Ever been caught like a deer in the headlights in a coffee shop, confused abut what things mean and what to order? I don't just mean perplexed by Starbucks' ridiculous sizing system (if I am ever caught there - and I try to avoid it like the plague, if only because it is overpriced and I don't like their coffee - I deliberately order a "small", knowing full well that such a simple thing does not exist in Starbucks' world). I mean just not knowing the difference between a filter coffee and an Americano, or the subtleties of cappuccino vs macchiato, etc.
Me too, me too! Coffee shops can be such intimidating places if all you want is a coffee. Often they are such temples of cool, that you feel such a fool dithering over the menu, especially when the goddess in yoga pants in front of you just ordered a "skinny venti decaf caramel macchiato with coconut milk" or something without batting a perfectly made-up eyelid.
So, after a sneaky bit of online research (there are many, many sources including this and this), here are the basics:
- Filter (or drip or brewed) coffee - the basic coffee, such as you might get in a restaurant or even make at home, where hot water is poured over a bed of coffee grounds held in a paper filter. Tastes fine, is cheaper than any other option, and is what you'd get if you just asked for a coffee anywhere other than Starbucks (where they would probably take deep offence).
- Espresso (also called short black) - a stronger, thicker, more concentrated coffee made by forcing almost boiling water under pressure though finely ground coffee. Usually served in small cup, about a quarter or less of the volume of a regular coffee, although you can always get a double shot (also called doppio), or a ristretto (which is an even more concentrated espresso). The spresso serves as the base for most other specialty coffees like latté, cappuccino, macchiato, mocha, Americano, etc.
- Cortado - a shot of espresso with just a small amount of steamed milk added (1:1 or 1:2 ratio, with no foam) to take off the bitterness.
- Café Cubano - an espresso sweetened with demerara sugar.
- Americano (also called long black) - a shot of espresso watered down with hot water, so that it is similar in strength to a regular brewed coffee but with the slightly different espresso flavour.
- Cappuccino - a shot of espresso with steamed milk added (usually in 1:3 to 1:5 ratio), topped with milk foam (and often chocolate powder or cinnamon to flavour). Less bitter than espresso but stronger than a latte.
- Latté - a shot of espresso with more steamed milk and less foam added than a cappuccino.
- Flat white - a shot of espresso with the same amount of milk as a cappuccino or latté but no foam, for a smoother, milkier drink.
- Macchiato - a shot of espresso with steamed milk and foam added on top to produce a layered drink (so that you kind of drink the espresso through the milk). A long macchiato uses a double shot of espresso.
- Mocha - a capuccino with chocolate power added for a chocolatey flavour.
- Café au lait (or café con leche in Spanish) - could mean anything from a filter coffee with steamed milk added, to a latté, depending on where you are. Basically, a milky coffee.
- Chai latté - Indian spiced tea with steamed milk added. Dirty chai latté is the same with a shot of espresso added.
- Affogato - more a dessert than a coffee, a shot of espresso poured over a scoop of ice cream, sometimes with caramel or chocolate sauce.
Of course, then you have to think about: regular or decaffeinated; light, dark or medium roast; etc. I can't help you with that - it's down to your own personal taste, your tolerance for caffeine, and any number of other factors. But bear in mind that the "half-life" of caffeine is around 5 hours (i.e. after 5 hours you still have half of the caffeine in your blood-stream, after 10 hours a quarter, etc), so if you are anything like me, you might want to switch to tea in the afternoon, and herbal tea in the evening. Just for reference though, regular filter coffee has about twice the caffeine of regular black tea (and more than Red Bull, incidentally); espresso coffee is more concentrated than filter coffee and so has more caffeine per oz/mg, but comes in smaller volumes and so probably has less caffeine overall; coffee or tea brewed for longer contains more caffeine; decaf coffee has much less caffeine than even tea (like about one-tenth or less) but still has a little; and there is minimal difference in the caffeine contents of dark roasts, light roasts, etc (contrary to what you might have heard). Oh, and it depends where you go: Tim Horton's coffee tends to have less caffeine than McDonalds', which has less than (you guessed it) Starbucks. And those nice chocolate-covered coffee beans? - about 20 times the caffeine of the same volume of coffee! Don't even go there.