Our good friend Max suggested that I put together a sort of “coffee for dummies” post so that people would understand what I’m talking about when I say that the Americano at Alterra is “dark, and smooth but toward the sweeter side.” After thinking about it for about two minutes, I decided it was a great idea; and then I realized that for all of my talk about coffee I have almost no clue about what other coffee beverages are made of. It’s hard to speak on a subject when the Starbucks menu seems to be written in a different language. Chai skim latte? Macchiato? No clue. Frappuccino? Um, something that is frapped? So instead of writing a “Coffee for Dummies” post, which would include me, I decided to dedicate this to Max, whose simple request has turned into an exercise in coffee education.
For this guide I used a variety of internet resources, Wikipedia and a couple of personal observations. Onward…
Coffee and Espresso
Both coffee and espresso come from coffee beans, which are simply roasted seeds from a coffee plant. The difference between espresso and coffee is how the beans are prepared to make the drink: espresso is a more concentrated form of coffee, prepared by forcing hot water under pressure through finely ground coffee beans (this requires a espresso machine). The result is a much thicker, more concentrated form of coffee that is used as a base for other drinks (such as lattes and americanos).
Traditional coffee is made by running hot water through ground coffee beans, resulting in a lighter and less concentrated drink than espresso. Coffee is typically more acidic than espresso because the brewing process to make coffee results in releasing more of the bitter and acidic parts of the coffee bean into the brew. This is why coffee makes you poop more than espresso. There are several ways to make coffee;
drip coffee: Drip coffee is made by dripping/running hot water over ground beans, and then catching the result in a container. This is what the household coffee maker does.
percolator: a percolator is a container with a filter that uses heat to turn the water into steam, which then condenses and drips through the coffee grounds. These are good for camping and produce about the same quality of coffee as drip machines.
French press: a french press is a cylindrical glass or plastic container with a top that includes a filter and plunger. The ground coffee beans are placed at the bottom of the press along with hot water. The plunger is then pushed through the water, resulting in the water absorbing the coffee grounds and becoming coffee. This is my favorite way to make coffee; it results in a less acidic, stronger brew than drip coffee provides, and it gives you street cred with any girl you manage to bring back to your lair.
Ounce for ounce espresso has much higher levels of caffeine; 2 to 3 times as much as coffee. Thankfully, most people don’t drink the equivalent 6 ounces of espresso as they do coffee. Feeling like you are on meth is no fun. A typical one ounce serving of espresso has about 1/2 the caffeine as a 6 ounce cup of coffee.
We’ve got the basics down, so now we get to decode what the coffee shop menu is trying to tell you. Personally, baristas intimidate me slightly with their tight jeans, cool tattoos and condescending approach to customer service, so hopefully knowing what I’m talking about will allow me to psychologically reduce them to the eight dollar-an-hour wage slaves they are.
coffee: usually drip prepared, served in a variety of sizes depending on how annoying your day/significant other/co-workers are.
espresso: can be served by itself as a “shot” of one ounce. A “double shot” is 2 ounces, and so on.
americano (cafe americano): is espresso diluted in hot water. A good alternative to coffee, americano’s can contain as many shots of espresso as you want and usually come in 6oz, 12oz or 16oz cups.
breve: lightly frothed half and half passed through espresso.
cappuccino: a latte on steroids, a cappuccino has more espresso and less steamed milk (about 50/50), resulting in a stronger taste. Done right, a cappuccino should have a layer of foamed milk on top and a hot Italian girl serving it to you.
cafe au lait: essentially a latte, but with coffee substituted for the espresso. The Coors Lite of lattes.
latte: espresso and steamed milk (about 1/3 espresso to 2/3 steamed milk) – also the source of the most annoying drinks overheard being ordered at Starbucks, “I would like a skim chai tea latte, extra hot, low whip.” A piece of me just died.
macchiato: a shot of espresso with a little bit of milk on top
mocha: a latte, but with a little bit of chocolate added, usually in powder form.
red eye: a cup of coffee with a shot of espresso. Legal heroin, with the added benefit of cheap refills. I love this one.
ristretto: a shot of espresso that has been brewed faster, or with less water, than a normal espresso shot, resulting in less caffeine and a taste that can be less bitter than espresso.
switchblade: four shots of espresso, chocolate
turkish coffee: coffee made by placing finely ground coffee in a pot and then boiling the water, which results in a stronger and stronger tasting coffee. Popular with the Macbook crowd.
And there you have it; our tour through the coffee shop menu board. If we’ve left anything off, or got something wrong, please let us know. And when in doubt the next time the barista is looking at you with haughty impatience remember this: coffee is good, espresso is better, and anything from Starbucks is going to be a horrendous interpretation of both. Plan accordingly, and make sure to thank Max for your new found coffee knowledge.