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About This Guide
If you are new to the seemingly infinite array of choices at the café nowadays, you may find it intimidating as you stand in line and read a drink menu which appears to be written largely in Italian. Then you stand in line listening to baristas call back the names of coffee drinks as if suddenly everyone understands Italian but you.
Or maybe your go-to drink has been a latte for years, but now you want to find out what the other options may taste like and you’re are not sure where to start.
No matter your reasons, we’ve put together a break-down of the major drink options available in your café. Most everything you are likely to find these days will be some variation of a latte, a mocha, a cappuccino, or a macchiato.
This is strong, concentrated coffee made with a fine grind of dark roasted coffee. It is brewed using pressure and steam to produce a dark coffee with a small head of foam called crema.
The espresso may seem like something of a given, but the basic building block of all of the drinks detailed below is espresso. Rather than regular brewed coffee, all of these drinks are made with some variation of espresso and steamed milk.
Looking to make your own espresso? Check out our guide on how to make espresso without an espresso machine!
Café latte, or simple latte, literally translates to “coffee milk.” It originates in Italy and consists of espresso and about 2/3 steamed milk with a small layer of foam on the top.
Lattes are probably the most recognizable drink to come out of the resurgence of café culture. The latte is the basis for nearly every other café drink people buy. They are flavored with all manner of syrups, although the purists will only sprinkle a little cinnamon, chocolate powder, or maybe a little nutmeg over the small layer of foam.
Latte art has become something of a phenomenon lately. A good barista is able to manipulate the steamed milk and foam with the espresso in order to create designs and images on top of your latte. This doesn’t add anything to the flavor, but it does create a fun presentation.
Note on Latte Art: The main reason a barista can manipulate the milk to make latte art is that the steaming process denatures the milk and produces microfoam. The microfoam can sustain small amounts of espresso in a suspension and allow a barista to create patterns in the milk. Essentially, the steam “cooks” the milk and changes its physical properties. This is why you cannot really do these things with plain milk. The techniques are fairly easy, but it does take practice.
Generally cream-colored with foam about the size of the width of a finger.
Lattes are extremely versatile. The latte has made its way into cocktail culture. With a little Irish whiskey, cognac, or Grand Marnier, the humble latte can become a fairly elegant after-dinner treat.
Lattes can be iced. Obviously, the milk is not steamed in this case, but they make a refreshing iced alternative during the hot months.
If you’re interested in making a latte at home, check out our guide on how to make a latte without an espresso machine.
The cappuccino needs to be properly distinguished from a latte since they are quite distinct drinks.
A cappuccino is made with a 3:3:3 ratio of espresso, steamed milk, and foam. The steamed milk is layered on top of the espresso and then foam is gently layered on top of the milk. It is a rich and satisfying alternative to a latte. The overall presentation is generally cream-colored and served in a wide cup.
Often garnished with chocolate powder or cinnamon, the layer of foam on a cappuccino is easy to manipulate and a good barista can form artistic designs on the top in the manner of latte art.
Cappuccinos do not hold up well to ice. The distinction between a cappuccino and a latte just gets lost when you ice them, and the iced cappuccinos we find in fast food restaurants are really little more than milkshakes with coffee flavor.
The name is derived from Mocha, Yemen which was one of the earliest centers of the coffee trade. Mocha lattes are another hugely popular drink in general café culture.
The mocha, or mocha latte, is really just a variant on the classic latte. Starting with the same espresso and 2/3 steamed milk, we add chocolate and sweetener directly to the mix. Mochas are sometimes made with chocolate syrup.
Sometimes a mocha is made by adding espresso to hot chocolate, although this is rare in America.
A variant on the mocha is the white mocha. For this, white chocolate is substituted for regular chocolate. The chocolate purists may wince, but this is a delicious variation.
An iced mocha is great summer treat (or winter, depending on your disposition). They hold up well for an iced drink.
A macchiato is similar to a latte. It is just built differently. Rather than layering the milk on top of the espresso, steamed milk and a small layer of foam are placed in the cup, then espresso gets poured in over the mix.
Macchiato translates to “marking the milk.” The way one makes a macchiato results in a mark on the foam at the top of the drink.
Light colored with espresso at the bottom and a small mark at the top. Because the mark is important to the presentation, a macchiato is often served in a tall glass.
The array of choices which have grown with the whole café culture over the last two decades has produced so many coffee drinks and coffee brewing styles that it can be hard to keep up. As I said at the outset, that menu of Italian names can be enough to shut you down if you are new to it all.
The reality is that most of the things available are in fact variations on one of the four drinks detailed above. There are, of course, other things more specialized (a cortado, for example. Really just a small latte with half espresso and half steamed milk) but most of us will have to go looking for them to find them.
From the basic latte to the more involved mocha, and cappuccinos and macchiatos, the daunting drink menu at sophisticated cafes makes use of one of these basic formulas for nearly everything else they make.