Choosing the right coffee drink

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Bryan is an artist, father, husband, and son (not really in that order). He works for the Department of Vetern's Affairs and writes and administers The Fireside Post with his father, Ohg Rea Tone. His writings have not been published, though they have been printed a lot.

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Choosing the right coffee drink

The owner of the coffee shop where I worked was a stickler for quality, and I worked with him for over two years. There were customers in our store that came to our location because I was working, trusting that my skill with steamed milk and my knowledge of espresso would come together in a superb latte, mocha, or cappuccino. Risking immodesty, I have to say that they were probably right.

I would like to save you the embarrassment of entering an upscale coffee shop without a superficial knowledge of the lingo and the basics of coffee drinks that are, these days, either espresso based or variations of the house brew.

The second important ingredient in the coffee experience, once you have found a nice cozy spot that suits you, is the drink. This seems intuitive, but there is a language barrier, and the individual coffee house will typically try to make a drink that is so specific to their shop that you will have to return there in order to get that exact drink. It all goes back to marketing, which is part of the American coffee experience. Here, in America, the coffee shops all look basically alike and they try to have dramatically different drinks. In the places where coffee is taken seriously, the drinks are all pretty much the same, and the environment that you choose will suit you more than the next. Ideally, we will get to a place where we are experiencing a similar drink in each establishment, but, until then, let us look at some of the differences in the basics.

Espresso: I hear a lot of people say that they went to a coffee shop and had an “espresso drink” and it was horrible. It was tiny and black and bitter and they paid too much for it. I blame the barista or the cashier for not smelling the inexperience in the air and providing their services as a consultant in the customer’s moment of need. Espresso is coffee, finely ground and extracted with steam through what is called a portafilter. A portafilter holds about 4 ounces. of ground coffee and should dispense a 2 ounce drink, if ordering a double shot of espresso. It should have a caramel look to the top, called the crème. There are two elements that the barista has control over that affect the taste of the espresso; the “tamp” and the extraction time. The tamp is simply how hard the espresso is packed into the portafilter to retain the steamed water as it passes through. The other element in a good espresso, is the extraction time. Each espresso blend of roasted coffee beans will have different qualities and will require different lengths of extraction,, or the amount of time that it takes for the steamed water to pass through the packed coffee grounds, typically anywhere from 22 – 35 seconds. Feel free to ask the barista how long they extract their espresso. If they don’t know what you are talking about, order a house coffee.

Latte: this is your standard espresso drink, “Latte” is Italian for milk, so this is a good way to get your calcium. The drink is 16 oz. by definition, with 2 oz. espresso and steamed milk that is frothed (steamed) but not foamy. The correct consistency is defined as “micro bubbles” – you should not be able to see the foam and the drink experience should not include a foamy milk taste in the first sip. The milk should be integrates with the espresso so that the first drink is about 160 degrees and smooth, with an almost hot caramel texture. If you are one that likes sugar in your coffee, ask the barista to include it in the espresso before he or she introduces the milk. This will keep you from having to disturb the delicate head on the drink you just paid $3 for, and the barista will be happy to indulge you in order to provide you with the best experience possible.

Cappuccino: This one takes a lot of different forms in our current gas station culture. A cappuccino is an 8 ounce drink. There are two ounces of espresso and four ounces of milk, and though the milk should still be integrated with the espresso, the drink is foamy and will have the head of milk that is found on so many wayward lattes. If you are not for all the milk in the latte, this might be the drink for you. It also is a bit more concentrated, since that espresso is not cut with so much milk, so be prepared for a boost.

The rest of the drinks are variations of the three basic forms, for the most part. The mocha is a latte with chocolate sauce, the macchiato is a super dry (foamy) cappuccino (that is an oversimplification, but it will do for our descriptions.)

I am sure that some of you are calling foul because you go to Starbuck’s every morning and the drinks you get are nothing like what I am describing. Cool off a bit. Every coffee shop has different lingo and will define these drinks differently, especially Starbucks whose intent it was from the beginning to define the industry for the consumer. They did an excellent job, but they did not use the standards of the Specialty Coffee Association on America (the SCAA.) A Caramel Macchiato is, indeed, an 8 ounce drink with super foamy milk. If you get a 16 ounce drink that is smooth, creamy, and super sweet, you are having a drink that was made up by the establishment where you are ordering. If you like it, ask the next coffee shop what they have that tastes like that. No harm, no foul. And don’t feel foolish if you drink Starbuck’s all the time then go into a local coffee shop and have to ask for instructions a bit. They should be happy to accommodate you, and if they aren’t, go to the next one.

This is getting pretty exhaustive, so I will leave it alone for now. If there are any questions or comments please leave some feedback. I like to talk about coffee.

There Are 6 Responses So Far. »

  1. I love your site. I found your blog via Google while searching for Espresso To Coffee and your post regarding g the Right Coffee Drink | the fireside looks very interesting to me. It really looks very nice. The articles provided are long enough to provide great content but not so long as to be totally engrossing, if you know what I mean.

  2. Thanks for the information! I don’t know what made me want to google espresso drinks tonight, but I did, and here I am. I’m a latte drinker, but I have to add a shot of vanilla syrup…I need the sweet. Your idea to have the barista add sugar into the espresso before the milk is one I want to try. How much should I ask them to put in? Or will they know? If I do this in starbucks will they look at me like I’m crazy?

    Also, I love Pete’s coffee, but I just moved away from the west coast and haven’t found any near me. I always ordered a vanilla latte from there and it was so yummy. But if I order a vanilla latte from starbucks I have to get a double shot of espresso, because the espresso seems week to me.

    Do you have any advice for how I should order?
    Thanks, Kaye

  3. Kaye

    I have a couple of posts that kind of go together, because you have to find the right coffee shop *and* the right coffee drink. Starbuck’s is alright and it is fast, but they are not a micro roasting facility like Pete’s. You will want to find a coffee shop that roasts its own beans in order to get close to the experience you had there. you can also order a smaller drink at Starbuck’s- say a 12 ounce drink – to cut down on the milk that they add. Try two raw sugars with your latte and see what you think – if it is too much cut back – but with a 16 ounce latte it is a nice edge of sweet to the espresso and milk.

    Thanks for the comments!

  4. I can’t believe McDonald’s is trying to sell “gourmet” coffee. Who the hell is going to go to a cheap fast food restaruant for a mocha?

  5. Mcdonalds coffee is pretty good actually…

  6. Going to Starbucks is like going to McDonalds, kind of for the inexperienced and undiscerning.
    All this is kinda overated.
    Clean gear, don’t “burn” the milk, and good beans and hey!!! Good coffee.
    The rest of it is snobbery to the extreme.
    America didn’t create coffee… just the marketing

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