We’ve come a very long way from first discovering the coffee tree, and the complexity with which we brew and prepare our coffee shows just how long that way has been.
While there exist at least a hundred unique and different approaches to brewing and serving coffee, it helps to understand that they all generally tie back to the same basic approach: taking a roasted coffee berry seed and brewing it with water to extract the flavor.
If you’ve ever been in a modern coffee shop and wondered how all of these different types of coffee differentiate themselves, you’re not alone.
Upmarket coffee shops from old-school cafes to Starbucks and the accompanying snobby third wave has left thousands of consumers wondering what exactly the difference was between a Grande Latte and a Venti Macchiato, not to mention the other hundred ways in which coffee has been prepared for centuries across the planet.
Here at Coffee Digest, we’re going to go over every major type of coffee drink – and explain exactly how and why it’s made and named that way.
When exploring coffee, it pays to start at the very beginning. And what better way to introduce someone to coffee than at the cultural origin point of every cup and mug ever sold: the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Dating back to at least the 15th or 16th century, Ethiopian coffee is made very simply with a ceramic pot, a mortar and pestle, a pan, and an open flame.
Freshly harvested green coffee beans, handpicked, and washed, are first roasted over an open flame until they darken and release their oils, creating the delicious aroma we know and love.
Then, these roasted beans are crushed via hand while a ceramic pot slowly brings water to boil over the fire. The crushed beans are then added to the boiling water and left to settle and boil for at least a few minutes.
The resulting brew is taken off the heat and either left to sit before serving (so the grounds settle) or served through a sieve.
Ethiopian coffee is coffee at its simplest and rawest – roast, crush, brew, and serve the beans all within a single sitting. As the entire process is quite involved, Ethiopian coffee ceremonies tend to be a daily highlight, with one woman preparing a large batch of coffee for an entire group, including her family and the neighbors.
When the Ethiopians first began trading with the Muslims on the Arabian Peninsula, one of their chief imports was coffee. Coffee became an important spiritual drink for Sufi imams in the 16th century, and it spread from Yemen throughout the whole Arabic and Islamic world, leading to the creation and proliferation of coffeehouses and coffeehouse culture in Syria, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire, as well as all of Arabia.
While Turkish coffee and Arabic coffee are very distinct, both rely on the same principles as Ethiopian coffee. Rather than using a ceramic pot to bring the coffee to a boil, a special brass of copper cezve is used, while the Arabs use a dallah.
Cezves and dallahs alike were made of special metals to denote the owner’s wealth and status, and the importance of brewing and enjoying coffee in the company of others.
Arabic and Turkish coffee alike also often involve the use of sugar and various spices to enhance the flavor of the final brew. While Arab coffee traditionally uses lightly roasted coffee beans, mixed with spices such as cardamom and anise, Turkish coffee is often boiled with varying amounts of sugar (from none to plenty).
Coffee was enjoyed the Arabic or Turkish way in Europe for many years, albeit without the assorted spices. The first major shake-up in European coffee was the invention of the percolator by a Parisian named Joseph-Henry-Marie Laurens, who in 1819 devised a method for brewing coffee that utilized boiling water and ground coffee to produce brewed coffee with little to no grounds.
However, the results of making coffee with a percolator were not always consistent, and it was difficult to get a clean cup of coffee without making it bitter.
While the design was copied and modified, the general gist of it remained much the same. It wasn’t until decades later when Angelo Moriondo invented the espresso machine that pressure-based coffee truly changed up the coffee world.
When brewing coffee with a percolator, the boiling water would enter through a tube in the middle of the percolator and be dispersed onto a separate chamber of coffee grounds kept above the water. The hot water would trickle through the grounds back into the water below, resulting in a brew.
An espresso machine utilized the pressure of steam to forcibly press boiling water through a compact tamper of finely ground coffee to produce an extremely short extraction of concentrated coffee, called an espresso (as in express, or quick).
The pressure forces the emulsification of the oils present in the ground coffee, creating the characteristic crema and powerful aroma of a cup of espresso.
However, the result was still quite bitter due to the extreme temperature of the water. Espresso coffee underwent another major change when Hungarian inventor and entrepreneur Francesco Illy invented an espresso machine that utilized air pressure and adjustable water temperature to create a cup of espresso with hot water, instead of boiling water.
