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In the world of second and third-wave coffee shops, there are a lot of names for the handful of combinations of coffee, espresso, milk, and flavors that baristas across the country have at their disposal.
The way that baristas are trained to talk about coffee beverages and the way that customers understand that lingo don’t always match up. Baristas and customers all have varying degrees of knowledge about coffee traditions and culture, and navigating that during café transactions can be tricky.
As someone who has brewed, roasted, or served coffee in one capacity or another for a decade, I’ll explain the different kinds of coffee and espresso drinks being made around the country today. Whether you're trying to plan the menu for your new cafe, or you just want to make the barista/customer interaction a little easier, read on.
The guide is divided into three sections: Coffee, Espresso, and Not Coffee, which includes flavors, milks, mixers, and garnishes. Explore the different types of coffee and espresso drinks, how they’re made, and how they can be modified.
As a café owner or barista, it’s good to keep up with trends in the coffee industry and know what the big shops like Starbucks and Dunkin are doing. Your customers might ask for trendy drinks in your shop and, even if you can’t build them, it’s nice to be a source of information for customers, and maybe it will help you to suggest an alternative.
Thinking of opening a coffee shop? Here’s a checklist and the average cost to start a cafe.
Coffee shops combine a few basic tools, goods, and processes to produce the rich, dark beverage that has been a cultural phenomenon for centuries. Water, roasted coffee beans, and a brewing process are the equation that adds up to coffee.
There is a myth associated with coffee’s discovery in Ethiopia – a goat farmer saw his flock chewing the leaves and berries of the bush that we now know as coffee and becoming excited, thus beginning the cycle of harvest and cultivation that lead to the international coffee industry.
Coffee can only grow fruitfully in certain altitudes, likes to be grown in shade, and the growing region spans 25 degrees north to 30 degrees south of the equator. There are two varieties of coffee; Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (or robusta). The seed of the fruit, often called a cherry, that the coffee plant produces is roasted and brewed to make coffee.
Most specialty coffee roasters use Arabica beans exclusively because they have a wider range of flavor profiles, but there is generally more caffeine in Robusta beans, and some roasters blend the two. The growing region, including country of origin and down to the farm, influences the flavor of each harvest, just like in winemaking.
Roasted coffee is either brewed as a single-origin, meaning that all the coffee in a cup came from a single region or farm, or as a blend – a roaster’s chance to combine coffees of different origins and craft balanced flavor profiles.
Types of Coffee Drinks
Drip coffee is the most common hot coffee brewing method. A cup of drip at most coffee shops is the cheapest thing on the menu, and there’s always a fresh pot brewed. If you order coffee at a restaurant, bar, or make it at home, you’re likely getting drip coffee.
Drip describes the process by which hot water is distributed by a machine over medium-grind coffee and filtered with paper. Lots of specialty cafes use high-quality drip brewers that carefully maintain the temperature, flow rate, and distribution of the water.
Drip brewers are efficient – they can make a lot of hot coffee quickly and the profit margin for coffee shops is often greatest for the cup of drip coffee.
The pour over is a manual drip brewing process that allows the barista much more control over the process and product. Many coffee shops reserve pour overs for their most flavorful single-origin coffees because it is worthwhile to take the time to craft a custom process for high-quality single origins. Traditionally, pour over coffee requires a kettle, grinder, brewer, filters, and more time and skill than drip brewers. Some coffee shops are moving to automatic pour over machines because pour overs take a lot of manual labor, but don’t allow for as much control over the process.
Chemex and V60 pour over brewers are two of the most popular. Chemex uses a thick paper filter and that is designed to reduce the acidity of a brew, and V60 brewers and filters are engineered to optimize the pour over process. There are lots of other pour over devices and methods on the market.
Café Au Lait
Café au Lait is French for “coffee with milk” and usually describes hot drip coffee with 3-4oz of steamed milk or a dairy alternative.
Iced coffee is drip coffee brewed using hot water, usually at double strength so that it can be diluted with water or milk. Brewing coffee at double strength usually results in a richer but more bitter or astringent coffee, which is why many shops now also make cold brew.
