Coffee Shop Drinks and Terms Explained

There’s more to coffee than beans and water. If you’ve ever stepped into a coffee shop and been confused by terms like “espresso” and “macchiato,” you were probably overwhelmed. Sometimes you might feel like ordering fancy coffee is an esoteric experience, reserved only for rich businessmen. And coffee, especially fancy gourmet coffee served in a coffee shop, has a language all its own. But once you learn a little about coffee and coffee shops, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. I’ve worked at coffee shops for two years now, so here’s what I’ve learned about ordering (and making) coffee.

The basics:

Roasts: Most coffee shops have a medium (mild) roast and dark (strong) roast. Some will have a special flavored roast, or a lighter roast. And there are hundreds of specific roasts in those three broad categories.

Espresso is a very strong coffee that’s used to make most lattes. A latte consists of espresso and milk. It can be served hot or iced. Most can be made decaf.

Coffee starts out as a bean plant that’s harvested and ground before it’s brewed. You can buy an espresso roast coffee, but espresso used for lattes is poured into a machine and ground out in shots. The number of shots in a latte depends on the size. In most lattes, you can barely taste the coffee, so don’t worry about ordering one if you don’t like coffee. That’s like refusing to eat cake because you don’t like eggs.

You can get all sorts of flavors in lattes: Vanilla, caramel, hazelnut, etc. A mocha is a chocolate latte. Many coffee shops now have a white mocha, which is a white chocolate latte. Both mochas and white mochas are very sweet.

Light/skinny drinks: If you’re watching your calorie or sugar intake, you can order a light, or skinny, drink. Skinny lattes are made with skim milk and, if it’s available, sugar free syrup. Light and skinny mean the same thing, but the term “light” usually refers to frappes. Ask your barista what syrups they have sugar free.

Other coffee drinks:

Cappuccino: A cappuccino is like a latte, but with a lot more foam (about half foam, half milk).

Americano: An americano is espresso and hot water. It tastes like very strong coffee.

Macchiato: A macchiato is a backwards latte. Instead of pouring espresso in the bottom of the cup, the barista pours the espresso shots on top of the milk. The caramel macchiato is the most popular, but some coffee shops make mocha or hazelnut macchiatos.

Frappe: A frappe is a frozen drink, similar in texture to a milkshake but not quite as thick. At Starbucks, they’re called frappuccinos. A frappuccino is technically a mix between a frappe and a cappuccino, but there’s not much difference in taste or texture.

Frappes can be made in any of the same flavors as lattes. Most use a special coffee made specifically for frappes (as opposed to espresso, which waters them down). Some are coffee free.

Non-coffee drinks:

If you’re not a coffee drinker, you still have plenty of options. You can get hot or iced teas, chocolate milk, coffee-free frappes, or juice. Starbucks has a drink called a caramel apple spice (or caramel apple cider) that’s free of coffee and caffeine. It’s technically a holiday drink, but can usually be made year round.

Secrets of coffee shops:

Size matters: You might look at a coffee shop menu and get confused about the sizes? Grande? 20 ounce? Venti? The sizes are the same as they are anywhere else — small, medium, and large. They just go by different names. Starbucks refers to them as tall (small), grande (medium), and venti (large). Some places refer to them by ounces — 12, 16, and 20 ounce. Look at the menu before you order and make sure you use the appropriate terminology. There might be two different baristas taking your order and making your drink, and you don’t want to get confused when you order a “large” and the barista calls out a “venti.”

Caffeine: Stronger coffees don’t have any more caffeine than their milder counterparts. At Starbucks, the Pike Place roast (their most popular medium roast) and their Bold Pick of the Day have the same amount of caffeine.

Create your own drink: You’re not limited to the drinks listed on the menu. There are dozens of different syrups, and hundreds of thousands of ways to combine them. My favorite is the raspberry white mocha. Caramel white mochas and peppermint white mochas are also popular. Try mixing and matching to see what sort of drink combinations you can create!

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