The creation of the espresso coffee led to the creation of the espresso bar, a business model that became prolific in Italy. It was based on providing speed and convenience, churning out dozens of cups of coffee in a short amount of time, for very little cost.
This resulted in a unique culture that began to play around with the espresso, resulting in a whole complex lineup of Italian coffee drinks, including:
- Lungo – A caffe lungo is an espresso shot with twice the water. This makes it “long” (hence the name), subtly changing the flavor while providing the volume of a doppio (a double, or two shots of espresso).
- Ristresso – The opposite of a lungo, a ristresso uses just half as much water. The result is an incredibly concentrated coffee, but one with less intensity than a normal espresso as the pull itself is shorter.
- Cappuccino – The traditional milk-based coffee, a cappuccino is a shot of espresso served with hot milk and topped with milk foam. It’s served in other countries as a milk coffee, or coffee with milk.
- Latte – A latte is a more recent type of milk coffee and differentiates itself from the cappuccino by being served without the milk foam, or with just a little milk foam for “latte art” purposes. It’s usually just coffee and milk, with an espresso base.
- Macchiato – A macchiato is coffee with just a touch of milk.
- Americano – A drink of generally unknown origins, an Americano is either a regular brewed coffee (pour over or drip), or espresso served with equal amounts of hot water (50/50 espresso and water).
- Corretto – Generally a tongue-in-cheek drink, a caffe corretto is an Italian espresso served with a touch of liquor, usually grappa (grape brandy).
The Pour Over and the Drip Coffee
While the Italians revolutionized coffee via the espresso machine, the rest of Europe had come up with different ways of preparing coffee as well.
Unsatisfied with the result of her percolator, German housewife Amalie Auguste Melitta Bentz came up with a way to prepare coffee by pouring hot water over grounds kept in a paper filter, producing a much more qualitative cup than the preceding percolator-style coffee.
Her invention led to the production and variation of countless other filter-style coffee makers, such as the popular Chemex pour over coffee maker which utilized an hourglass shape to enhance the quality of the brew and minimize unwanted staleness between brews, a design later adopted and modified by various Japanese glassware companies.
The concept of pouring over coffee in a paper filter eventually led to the invention of drip coffee makers, including the predecessors to today’s modern coffee machines, which rely on timers to pour hot water over a disposable or reusable filter of ground coffee, dripping into a carafe.
South American coffee, particularly Costa Rican coffee, was produced much the same way, utilizing a reusable fabric filter called a bolsito to hold both coffee grounds and hot water, dripping into a mug positioned below the filter.
Filter coffee and pour over coffee was generally forgotten with the invention of the automatic coffee machine and the electronic coffee maker, but the third wave of coffee (coffee as an artisanal product) brought back the tradition of making coffee by hand with a paper filter or reusable filter, popularizing Chemex coffee makers and similar products.
Cold Brew Coffee
Anecdotally invented by the Dutch and popularized by the Japanese, cold brew coffee involves brewing coffee with room temperature water overnight or longer, resulting in a unique flavor profile only achieved through very long steeping periods.
The Dutch apparently utilized this method to produce coffee concentrate that could be easily stored during long seafaring voyages, while the Japanese utilized a series of glass chambers to slowly drip room temperature or cold water through coffee grounds overnight to produce Kyoto-style coffee.
Cold brew coffee saw an international surge of interest in the last few decades and has become an incredibly popular coffee variety in the 2010s and beyond.
Nitro cold brew coffee, another version of cold brew coffee, utilizes nitrogen discs typically used in the production of stouts like Guinness to create a unique foam without any additional ingredients.
The foam is thick because nitrogen bubbles are much smaller than oxygen bubbles, and while the nitrogen itself does not contribute to the taste of the coffee, the mouth feel changes the way it affects the palate.
Espresso coffee spread throughout the world in the 20th and 21st centuries, leading to the development of a variety of regional coffee variants including the Australian Flat White and Long Black, the Greek Frappe, American coffees (often served iced and with various toppings and flavored syrups), South American and Spanish espresso variants (including café con miel, cortado café, and café cubano), and Vietnamese coffee (thickened with egg instead of milk).