Cold brew is made by submerging coarse ground coffee in cold or room temperature water for an extended period of time, often up to 18-24 hours. Using cold water and allowing the coffee to extract over time allows cold brew to be strong while retaining some nuance of flavor.
There is also a slow-drip method of making cold brew that uses a tower that many of you may have seen in specialty coffee shops. This method was originated in Japanese coffee shops and is called a different name at almost every coffee shop that uses the process. Slow drip cold brew towers can produce lighter, sweeter, cold coffees with more depth of flavor than other cold brew methods.
Nitro Cold Brew
Nitro cold brew is nitrogen infused using a keg system and pulls the brew with a head of foam, like a beer. It’s usually higher in caffeine content than the other offerings at a coffee shop. The drink is typically smooth and dark.
Blended coffee is any coffee mixed with ice, milk, and often syrups, flavors, or additions like ice cream or protein power. Blended coffee drinks allow for a lot of creativity in flavor combinations and additions and are a delicious and popular dessert beverage.
Some blended coffees are made with espresso, but Starbucks’ Frappuccino, possibly the most popular blended coffee, is made with a concentrated coffee.
Chicory coffee is a New Orleans tradition. To extend the meager imports of coffee, resourceful New Orleanians blended rich tasting, but caffeine free, ground chicory root with coffee. Chicory coffee is still a staple of New Orleans’s robust and innovative coffee culture and, in the summer, New Orleans Iced Coffee, which is a coffee and chicory blend with milk and simple syrup, is a favorite across South Louisiana.
All espresso is coffee but not all coffee is espresso. Espresso is defined by the process of applying around 9 bars of pressure to force hot water through a compact puck of finely ground coffee to brew 1.5-2oz of strong, rich coffee.
The tradition of espresso originates in Italy and much of the language around coffee culture in America is derived from Italian. There are strong, dark coffee drinks similar to espresso brewed in the Mediterranean and Middle East, such as what’s known in America as Turkish coffee, but those are rarities in America’s café culture.
Espresso is mixed with milk, water, and flavors in different combinations and volumes to make different kinds of espresso drinks. The drinks any barista can make are limited by only what they have at their disposal on the coffee bar and their imagination. Many espresso drinks can be made hot or iced.
Espresso machines are often a coffee shop’s greatest asset – the quality of the machine determines the quality of espresso shots and the barista’s ability to steam milk properly. Espresso culture is artful, complex, and nuanced – many shops hold contests for their baristas to showcase their espresso and latte art skills and there are regional, national, and international barista championships.
Types of Espresso Drinks
Espresso is 1.5-2oz of concentrated coffee that is brewed under pressure which increases the rate of extraction. Most coffee shops now pull 3-4oz double espresso shots rather than the more traditional single shots. Espresso is traditionally served with a couple ounces of sparkling water on the side.
The process of brewing under pressure allows the surfactants natural in coffee to produce a tight foam called crema that lends to the unique texture of espresso. Espresso is mixed with milk in various volumes to create other types of espresso drinks.
Espresso is mixed with 8oz of hot water to create a café americano. The common story about this drink is that it was created for Americans when they visited Italy to mimic the drip coffee that is popular here.
Iced americanos are made with either still or sparkling water, but in my opinion sparkling or mineral water makes the best iced americanos.
Espresso Con Panna
Espresso con Panna is espresso that is either topped with or poured over sweetened whipped cream.
An affogato is a double shot of espresso over gelato or ice cream. There’s a trend of third-wave cafes that also make and sell gelato and the combination is both popular and delicious.
A traditional macchiato is a 4-5oz espresso drink that is a double shot topped with a couple of ounces of steamed milk foam.
A macchiato latte is a latte that is built upside down – the espresso is poured over steamed milk or milk and ice, usually to create some visual effect.
A cortado is, by my definition, a 5oz latte, containing two or three ounces of steamed milk (or shaken for an iced cortado). It’s about the size of a cappuccino but with a larger ratio of foam to milk, about ¾ milk and ¼ milk foam.
