Ever stood in a quaint little café (or the local coffee chain) and wondered what exactly each of the different coffees was? You might’ve had a latte, or a cappuccino, or a macchiato, or a mocha, but aside from the fact that they’re all a combination of coffee and milk, it’s likely that you’ll struggle to point out the differences between these four common drinks.
Coffee drinks are different all throughout the world, with local variants and traditions blending together to produce a list of not just dozens, but hundreds of different recipes and ideas past the regular old cup of black. While we can’t go ahead and list off every single kind of coffee you’re likely to find, we will go over some of the most common coffee drinks, as well as a couple of popular outliers you’d expect to find in cafés outside of Europe.
The European Classics
These are drinks you’re likely to find in cafés just about anywhere in the Western world and save for a few outliers, these drinks are commonplace in most coffee shops – both the independent ones and the commercial chains. Italian coffee features here primarily, and we’ve cut out coffees that are nearly identical to the ones described below, yet in another name. Our journey through the basics of most common coffee drinks starts with the most important drink of them all: the espresso.
The espresso is likely the most common component in most Italian and European coffee drinks, and it’s nothing more than a concentrated shot of coffee made with a very low extraction time, creating a delicious, flavorful, creamy cup of black coffee with less caffeine than a regular cup of brewed coffee. As such, espresso is made in a large machine with highly pressurized hot water ‘pulled’ through a tamp of finely ground coffee. Most coffee shops either serve single or double shot espressos (solo and doppio), but the extraction method can be modified to create different espresso-like drinks, such as the lungo and the ristretto.
Lungo is made by making an espresso with the same amount of coffee as you would for a single or double shot, but with twice the amount of water. As such, a lungo typically takes twice as long to pull (up to a minute, versus an espresso’s 20-30 seconds), and produces twice as much coffee.
The ristretto is the opposite of a lungo, creating a shot of espresso with twice as much coffee for a single shot’s worth of water. The result is a more concentrated cup of coffee and a different flavor. Despite a comparable extraction time, the higher concentration of water makes for a different overall flavor and balance, as well as fewer coffee compounds (including caffeine). This means a ristretto is not necessarily stronger and certainly not more caffeinated than an espresso, but simply creates a different taste for twice as much ground coffee.
The first of a series of espresso-based coffee drinks, the cappuccino is made with one-part espresso, one-part hot milk, and one-part milk foam, which becomes the canvas for any number of different decorations and garnishes, from cacao powder to chocolate syrups and more. A cappuccino differentiates itself from the similarly made latte by way of the size of the serving, and the size of the milk foam. Cappuccino is usually served with more milk foam than a latte is.
A macchiato is an espresso with just a touch of milk, rather than an equal part (or more) of milk. The amount of milk and its consistency depends entirely on the café, but the original purported origin of the macchiato comes from simply adding a touch of textured milk to the espresso (hence the word, meaning ‘spotted). A similar drink in Portugal and South America is a café pingado or a coffee with a tear/drop.
Marocchino recipes simply involve espresso, milk froth, and chocolate. The kind of chocolate used depends on the region. Some places only use cacao powder on top of the milk foam, while others mix espresso with thick sweet cacao. Another variant involves dusting the serving cup with cacao, followed by a shot of espresso, milk foam, and some more cacao.
A latte is traditionally prepared at home, and quite simply is coffee with hot milk. Different cafés do serve lattes as well and separate them from cappuccinos by making them with more milk and less milk froth/foam. Lattes are often made with coffee brewed in a Moka pot rather than espresso, and any strong brewed coffee may be used. Moka pot coffee is also made with pressurized hot water, but not nearly as pressurized as water used for an espresso shot.
A mocaccino, also known as a mocha, is basically a marocchino with more milk, or a latte with cacao powder. Some people use cacao syrup or hot cacao instead, much like with the marocchino. The only defining difference seems to be the ratio of coffee to hot milk before the chocolate element is added.
An Americano (or an all’americana) is a double shot of espresso pulled into a glass of hot water (not scalding hot, to prevent burning the espresso). Alternatively, a cup with a shot of espresso may be topped with hot water. While it looks much like a cup of black coffee (and is also known as a long black in many portions of the world), the defining difference is that it tastes different due to the espresso process. Some countries serve brewed coffee when ordering an Americano.
