Espresso Drinks: The Basics

Espresso Drinks: The Basics

This post is for all of my batch brew enthusiasts out there – to all my friends who stare in confusion when presented with a list of espresso drinks, then promptly gravitate back to the pour-overs and drip coffees (to those confused by these terms, I’ll break it down in a future post). Perhaps you’re familiar with the terms; cappuccinos, lattes, and macchiatos are all pretty well known by most. But, do you know what it means? How about cortados, flat whites, gibraltars, or cubanos? Not to worry, I’m going to do the leg work for you, and give you the skinny on what these terms mean, where they come from, and what the hell you’re putting in your body when you take a sip.

First-thing’s-first, what is espresso? Let’s frame this first, to help with understanding: coffee is espresso. Espresso is not a different product per se, and is still made from coffee beans. Rather, espresso refers to a method of preparation by which hot water is pressurized through a cup (or puck) of finely ground coffee beans using an espresso machine. With that said, coffee roasters prepare beans specifically for espresso use. They will develop an ideal flavor profile which can only be “seen” when prepared as espresso. While we’re at it, let me debunk another commonly believed myth – espresso does not mean dark roast. Again, beans are roasted for espresso use by a coffee roaster who develops a profile they think is best served as espresso. Meaning, the roast can be light/medium/dark, or some level in between, and still be considered espresso. Coffee roasters and baristas spend a great deal of time dialing-in the perfect roast/espresso preparation, to give you what you’re looking for!

Espresso served alone (as a shot) is a wildly aromatic and, to be honest, is an acquired taste. Most find the profile to be quite bitter and strong, undoubtedly due to the method of preparation. Espresso machines draw 60-70% caffeine content and extract a much more diverse flavor profile than more standard brew methods. The fine grind associated with espresso preparation means that a greater surface area is exposed to the pressurized water, thus pulling a more robust palette of flavors.

Okay, now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, let’s move on to the (latte) heart of this post – espresso drinks! Let’s start with some of the more commonly-known drinks:

  • Cappuccino: served hot, what makes these drinks unique is the layer of foamed milk hanging out on top. 1 pt. espresso, 1 pt. steamed milk, 1 pt. foamed milk.
  • Latte: at a 4:1 milk-to-espresso ratio, this drink is ideal for those who find espresso a bit overwhelming, bitter, or otherwise less-than-ideal. With the splash of foam at the top, latte is also the ideal espresso drink for latte art. 1 pt. espresso, 4 pt. steamed milk.
  • Americano: simplicity, meet espresso. Though unconfirmed, history has it that the American military during WWII, would dilute Italian espresso with hot water, hoping to recreate the flavors to which they were accustomed. Not to be confused with a Long Black, where espresso is added to a glass of hot water, the americano is made by adding hot water to the espresso shot. 1 pt. espresso, hot water to taste.
  • Macchiato: if you ask me, this espresso drink has been the most affected by “big box” coffee shops. Despite what their menus might lead you to believe, the traditional macchiato is quite simple – an espresso shot with a tiny blip of foamed milk. 1 pt. espresso, blip of foamed milk.

With those staple espresso drinks out of the way, lets move on to those you may not be super familiar with:

  • Flat White: ah, the Australian latte! You’re pretty much looking at the same milk-to-coffee ratio as a latte, but on a smaller scale. 1 pt. espresso, 3 pt. steamed milk.
  • Cortado: at a 1:1 ratio, this espresso drink is perfect for those who like the espresso flavors, but who haven’t transitioned to straight espresso shots. Kidding, kinda. The cortado’s equal ratio will give you the smoothness of some of the more traditional espresso/milk drinks, but allow you to (nearly) fully retain that unique espresso flavor profile. 1pt. espresso, 1pt. steamed milk.
  • Affogato: gelato and coffee, truly a dream of a drink. I have nothing more to say on this one. Brb going to get an affogato. 1 pt. espresso, scoop of gelato.
  • Red Eye: the drink of choice for grad students everywhere. Drip Coffee with a shot of espresso. Some days you just need it. 1 pt. espresso, coffee.

Full disclosure, this list only scratches the surface of the espresso-drink world. It should, at a minimum, relieve that look of total confusion that has plagued many a well-meaning coffee drinker. No longer will that tatted barista look up disapprovingly from his heavily dog-earred copy of High Fidelity, to take your order. You’re prepared. You know what you want. Go get em, tiger.



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