Lessons in Coffee: Beginnings (or How Not to Look Like an Idiot at Starbucks)

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Happy Coffee Day!

If you don’t know, today is International Coffee Day. Why? Because we spend around $1,000 on coffee annually. Throwing that much cash at it, it should return the favor at least once a year.

Many companies are celebrating in style, with Dunkin Dounts, McDonalds, and Krispy Kreme all offering a free cup of coffee. Canadian giant, Tim Hortons, claims to have hidden $9,000 worth of prizes and giftcards in many of their major markets (including my hometown, Rochester, NY—GO HIGH SCHOOL FRIENDS, GET THAT CASH!). Seems fitting these coffee giants should celebrate a holiday to promote fair trade coffees and farmer’s rights by giving away free, not fair trade coffee, but I digress. I promise that is not my soapbox for this post.

Anyway, grab yourself a free cup of joe, and let’s talk about coffee on this hallowed day.


There are many different kinds of coffee roasts—all dependent on the length of roasting. They fall on a spectrum of light (roasted for a short period of time) to dark (roasted for a long time). Light roast coffees tend to have high acidity, so they will be brighter on your palette (hence why they are often called Breakfast Blends). Many light roast coffees are distinctly nutty, with hints of citrus. They pair well with fruity (berries, lemon) flavors. After extended roasting, the beans begin to lose their acidity and caffeine—light roast blends are more caffeinated than dark roasts. Dark roasts coffees are often characterized as robust, smoky, and bitter. They pair well with chocolate and caramel flavors.


These beans can then become a number of different beverages, depending on the brewing method. Standard brew coffee is ground to a medium consistency, placed in a paper filter and passed under hot water. This brewing method often robs the beans of their oils, producing, for some palettes, a coffee that is bitter and acidic. A French press is another common brewing method that helps the coffee to retain its oils. The coffee is ground to a coarse consistency, combined with hot water in a press, and then separated after five minutes with a mesh metal filter. (PS, you can actually order a press of any coffee from Starbucks at any time of day. Just make sure you have time to sit and enjoy it—it isn’t a take away order.)

The final, most common brewing method is espresso. Espresso is both a roast (dark) and a brewing method. The coffee beans are ground to a very fine consistency, and pressed into tight puck shaped cylinder. Next a small amount of hot water is pushed through the puck at a high pressure—creating a small, highly caffeinated dose of coffee (1 oz). It is this shot of espresso that is used in many standard coffee shop beverages.


There are many ways to order espresso, but I’m just going to focus on the most common today. Espresso can be ordered by the individual shot, but is very strong and bitter, usually an acquired taste. A great starter is the Americano. An Americano is a substitute to a cup of coffee, and is made by combining shots of espresso with hot water. It is often a smoother cup of coffee, retaining the oils that are lost in the standard brewing methods. It’s a great alternative if you’re worried about the coffee roast offered, or the quality of the brewing system. It is the freshest and fastest cup of coffee you can order.

Latte vs. Cappuccino:

The two most common drinks you would order from a coffee shop are the latte and the cappuccino. Both are made with shots of espresso (usually two) and steamed milk. A cappuccino is characterized as having more foam than milk, and will be airy and light to pick up. Cappuccinos can be ordered on a spectrum of dry (more foam) to wet (more milk). Cappuccino milk is usually aerated—the act of adding steam to the milk to give it a smooth, frothy consistency—for a longer amount of time than a latte.

A latte is characterized as having more milk than foam. It should be mostly steamed milk, with about a inch of foam at the top. Lattes can be ordered with extra foam or no foam. The latte is the base of most other espresso based drinks on a coffee shop menu.

Look at that! FANCY!

Latte Drinks:

As I said, the latte is the base for most espresso and milk drinks. For example, a mocha is just a latte with chocolate added. A breve is a latte made with steamed half and half instead of milk. More complicated drinks (like the, exclusive to Starbucks, caramel macchiato*) are based on this recipe. A caramel macchiato is a latte built upside-down with vanilla and caramel flavoring. Macchiato means “to mark” in Italian, so the shots are placed on top of the latte foam, to create a distinct line in your cup. This also means that the first flavor will be the espresso, as the drink is purposefully served layered.

Obviously, there are hundreds of other coffee drinks out there, and this is just the beginning. But with this knowledge, you are hopefully now armed to at least read a cafe menu. Got any questions about drinks? As a former barista, there are few things I haven’t heard, I promise. I’ll name that drink you had that one time, years ago, on a vacation to the Grand Canyon. Or I’ll find you someone who can. I’ll tell you just how great an espresso con panna is. Don’t be shy! Try and stump me!

*Beware, an espresso macchiato and a caramel macchiato are two VERY different drinks. An espresso macchiato is just shots of espresso and a dollop of steamed milk, and will give you quite a surprise if you order it hoping for a caramel/vanilla treat. Err on the side of caution, and never order a caramel macchiato outside of a Starbucks.



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