I remember when my coffee expertise only extended as far as over-syruped Starbucks drinks. All I knew was that I liked my coffee sweet and strong, and finger-lickin’ foamy. After working the espresso bar myself, it’s become obvious that there is so much more to know. So if you’re new to coffee culture (thus undoubtedly confused) I recommend you follow my beginner’s guide to your first time ordering espresso.
We’ve all experienced that panic-stricken moment of despair right before we reach the register—quivering and shaking, sweating bullets, studying the menu board and then finally we’re asked the dreaded question “What can we get for you?” Your heart stops beating. You are in the twilight zone. You need caffeine. Everybody else around you understands and speaks espresso. Everyone except for you.
At least that’s how I felt my first time ordering espresso (“fancy coffee,” as I called it at the time). I ultimately got the same thing as the girl in front of me—your standard tall vanilla latte, which became my usual for several years, until I landed my first job as a barista. My first day on the espresso machine was overwhelming. There was just so much to learn, so many drinks to memorize, so many steps to making them, so many sizes, etc. So let me break it down for you. Your basic beverages include:
When you see somebody sipping itty bitty coffee cups on little saucers, pinkies pompously erect, they’re probably sipping espresso (Notice, by the way, that there is no ‘x’ in espresso). Espresso is a method of extraction in which highly pressurized hot water passes (presses, hence espresso) through finely compact grounds, thus squeezing as much caffeine and flavor as a medium drip coffee into only several ounces. So espresso’s pretty potent—it’s like coffee concentrate. You can tell the quality and freshness of espresso by the crema, which should be a frothy, creamy-caramel color. If your espresso arrives at your table dark and flat, that means the crema has long since evaporated. Send it back, unless you like your coffee seriously bitter.
Espresso with steamed milk. Usually comes in 12 or 16 ounces, sometimes 20. Contrary to popular belief, the larger the latte, the weaker (more diluted) it will be. So if you want your latte strong, order a small, or else you’ll need an extra shot. It’s all about the ratio of milk to coffee.
Foamy latte. Traditionally, cappuccinos strictly consist of equal parts espresso, milk and foam, resulting in about an eight ounce beverage. Eight ounces, however, is a kiddy size at Starbucks, who took it upon themselves to supersize the cappuccino, offering 12,16, & 20 ounces to satisfy American demand. Should you order a cappuccino and a latte and forget which one is which, you should always be able to tell them apart by their weight. The latte should be heavier, the cappuccino light and foamy, thus less dense.
Hot water with espresso—for those who like their coffee black or simply want to take it easy on the dairy. Americanos are a nice alternative to plain drip coffee, which is often over-brewed and left to sit instead of freshly made to order. Another reason some prefer Americanos is the crema that’s extracted, which is richer and much creamier than drip. To keep the crema in tact, the barista must pull the shot over hot water rather than add the water to the shot.
Red-Eye or Depth Charge
Drip coffee with a shot—for those who want it really strong. If you’re a weakling, don’t get this or you’ll be raging on caffeine. You’ll shake and sweat and have a nervous episode.
Cafe au Lait
Literally coffee with milk. This drink consists of half drip coffee, half steamed milk. In my experience, au laits are the most likely modified (and most frequently misspelled—Olay, oh lay, au lait—same thing). Most cafe au laits are either milk or coffee heavy. Most people prefer a certain ratio (two thirds, three quarters, sixty/forty, etc). Some customers may add a shot, or even chocolate, which brings me to my next beverage, the…
Espresso, chocolate and steamed milk. Essentially a chocolate latte—same milky consistency.
A chai latte does not in fact contain any espresso. Many people are deceived, or simply jump to the appropriate conclusion that a latte would come with some espresso. It’s because we say “Chai Latte” like “Vanilla/Almond/Hazelnut Latte,” as though it’s just another flavor, but a typical chai latte has only steamed milk and chai mix. Therefore, if you want to spice it up with some espresso, we call that a “Dirty Chai.”
I saved this one for last because it causes by far the most confusion, which mostly stems from our failure to specify which kind of macchiato. There are two: Either espresso macchiato or a latte macchiato. Very different. A latte macchiato is a latte, but instead of pouring milk over a shot, you pull a shot over hot milk, a.k.a. a “floated shot.” So when you order a “Caramel Macchiato” at Starbucks, it will come in 12, 16 and 20 oz. However, more traditional, European-style coffee shops offer espresso macchiato, which is small and comes in tiny cups and saucers of espresso topped with a dollop of foam. You can imagine the outrage and disappointment when presented with such small, pathetic drinks after expecting a latte macchiato. So make sure you specify, latte- or espresso-macchiato, and eliminate confusion altogether.
I hope you’re taking notes because there’s going to be a quiz. Just kidding. All you really need to know is what you like—if you like foam, if you like flavors, dairy-free—whatever your preference, it’s somewhere on the list. I’ve got a couple extra pointers for you, before you go. Like when you specify how foamy you prefer your milk, the term is “dry” for foamier, and “wet” for heavier or milkier. Another tip: don’t leave your drinks sitting around. You’ll compromise the crema and consistency of the foam, which will evaporate and clump disgustingly, trust me. Espresso drinks are meant to be consumed instantly, not left to sit, so drink up. And one more final word of caution: modifications add up fast, and they’re expensive. You’ll be charged for added shots and flavored syrup, as well as soy or almond milk. So if you want to go all out, you’re looking at up to a seven dollar drink. So just be careful. However, things like “iced” and “extra hot” and “half- or decaf” are always free of charge.
And please, please, please, go out and try some local shops. Try not to fall into the habit of just going to the closest coffee chain like Peet’s or Starbucks. Other places may be pricier, but they’re one of a kind.
Lastly, when it comes to coffee, patience really does pay off. In the coffee biz, you either get it fast and cheap or slow and expensive. Starbucks pumps out drinks assembly-line-style, automatic machines to maximize efficiency, since everybody wants to be in such a hurry. But espresso is something worth waiting for, if you ask me, if it means waiting for a shot that’s packed by hand and silky, velvety steamed milk.
So there you have it—everything you need to know about espresso—an expensive, but respectable addiction. Just be warned, because with coffee comes biscotti, donuts and croissants, so take it easy. And make sure to shake up your routine and try new things like spicy mochas, pumpkin lattes in the fall and peppermint mochas in winter. And make sure to tip your servers, they work hard.