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Your Coffee Drink: What Is It?

April 10, 2008

There are five types of basic specialty espresso-based drinks available from the average cafe.  Most people understand the concepts, but have a shaky concept of what exactly it is that they’re supposed to be getting.  Some people really have no clue, and order what sounds right-est.

This isn’t Cafe KW policy, perse; it’s how, amongst the international coffee connoisseurs community, these drinks are agreed to taste best.  We stick to this as closely as possible, as have both my previous barrista jobs.  There is a large community agreeing with me here, honest.  I’m not trying to inflict my preferences or the menu of the people I work for onto you, the reader.  I’m trying to make it easy for you to order what you want, and give you a guideline as to when a drink is or is not “correct.”

The basic unit and drink is the single shot of espresso.  Your shot should be about a 1oz pour, with 10% of the liquid volume made up of a dark brown foam, called “crema;” the crema is the oils within the espresso beans which form bubbles which sit on top of the shot during extraction.  It should be thick, almost syrupy in the cup, if you watched the extraction, the “pull” should have lasted between 18 and 25 seconds, without running “blonde” (The stream out the machine going pale, thin, and frothy.) more than 3 seconds or so.  The entire stream should have been even coloured and a fairly even stream.

Note: Both the pull consistancy and colour vary depending on the blend of espresso and the machine, taste is the best way to determine a good shot; it should be strong, slightly bitter, and thick in feel.  Once you get used to that taste, you should begin to note subtleties of the flavour, such as caramel, chocolate, or spice notes in the coffee and the aftertaste.  Espresso often has more noticable “bean” flavours and nutty tones than typical brew coffee; a shot will taste more like the flavour of eating a coffee bean than drinking coffee would.  The crema should coat the mouth and leave a lingering flavour.  …If your shot doesn’t have a crema, and just looks like thick brew coffee, send it back.

The next drink is the Americano, espresso topped up with hot water.  This is done flexibly, leaving proportions as much up to the customer as the barrista, though if nothing is specified, I will mix it to proportions matching brew coffee as close as possible, usually 1:3 or 1:4 espresso to water.  At Community Cup, for all that I disliked most of their coffees, I really enjoyed the americanos, especially in that each was served as a shot in the bottom of a cup, with a pitcher of hot water on the side so everyone could get exactly the balance they wanted.  Wonderful.

Milk drinks are next; with the milk, there are uniting qualifications for the milk that don’t really change much between drinks.  BC tends to use homogenized milk, 3.5 – 4% milk fat, Ontario seems to predominately use 2%; this range is optimal, and entirely due to local tastes.

Milk should be between 120º and 140º, though 140º is the very top end, this is the boundary at which milk will start to scald, ruining the flavour; you might notice a slight popped-corn or scorch note in overdone milk.  Often, they will rely on the sharpness of the coffee to hide these.  The whole thing should be thick, almost of a consistency akin to cream, as opposed to milk.  The foam should be smooth, almost glassy – described by Chief as having a “quicksilver-like sheen and movement,” and despite this consistancy, should still behave entirely as a liquid.  There should not be visible bubbles or a “plug” or “cloud” of harder foam in the middle.  Some small visible bubbles are passable, they can be tapped out before the milk goes in your drink.

Sometimes you’ll get pretty pictures on your coffee.  Called “Latte Art;” this does nothing to change the flavour, other than that if the milk is right to make the art, it’s just right for coffee as well.  There are two basic forms for most things, the heart form and the rosetta form.  The heart is self-explanitory, and the rosetta is … leafy-shaped, like a fern or something.  They’re both pretty, and both challenging.  Appreciate a barrista that can do it, don’t judge too harshly the ones that can’t.  It took me five months to learn the basics, almost a year to get consistant.  Additionally, on cappuccinos, you can get what’s known as a “monk’s head” or “traditional” cappuccino, done with the milk as a shiny disc in the middle, and a thin border of crema around the outside rim.  It’s not as pretty as the other two, but it’s much harder to do while getting an even circle than the other two are.

Because milk drinks are reliant on the espresso:milk ratio, sizes vary based on both the type of drink and the number of shots; for instance, a double cappuccino and a single latte are roughly the same size, but vastly different flavours.

A latte is the most common drink, popular among regular folks, soccer moms, and people who don’t really enjoy strong espresso flavours.  It should be one part espresso to five or six parts steamed milk, with only one of those parts being foam – the majority should be hot steamed milk, mixed with espresso.  These are popular for art given that the barrista has the most space to pour milk into the cup compared to both standard cup size and volume taken up by espresso.  It should be sweet and milky with only a slight espresso bite at the first sip and as an aftertaste.

A cappuccino is one part espresso to two or three parts milk, and should be a 1:1:1 ratio regarding espresso:milk:foam.  These are the darling of the specialty coffee community, giving a sharp note of espresso throughout while still putting enough milk in that the acrid bite of the coffee is muted pleasantly.  The espresso and the crema should both mix with the milk and partially with the foam.  This is the only drink in which a harder cloud of foam is “acceptable” to the wider community, this serving is referred to as “dry.” In my mind, this is the perfect way to start a good day.

