A beginner’s field guide to coffee

The myriad of coffee options one encounters upon walking into a local coffee shop or a nearby Starbucks can be overwhelming; not to mention, the befuddling fact that most of the drink names seem to be in languages other than English.

To alleviate confusion regarding everyone’s favorite pal named “Joe,” the following is a comprehensive list of 10 of the most popular types of coffee, explained and simplified.

1) Espresso


Perhaps one of the most popular coffee choices, as well as the basis for several other coffee drinks, espresso is the result of a high-pressure, fine-grind coffee technique. It can be made with any type of coffee brew, but the precise amount of pressure and temperature applied to the coffee results in a fine extraction of highly concentrated coffee, which accounts for most espressos’ small shot-glass size.

Espresso is never served with milk or cream (as it no longer can be called “espresso” once this is done), but it can be sweetened with sugar or other additives.

2) Cappuccino  

The basic cappuccino boasts balance. This drink is traditionally equal parts espresso, steamed milk and milk foam.

Steamed milk is simply milk heated with a steam wand and may create a light layer of foam at the top. The milk foam on a cappuccino, however, is a type of microfoam with tiny bubbles created deliberately with the steam wand.

3) Caffe Latte

Cafe Latte, or “milk coffee” in Italian, is a creamier version of a cappuccino. It is composed of two parts steamed milk to one part espresso, with usually a double shot of espresso. Usually no foam is added, save for the light layer of foam on the steamed milk created by the steam wand.

Other variations of the caffe latte exist from other cultural origins as well, such as the “cafe au lait” and the “cafe con leche.” Both are French and Spanish alternatives for “coffee with milk,” respectively.

4) Macchiato

Sometimes called “caffe macchiato” or “espresso macchiato,” this drink retains a bolder flavor than some of its meeker caffeinated cousins.

The  word itself means “spotted” in Italian, and as such, the macchiato is typically an espresso with a spot of milk in it.

5) Mocha

The caffe mocha is a popular drink among chocolate-lovers and those with sweet tooths. It is essentially a caffe latte with chocolate added to it. The chocolate can be added in a variety of ways, from a homemade chocolate ganache or to whole chunks of chocolate added to the coffee. Many cafes also use hot chocolate to provide the chocolate flavor.

Mochas are typically topped with foam or whipped cream, with cocoa or cinnamon powder.  

6) Flat White

A flat white is similar to a latte, with two parts steamed milk to one part espresso, the only difference being that a flat white has a bit less milk, and usually very little microfoam, if at all. Many flat whites are simply served without foam.  

Originating in Australia, the flat white could also be seen as akin to the Spanish cafe con leche drink, with the exception that a cafe con leche uses scalded milk and does not have foam on top.

7) Americano

The Americano is arguably the simplest of this list. It is espresso diluted with water and is ideal for those who cannot handle the intensity of an espresso but do not like the creaminess of steamed milk.

8) Frappe

One of the the more modern additions to the coffee lineup, a frappe, sometimes called a cafe frappe, was deceivingly created in Greece in the 1950s. Traditionally, it is a mixture of instant coffee and sugar blended to form a type of froth and served with ice and rarely milk.

Today, however, frappes are more commonplace and come in a variety of flavors, such as chocolate, hazelnut or vanilla. It is also more common for modern frappes not to include coffee at all or to use decaffeinated coffee, making it a kid-friendly drink.

9) Red Eye

A red eye, most probably known for its ability to wake any sleepyhead with its amount of caffeine, is regular filter coffee, iced or hot, with a shot of espresso.

Another variation of this drink is the black eye, which is filter coffee with two shots of espresso.

10) Cortado

Derived from the Spanish word “cortar,” meaning “to cut,” this miniscule drink is about the same size as an espresso. It is essentially one shot of espresso “cut” with equal parts milk.  

This Spanish drink can be difficult to distinguish from other coffees, such as a macchiato or a cafe au lait, and is generally not popular in North America; nevertheless, being able to identify and enjoy a cortado will make its drinker seem like a seasoned coffee veteran.

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