More of a dessert and less of a drink, an affogato is a double shot of espresso served with a large scoop of milk gelato, sometimes served with a bit of a kick (coffee liqueur, or a touch of amaretto).
Corretto is ‘corrected’ coffee, made with a shot of espresso and a small amount of Italian liquor, often either grappa (grape liquor) or sambuca (anise liquor).
A cortado is a Spanish coffee made with a one-to-one ratio of espresso to warm milk. The milk isn’t frothy or texturized and is simply meant to reduce the acidity of a shot of espresso. Nothing else is added to a cortado, and its name implies that it’s simply meant to ‘cut’ a shot of espresso.
A café miel or a café con miel is a cup of espresso and steamed milk sweetened with honey (miel). It’s served in France and Spanish-speaking countries predominantly and is sometimes made with a touch of cinnamon.
Although not European, the café Cubano is still made with classic Italian techniques, save for the addition of locally available demerara sugar, placed in the cup before pulling the shot of espresso. The resulting sweetened espresso is stirred vigorously with milk froth, resulting in a creamy cup of sweetened espresso with a uniform texture and consistency.
A frappé (not a Frappuccino, which is an American invention) is a Greek coffee that originated in the 50s, as a result of experimentation by a Nescafe employee. Frappes are made with instant coffee, water, sugar, and ice cubes, mixed in a cocktail shaker. Sometimes, it’s made with condensed or cold milk.
Turkish coffee is consumed throughout the Mediterranean and much of the Middle East, and not only in Turkey. It’s very strong coffee made in a special small coffee pot known as an ibrik, with a touch of cardamom and some sugar (added just before the coffee). Coffee used for Turkish coffee should be ground to a fine powder, added to cold water, and brought to a foam (not a boil!). The grounds are not filtered out, and the coffee is left to sit just long enough for the grounds to settle to the bottom. Although exact methods and added spices vary from culture to culture, unfiltered black coffee is a staple in the Arabian world.
Coffee likely originated in Africa, and it’s particularly in the country of Ethiopia where the hot drink is held sacred and served traditionally in a spectacular ceremony. Coffee served in many of these ceremonies tastes nothing like you’d expect, with surprising flavors reminding one of sweet berries and refreshing citrus fruits rather than a pot of hard, black coffee. These coffees are made on-the-spot, and the ceremonies sometimes include the washing and roasting portion of the preparation, rather than just the grinding and the brewing. African coffees are often brewed thick, yet despite their syrupy consistency, they’re much finer and complex in flavor than one would expect.
Cold Brew Coffee
As the name implies, cold brew coffee is brewed with room temperature or cold water, leaving the grounds immersed in the water for up to a whole night. Because the extraction process doesn’t use heat, it takes longer for the coffee to properly extract. However, this also means that there is no chance of burning the oils in the coffee.
The resulting coffee is often thicker and stronger in flavor, and seafaring Europeans purportedly first invented cold brew coffee by looking for a way to easily store prepared coffee. Cold brew coffee was popularized in Japan and apparently was brought over to the island nation from travelers and traders coming in from the Netherlands. Today, cold brew coffee is often sold as Nitro coffee, served through a canister loaded with nitrogen gas, which gives the resulting coffee a different mouthfeel, sweeter taste, and more refreshing quality.
Aside from the methods mentioned above, coffee drinks are prepared in many different ways in cafés all over the globe. Whenever someone asks for a brewed coffee, the common methods they’re likely to see employed in coffee shops everywhere include:
- Pour Over
A brewed coffee is different from an espresso in that one is a concentrated shot of coffee made with pressurized hot water, and the other is simply the result of steeping ground coffee in hot water and filtering it.
Coffee Drinks Are Everywhere
The world is a big place, and coffee is consumed in most countries on this planet. This list is not nearly as extensive as it could be, but we hope that it offers some insight into how versatile and amazing coffee can be, and gives you a little more information on what exactly it might be that you’re ordering on your next visit to a local coffee shop.