Finally, the macchiato.  Translating directly to “marked,” this is often seen as the best way to assess a barrista or a cafe as a whole.  Made with a one to one ratio of milk and espresso, these are almost as unforgiving as a straight shot of espresso, allowing a drinker to retain almost all the nuance of their shot.  The dab of milk on top should be enough milk to colour the espresso, but mostly foam.  This dot of foam allows a drinker to assess the barrista’s skill with the milk as well as the shot.  Finally, it’s also a test of the barrista’s pouring skill, in that steaming that tiny amount of milk is nigh-impossible, and pouring the “right” portion of the milk into a cup with as little room as a single macchiato (room for 1oz of milk, remember) is a challenge to many.

Some final notes…

This may not be how your local cafe does things.  I’m not criticizing them specifically unless I visit and it tastes bad; again, what I’m laying out is what the international specialty coffee community sees as “right,” not what I think you should like.  If you like it some other way (hotter, frothier, less frothy), just ask.  The average barrista should be happy to change your drink in order to see you off satisfied rather than attempt to force the “right” way on you.  Feel free to ask your Local questions, especially if you’re ordering something and not getting what you expected.  Often, they’ll at least tell you what to ask for next time, if not fix it for you on the spot; if you’re nice, it shouldn’t be hard to talk your way into what you’d thought you were ordering.  I only correct-and-refuse people who’re rude when they’re asking me why what they got wasn’t what they’d pictured.

A macchiato really is tiny.  Honestly.  I like ’em, not every one will, and a lot of people don’t know what they are and order ’em ’cause they’re cheap.  If it costs only barely more than a straight shot, don’t expect much more than a straight shot.

Starbucks does everything wierd.  I don’t really understand their system, an have had the good fortune to have better coffee places between me and them for most of my life.  I can, however, guarantee that ordering in Starbucks-ese (or asking for a double-double) will do more to raise the ire of your local barrista than anything else you could do.  If you’re unsure, use the sizes on the menu.

Finally, again, ask questions.  Chat up your countermonkey.  You’d be hard pressed to find an introvert working in a coffee shop, I can’t think of anyone on a staff anywhere I’ve ever been that didn’t have a few minutes for a curious customer if it’s not busy.  There’s a whole load of fun stuff like flavours, chocolate, and the like that can get added, and most cafes have delicious non-coffee items, in case you’re weird like that.  (…Freaks…)  If they’re not nice to you, ask me.  …I’ll do what I can from here.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniele permalink
    April 23, 2008 12:23 am

    My first ever post on someone’s blog.
    I’m from Rome, it’s 7:30, spring mild outside and in a few minutes I’ll taste my daily cappuccino, heavenly made by my friend Super Mario, same “baretto” in years. Knowning he not the smallest thing about temperatures or/and Latte Art, I stand for Mario rights to be named as he deserves, a BARISTA, single “r”.
    This, only to humbly suggest to the World Dominators, somewhere in StarsWars of bucks, to pay attention not to add useless details and consonants to perfection.
    Just come taste it where it belongs.

    Ah, sunshine, your first comment. I’m very proud of you. I’m also envious of your locale; Italy is a nice place, and I look forward to going back. I also hope you come back to the website, likely to check if I, deeply humble person that I am, turn out to be suitably chastised by your “first comment” on a blog.

    Well, I’m not, sadly enough. Dear girl, you’ve made somewhat an … error, in your zeal to enforce grammar. Only Italy cares about italian grammar. My experience with the entire of North American culture, so far, has been interchangeably using “barista” and “barrista” for as long as I’ve been in the trade. Beyond that, even, if you really want to get technical, you could insist that I refer to them as baristi and cappuccini when there’s more than one, simply because that’s the grammar. But we both know that would be a mere contrivance; the word has been co-opted and anglicized, and the one/two “r” thing is still jumping about – but really, I don’t care. A former co-worker, only barely deserving the title, regardless of the “r” content, was neurotic about one “r,” so I’d put two in to irritate her, and the habit stuck.

    How I spell a word is hardly the point, here, given that I care about the coffee, not the job title. Your “BARISTA” can, and will, call himself whatever he feels like; I could care less, so long as if I have the good fortune got coffee from him, it would taste good. And, dear girl, I’ve found the location does little to guarantee quality. Merely because the country happens to be the home of modern specialty coffee culture doesn’t automatically assure everyone in it makes awesome coffee – if he’s got the machine set too hot or the grind too fine, his shots will come out just as awful as that of the Starbucks monkey down the road from me.

    Also, I do confess to being successfully trolled to a certain extent. I’m rather offended that you’d alledge that I’m from Starbucks, though if you’d read the whole post (I can only assume you didn’t) you’d notice the part where I discussed what butchery Starbucks has done to coffee in comparison to the way it should be made.

  2. April 23, 2008 1:46 am


  3. October 21, 2009 2:16 pm

    Thanks for the additional info. It’s nice to learn more about coffee. I just started my blog last week. It’s just something I do for fun, w/the passion for coffee.


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