Believe me—I've done my time as the too-proud-to-ask-questions coffee drinker. I liked looking like I knew what I was talking about at Starbucks or any local coffee shop. I perused the menu confused as heck, but ordered something that sounded like I was a real coffee drinker.
"Can I get a latte, please?" I usually said, casually dropping the "café" in "café latte" on the menu. Yeah, so cool.
One day, I decided to actually take the time to figure out what the heck I was ordering. A simple Google search lead me to an explanation of specialty coffee drinks. Essentially, it's whatever kind of coffee with however much milk that makes up the classifications for the drinks. More milk, less milk, equal parts milk and espresso, etc.
Eventually, my coffee ordering confidence grew. I asked the baristas for their professional opinions. I branched out and tried their favorite drinks. But the peak of my coffee education was when I got a job as a real barista at a local, third wave coffee shop. Now, I can answer the coffee questions by which I was once baffled.
1. What does "cold brew" mean, and how is it different from iced coffee?
Cold brew is coffee steeped in cold water usually over 24 hours. Iced coffee is simply hot coffee poured over ice (sometimes it's cooled after it is brewed). Cold brew packs in a stronger flavor since it is kept cold and not diluted when added to ice, as is the case with iced coffee. Cold brew is usually served out of a nitro tap at third wave shops. It's a crazy extra process, but you get crazy extra caffeine. Personally, I feel like I'm going to die after drinking a cold brew, but to each their own.
You can drink cold brew black or with cream and sugar, just like iced coffee. Pro tip: get the coconut mocha cold brew from Foxtail and add some coconut milk!
2. What exactly is "espresso?"
Espresso is finely ground coffee beans that are pulled from a concentrated, tamped small amount of coffee. Espresso is strongly flavored and very dependent on the fineness of the grind. Some machines adjust the grind automatically and others require manual adjustment. A typical espresso drink is made with a double shot. Most machines will pull double shots and it is up to the barista to split them if another amount is required. Espresso shots will start to die (or go bad/loose its bite) in 30 seconds to a minute after it's pulled, so the shot should be drunk, or drink assembled, soon after.
Pro tip: if you're a Starbucks regular, try their blonde espresso! I really like it in an iced dirty chai tea latte.
3. What are all those fancy named espresso drinks on the menu?
This is kind of a loaded question, so I'll break it down by most common espresso drinks.
A latte is the most common espresso drink and also my go-to order. It can be made hot or iced. It's the drink with the most amount of milk in relation to the espresso. When made as a hot drink, the milk is steamed and then poured into the espresso in the delicate process of latte art. Flavors can be added and lattes usually come in sizes 12oz or larger. A mocha is a chocolate flavored latte, in simple terms.
A cortado is equal parts espresso and steamed milk. Traditionally, it's just a hot drink, but I've served an iced cortado to customers who insist upon it. It is a 4oz drink, with a double shot of espresso and then two more ounces of steamed milk.
A cappuccino is another common drink and very similar to a latte. It is typically an 8oz drink and can be more dry or wet as preferred by the drinker. Dry simply means more foam and wet means less foam. The equation of a cappuccino is equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foam.
Pro tip: ask for mocha and hazelnut in your latte for a Nutella flavored drink!
4. But what about a macchiato?
I didn't forget about the macchiato, don't worry. This is an important distinction that warrants its own section.
A macchiato is traditionally not the overload of sugar you'd get from Starbz. It's a 2.5oz drink that is made of a double shot of espresso with just a dollop of steamed milk on top. The word "macchiato" loosely means "marked with milk" in Italian. There actually should not be such a thing as an "iced macchiato" and those pretty drinks from Starbz are actually just iced lattes, not mixed together.
Pro tip: don't order macchiatos.
5. What is the "slow bar?"
The slow bar menu at a coffeeshop is brewed-to-order coffee. Typically, there are three options—pour over, french press, or siphon. These different brewing methods change what notes of the particular coffee roast are more prevalent in the taste of the drink. If you order form the slow bar, you're most likely camped out at the shop for a while and are a little more particular about the way coffee should taste.
A pour over imitates drip coffee, but is more controlled. The barista grinds the coffee and puts it in a cone-shaped filter, then pours the hot water over this so that it drips into the pitcher below. The coffee will typically taste brighter.
A French press is the best method, in my opinion at least. The coffee grinds steep in hot water for about 4 minutes and are then pressed with a filter down to the bottom of the container. The coffee will typically taste smooth and rich.
A siphon (pictured above) is the most ridiculous way to make coffee. Its a gosh dang science experiment. It takes an hourglass shaped contraption and an open flame. Three cups of water are boiled through a filter up from the bottom of the hourglass to the top. The coffee is added to the top and set to steep in the still boiling water for just under 2 minutes, then the flame is cut and the coffee drops into the bottom part of the hourglass through the filter, leaving the grinds in the top section. The result is the hottest cup of coffee you will ever drink in your life that costs double the price and lots of stress for the barista!
Pro tip: if you plan on camping out for a while, find a coffeeshop that will make you a whole French press so you can refill at your leisure. Try Hillcrest Coffee!
6. I don't like coffee, but all my friends want to hang out at coffeeshops. What do I order?
There are plenty of drinks at coffeeshops that don't have even a little bit of coffee! The most common is tea, of course. Ask your barista if they offer different flavors. Anything with strawberry is usually amazing. Or, ask for a London Fog latte—made just like a regular latte, but with Earl Grey tea. Chai tea lattes (hot or iced) are also popular, and these can be made into dirty chais by adding espresso for that extra kick of caffeine if you need it. There's also matcha, which is concentrated green tea, and is commonly made into a hot or iced latte as well. If you're at Starbucks, check out their refreshers and smoothies. If you're at a local shop, ask the barista what they drink when they've had too much coffee.
Pro tip: stop by Starbz and ask for the Ombre Pink Drink with two pumps of vanilla syrup!
7. How can I enjoy these coffee drinks if I can't have dairy?
No dairy? No problem! Just ask your barista what milk alternatives they offer. Most coffeeshops will have almond, coconut, and soy milk. Some will now offer oat milk. The only difference is the way the milk steams. It'll taste fine, but it's difficult to get latte art out of milk alternatives. However, a seasoned barista may be able to make you something pretty.
Are you vegan? Tell your barista! Some drinks are sweetened with condensed milk or honey, so they will talk to you about substitutes for these. They may also tell you about any other vegan options they offer, like pastries and such!
Pro tip: matcha lattes are better iced and with either almond or coconut milk.
8. So is there a right way to drink coffee?
Yes, and no. The "right" way to drink coffee is however you prefer your drinks. Maybe you like bitter bean juice just the way it is. Maybe you need to tell your barista to make it light and sweet every single time you order. Maybe you like a little coffee with your mocha. Maybe you want a cappuccino made with sea foam and five extra espresso shots. The choice is yours, and you have so many options!
Pro tip: branch out! It's great to have a go-to order, but keep in mind that the baristas live and breathe coffee and will have amazing recommendations.
Remember, it's okay to ask questions. Everyone is just as confused as you.
If you have more questions, find me on Instagram!