Espresso Drinks Explained by a Barista

I remember my first experience at a coffee shop. I was in high school and Caribou Coffee often featured local bands. My older, cooler, neighbor was the lead in his acoustic band and they played there from time to time. I remember sitting there next to the fireplace with my friends with a hot drink in hand listening to Dave Matthew Band covers. I still reminisce over those early coffee house memories. While I learned to love the coffee shop ambiance in those early days, in my hand while listening to my neighbor’s garage band was not coffee.

I recall drinking coffee when I was a high schooler and thinking I was ordering a strong espresso drink, but when I got up to the counter I had no idea what I was ordering. Frappa, Mocha, Cappuccino, what? I ended up settling for what Caribou called a Reindeer drink, which was steamed milk with some syrup flavoring added. Perhaps I would have ventured out on those Caribou coffee visits if someone had explained to me what those drinks actually were.

But really. What is a Macchiato? Or a Cortado?

While a book could be written about the origin of your main espresso drinks, how their recipes have evolved, and what they are today, I am going to do my best in this article to provide basic insight into some main espresso drinks. This is not meant to be a hard standard. Because cafe’s serve a variety of regions and communities, drinks can and do change based on the location and customer base. Let’s get started!

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Cappuccino - This is probably one of the most traditional drinks which has evolved much over time. The word comes from a monastic sect called the Capuchin friars. Even before espresso machines were invented coffee was served with milk, and the milk was added to the coffee to the point where the color was that of the monk’s robes. Over time, when steamed milk became a prominent coffee ingredient through the invention of the espresso machine, cafes began serving shots of espresso with steamed milk. Today, you will typically see a double shot of espresso with enough milk to fill an 8oz cup, sometimes more, sometimes less. The level of milk foam served with a cappuccino differs widely.

Mocha - The name derives itself from Yemen, the first exporter of coffee. Like the cappuccino, this drink has much evolved over time. Whereas, when coffee was exclusively exported from Yemen, the term Mocha referenced the port city on the Red Sea coast where boats would wait, sometimes up to a year for their boat to be full of coffee to sell to the world. Now Mocha is some sort of espresso and milk ratio with chocolate added. So if you like hot chocolate with a shot of espresso, a Mocha might just be your jam!

Cortado - This little powerful drink wasn’t on menus 10 years ago. When I first started to love espresso it was because of this drink. A friend of mine was working at Intelligentsia in Chicago, and slid me a secret drink that only the baristas and informed customers knew about. It was a Cortado. It was equal parts espresso and steamed milk, naturally sweet, rich and vibrant! Nowadays you can find Cortados on the menu, and most baristas know how to make it. While I am a proponent of a one to one ratio of espresso and milk, these range from one to one to one to three, espresso to milk.

Caffe Latte - This drink can vary in terms of espresso to milk ratio like its Cortado and Cappuccino cousins, but when ordering a Caffe Latte, (known as just a Latte in many North American cafes) expect much more steamed milk to espresso. One could expect a double shot of espresso with enough milk to fill a 12oz or 16oz cup.

Macchiato - The name of this drink means “marked” in Italian. Shops in Italy would be pulling espresso shot after espresso shot since traditionally Italians drink espresso straight, with a little sugar or a splash of milk. The ones who ordered espresso with a splash of milk would need to distinguish which drink was theirs, so baristas would take the milk foam from the frothing pitcher and dollop a bit on top of the espresso. If the milk wasn’t foamy it wouldn’t rest on top of the espresso, thus not being able to identify which cup on the bar was with milk. Today, a Macciato can have more milk than a plain dollop, or at Starbucks, something called a Caramel Macchiato is a completely different drink with caramel syrup, whipped cream, and a decadent caramel drizzle on top.

Americano - This drink is what you make when all you have is an espresso machine and your customer wants a traditional black filter brewed coffee. A double shot of espresso with 8-12oz of hot water added. When done well, it’s actually quite delicious!

These are some of the main espresso drinks you can find in your local coffee shop. Let us know if we missed any!

READ MORE: Want Espresso at Home? Consider These Machines First.

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