Lattes, cappuccinos, and more: what to order at cafés?

Visiting a café and seeing all the menu items can be daunting, especially if you don’t know what they mean. This post is an attempt to clear up that confusion. First, we will discuss what each drink is, and then how to pick a drink.

Espresso: An espresso is the foundation for many drinks that cafés will serve. It is a concentrated beverage that is made using finely-ground coffee brewed at a high pressure (typically, 9 bars). The high pressure achieves a good extraction quickly–a typical espresso shot will take about 30 seconds to brew. Expect a strong drink with tons of flavor. If regular black coffee is beer, then espresso is whiskey. When ordered, most cafés will give you a double shot of espresso, so the terms are interchangeable.

Macchiato: The macchiato is something you may want to talk to your barista about, because different cafés make different drinks. The Starbucks caramel macchiato has nothing to do with a traditional one, for instance. The “real” macchiato is an espresso “marked” with a little spoon of milk foam on top. That foam doesn’t change the drink much, but it makes for pretty Instagram shots.

Cortado: The definition of a cortado can vary between cafés, but it’s essentially an espresso with steamed milk. This is a small drink, and usually is a 1:1-1:2 ratio of espresso to steamed milk. Expect something around 4oz (120mL).

Gibraltar: Not many cafés offer this, and the ones that do will rarely offer a cortado. This is because in practice, the drinks aren’t very different. This is a 1:2-1:3 ratio of espresso to steamed milk.

Piccolo: A piccolo latte is also in the range where it’s slightly difficult to distinguish. It is around 1:3 espresso to steamed milk. Whether you choose this, the cortado, or the piccolo is personal preference, though it’s highly unlikely a café will offer more than one of these.

Cappuccino: A cappuccino is slightly larger at around 5-6oz (150-180mL), and is espresso with steamed milk, where more air is introduced into the milk to make it foamier. You should get a lighter mouthfeel from this drink than a latte.

1+1: A double shot of espresso is split into two single shots. One is served as-is, while the other is served as a milk drink (the ratio might depend on the café).

Latte: A caffè latte is the largest of the milk drinks. It is typically a double shot of espresso with about 8oz of steamed milk. It’s popular because it achieves a great balance between the flavor of coffee, the mouthfeel, and not being too strong. Lattes are famous for the latte art that is on most of these drinks–hearts, tulips, swans, and rosettas are common patterns.

Mocha: The exact implementation of a mocha differs across cafés, but it’s a latte with chocolate added in. Usually, this is done using a chocolate sauce or powder mixed with the espresso, and then topped with steamed milk. This is the same size as a latte.

Americano: An americano is a double shot of espresso with about 8oz of hot water added. It dilutes the espresso to the strength of a regular drip/pour over coffee.

Drip: The drip coffee is incredibly popular in North America, and slightly less so elsewhere. It’s similar to the automatic drip coffee you get at home, just with (much) better equipment and fresh ground (usually using a $3,000 grinder). The problem is the drip could have been brewed hours ago and started going slightly stale, though. A good barista will tell you if this is the case and urge you to try something else. In this case, if they don’t offer a pour over or French Press, get an Americano.

Pour over/Chemex/V60: These terms refer to a specific method of brewing filter coffee. In general, you will get a paper-filtered black coffee. Strength and taste-wise, it’s similar to a drip coffee, it’s just brewed manually.

French Press/Aeropress/Siphon: These are alternate methods of brewing black coffee. A French Press will generally have a heavier body; the siphon is cool to watch as it brews (beware: this can be a slow method of brewing).

Coffee Flight: A café offering a flight is usually going to be really good (example: Platform 7 in Vancouver), though there are exceptions (looking at you, Starbucks Reserve Roastery Seattle). It’s a chance to try multiple pour overs or espresso of different beans. It’s a fun experience!

Cold Brew: Coarse-ground coffee is steeped in cold water for anywhere from 12-24 hours. This slow extraction leads to a cold coffee that’s low in bitterness but with lots of body.

Iced Coffee: The meaning of an iced coffee can vary. Some cafés may pour a drip coffee over ice, although that to me isn’t in the spirit of the drink. I tend to ask instead for a Japanese Iced Pour Over, which is a pour over but with some of the hot water replaced with ice. Brewing hot coffee directly over ice produces a very clear, yet refreshingly cold beverage.

How to choose

Start by deciding if you want a hot or iced beverage. The remaining flowchart will look pretty similar for both.

  • Do you want milk in your coffee, and if so, how strong do you want your beverage to be? The stronger, the more you’ll lean towards a macchiato instead of a latte. Do you want chocolate in your coffee? Then you want a mocha.
  • If you want no milk or chocolate, you want black coffee. Do you prefer more body or clarity of flavor? If the former, pick an immersion brew method such as a French Press, or a Clever dripper (not all cafés have this, though–ask around for immersion brew options). If the latter, you definitely want a paper-filtered coffee. A Chemex with its thick filters is the best choice, though any pour over is fine.
  • On the iced coffee spectrum, if you prefer more body, you likely will want a cold brew, while if you prefer clarity of flavor, you’ll want an iced coffee.

My personal opinion is that unless you’re in a hurry, the café doesn’t offer a pour over, or the beans in the drip appeal to you, it’s not worth getting a drip. Similarly, you have to be a specific audience member to order an Americano–you want the espresso but not at its full strength. There’s practically no reason to order an Aeropress or Siphon unless you’re particularly attached to the brewer (although the Siphon is cool to watch).

Me, personally? I love iced mochas, although I also frequently try the pour over and espresso to see what cafés are capable of and to try different beans.

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