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Names of espresso and coffee drinks; What's the difference between a latte and a cappuccino?

Updated on September 18, 2012

Espresso shop lingo

What did I just order anyway?

Cappuccino, latte, double espresso, dark roast, french roast, machiato? The past 30 or 40 years have brought a whole new set of vocabulary words to the American public, and yes, if you've lived on the west coast you are probably as familiar with these espresso- associated words as you are with rainy days, but for the rest of the country, there has been some catching up to do. So if you've ever been standing in line at a coffee shop and felt like a dummy because you weren't sure what the h*$# you just ordered-( "wow, this double shot espresso is a rip off!") then here is a crash course.

Educating customers with good quality espresso drinks -In 2002 when my family opened an espresso shop, we were the first in our city- yes, the midwest- and part of our daily job was helping customers get "educated" about the drinks we served. When customers would ask say they weren't really coffee drinkers, for instance, we would let them try a free flavored latte. Usually, we had a new customer after their first encounter with a good espresso drink like a vanilla latte.

A cappuccino ordered in Seattle is not necessarily the same as a cappuccino ordered in Kansas - Actually, a flavored latte in Seattle is probably what you'll get when you ask for a cappuccino in many places. You see, what you ask for and what you get across the country, especially in independent coffee shops, can vary widely. And since Mcdonalds and Sonic have hopped on the bandwagon, people are very confused as to what actually constitutes the difference between an espresso, a latte, or a cappuccino. Or if there is a difference, for that matter. Well, there is a difference, and if you're local coffee shop baristas can clearly explain the differences, that's the first sign you're in a good espresso shop.

So here are some of the espresso drinks you may encounter at your local - independently owned, I hope - coffee shop. "Cough" arbucks has taken liberties with many things, including inaccurate espresso drink names, but I digress.

Espresso- This is the basis for all coffee shop drinks that contain coffee, but is also a daily drink alone for Italians and many Europeans. Actually, they will usually have multiple espressos throughout their day.So the espresso(not espresso, never has been, never will be) is simply the extraction of very finely ground coffee by means of high pressure and hot water. Not boiling, but close (193 - about 203 degrees). You can order an espresso a couple of ways, but always get it "in house", not "to go" as it is only 3 oz. It is best served in the tiny ceramic espresso cup, and is not supposed to be bitter, but sweet, actually. It is strong, yes, but with a wonderful silkiness and crema on top, which is the creamy caramel colored "foam" you get on top of a well made espresso. This is not a drink to linger over, but a quality drink to be experienced rather quickly for a pick me up or after dinner and be on your way. Think of it as a good shot of Scotch, only in the espresso world. I usually stir in a packet of raw sugar or a couple of sugar cubes, but that's me. It is so ,so good when done well. You can get a single shot 1.5oz, or a double shot 3oz. Here's a fact not everyone knows: a shot of espresso actually has less caffeine than a cup of brewed coffee! It just tastes stronger!

Macchiato- This drink has been abused by a gigantic coffee chain in America. It has nothing to do with carmel. Macchiato in Italian means stain, and refers to the look of the drink, as it is an espresso with a bit of light foam in the middle- I've also seen in done with the espresso shot poured through the foam to create the "stain". But it is not sweet, or big, or fancy in it's true form.

Cappuccino- Without getting too technical, a cappuccino is a third espresso, a third milk and a third foam. The traditional drink is made with 3 oz espresso(a single),and 4 oz of milk- 2 oz steamed, and 2 oz foamed. A "wet" cappuccino is more milk, and a "dry" cappuccino is more foam. This drinks magic happens when the crema meets the foam and mingles. Fabulous! Whole milk is the best if you want a really good tasting cappuccino, as the steaming brings out the milk-fat's natural sugars. The foam on a cappuccino should always have a slight sheen, hold together well, and be slightly sweet. If it has been scalded, you'll know it. Ask the barista to try again. They should happily oblige. A cappuccino has a stronger espresso flavor than a latte, and is much stronger than, say, a flavored latte.

Latte- This is America's favorite drink and is actually a mix of the Italian latte, and the French cafe au lait. The Italian latte is espresso and milk about a third to two thirds, so the espresso has less punch than in other espresso drinks. In America people tend to like it very "milky" and with a little foaminess like the cafe au lait. You can get any flavor of latte you want if ordering at a coffee shop, and usually they get pretty fancy with the names and seasonal flavors. A flavored latte is good, but it is more a sweet milk drink than a sweet coffee drink when you get right down to it. Add an extra shot every once in a while until you "graduate" to a regular latte or cappuccino and start appreciating the genuine espresso taste. It's worth it.

Americano-An Americano is espresso with hot water. Usually 1 or 2 shots in a 12 oz then filled with water, but a true Americano has lots of room at the top and is not filled all the way so that it is strong and there is room for cream. This is like brewed coffee with the texture and richness of espresso. My favorite drink- with an extra shot and quite a lot of room for cream, to be precise.

Shot in the dark, or Red Eye, usually- There are different names for this drink, but usually you can tell which one it is by it's descriptive title. This drink is made by adding a shot( or two or three) to a regular brewed coffee. Extra caffeinated and strong!

So there you have it- a brief description of some of the most common espresso shop lingo that you can familiarize yourself with and feel knowledgeable about when ordering. Talk with the baristas and ask if you don't know. They usually love to wax on about espresso and their different drinks. And they'll remember you the next time you come in. Being a customer in the little corner coffee shop is a rewarding experience for you and for the local, independently owned espresso/coffee shop. It helps create a "culture" - and every espresso shop has one. People know your name, anyone and everyone is welcome to come in, relax, be introspective, have a conversation, write, study, think about art, read, and be themselves. Be a part of it and help create your little corner of the world -with a nice cup of espresso.

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    • myawn profile image


      5 years ago from Florida

      I enjoy a latte every now and then not every day. Nice hub on the differences of the coffees.

    • SanneL profile image


      6 years ago from Sweden

      Well this hub sure boosted my caffeine deficiency! Lol!

      Great read and interesting info on all the different coffee drinks. Voted up. Thanks!

    • grinnin1 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from st louis,mo

      You betcha, RVDaniels! Thanks for stopping by!

    • RVDaniels profile image


      6 years ago from Athens, GA

      From one coffee lover to another, thanks!


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