch the colors swirl as your drink it.

It’s really something you have to see to understand:

If you ever order a caramel macchioto and it does not look like the above picture, your barista made it incorrectly. And yes, it’s worth going back into the shop to insist they do it properly – it tastes completely different layered than when it’s mixed. Even in the coffee capital (Seattle) I’ve had to stubbornly insist and occasionally explain how this drink is made correctly.

Personally, I like to mix it up sometimes and add a different flavor instead of vanilla. Cookie Dough adds another dimension, for instance, without traveling too far away from the original drink.


So there you have it … basic coffee drinks.

There are several things you can do to these basic drinks to change the taste. The ratio of their ingredients will affect the taste, and adding either a simple or mix of flavor shots can turn it into an entirely different drink.


3 responses to “Basic Coffee Drinks

  1. markleber 03. 15. 11 at 21:16

    Thanks for the guide. It was very informative. Now I will understand what my girlfriend is talking about when she stops at Starbucks.

  2. color 03. 28. 11 at 20:04

    Thanks so much for this guide! I really enjoyed reading about the different drinks.. it sounded pretty confusing at first, but you explained them really well. It makes me really want to go find a caramel machiatto! Delicioso!

  3. kylethorp 04. 18. 11 at 13:57

    I have never been a coffee drinker, but there are so many options! Thanks for making the world of coffee seem more approachable. I’ll have to try one of these sometime.

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