The flat white is a creation of Australia’s coffee culture and describes a small latte topped with cocoa powder. If you order a flat white in America, you’ll usually get a wet cappuccino unless you ask for cocoa powder specifically. Starbucks' flat white is a latte with extra espresso.
A cappuccino is traditionally a 6oz beverage made with a shot of espresso and 4oz of milk and milk foam in about a ½ and ½ ratio. Cappuccinos are light, classic, and easy to sip. Dry cappuccinos have more milk foam than milk, and wet cappuccinos are the opposite, with more milk than foam. Some shops make iced cappuccinos by foaming milk and espresso in a shaker.
The latte is perhaps the most iconic espresso beverage in American cafes. Latte art (which can also be done with cappuccinos) is a calling card of American coffee culture and there is something that feels opulent about a nice hot latte.
A small latte is usually made with 3-4oz of espresso and 8-9oz of steamed milk or a dairy alternative. Espresso is mixed with or shaken with ice and cold milk to make an iced latte.
Mochas are one of the most classic flavored lattes and are made by adding chocolate to a hot or iced latte. Personally, one of my favorite ways to gauge a coffee shop is by their mocha. Some shops make mocha sauce in-house but there are some great bottled sauces on the market. A really decadent mocha with dark chocolate sauce, cocoa powder, and shaved chocolate is the ultimate luxury coffee.
Shaken espresso is a recent trend but third-wave shops have been shaking espresso for iced americanos, lattes, and cappuccinos for years. Shaken espresso gives baristas a method to innovate creative flavor combinations and drink recipes for surprisingly light coffee drinks.
A favorite of mine is a shaken espresso topped with sparkling water or lemonade. African and Asian coffee beans have naturally floral, sweet, and acidic flavor profiles that are complimented by citrus.
Espresso mixed with sparkling or tonic water is another recently trendy summer drink in third wave coffee shops that’s refreshing and showcases the nuanced depth of flavor of espresso.
Coffee beverages are often not just coffee – syrups, flavors, milks and dairy alternatives, and creative garnishes allow baristas to play with the tools of their craft to make classic and unique drinks.
The most common way to flavor coffee with a flavored simple syrup. You’ll hardly find a coffee shop in the U.S. without vanilla and hazelnut, which are combined to make the flavor French vanilla.
Sauces like chocolate and caramel are also used to flavor coffee. Creative flavors using herbs and flowers such as lavender, rose, clove, nutmeg, orange, cayenne, and many others are combined to make clever and tasty flavors.
And as iced coffee drinks are becoming more popular, trendy coffee shops are experimenting with ways to innovate mixers for coffee. I’ve had coffees with maple syrup, malt powder, blueberry puree, fresh mint, citrus, and marshmallow. Baristas get even more creative with what they add to blended coffee drinks.
Dairy and Alternative Milks
Cow’s milk is traditionally used to make cappuccinos, lattes, and other espresso drinks and cream is often mixed with coffee. Milk alternatives are popular for their taste and the fact that they aren’t dairy makes them suitable for people with certain diets.
Some shops work with local farms to make lattes and coffee drinks with rich goat’s milk which can set a shop apart from the competition in some areas.
Oat milk is the generally accepted favorite among baristas now for alternative milks. It has a nutty flavor that isn’t for everyone, but the surfactants in oat milk make it act the most like dairy milk when steamed.
Almond milk is thinner than dairy, oat, or soy, but it has a fairly neutral flavor, and a skilled hand can produce the shiny, smooth microfoam that is characteristic of specialty coffee.
Soy milk is less popular these days, but its still a favorite and is a sustainable alternative to dairy milk. Lots of soy milk is flavored with vanilla or sweetened, but there are some shops that offer unsweetened soy milk.
Other nut milks like macadamia, which is thin like almond milk and less nutty if chalkier, and flavorful coconut milk or cream are also common in specialty coffee shops.
Build Your Cafe Menu
Now that you know all the different coffee and espresso drinks you can offer at your new cafe, determine which ones fit on your menu depending on the type of cafe you want to open, your target clientele, and your team's knowledge and input.