Navigating the Coffee Shop Drinks Menu: The Basics

Coffee shop menus can be intimidating! It’s like they use their own language, and the lines to order often go so quickly that when the customer gets to the front one, they might feel pressured to pick something quickly – even if they’re not sure what it is – or to stick with the one drink they know they like. Maybe you’ve felt like this, and want to try new things, but don’t know where to start. Or maybe you already have a general idea of what everything is, but would like more clarification.

I’m a former barista, and I’m here to help. Below, I describe each of coffee shops’ most popular drink types. I’m only delving into the basics today, but I’ll get into the more unusual and more complex drinks in another post.

Lattes & Mochas

Lattes and mochas are almost the same thing. Plain lattes are made with a shot or two of espresso. Steamed milk is added, and then it’s then topped off with about a quarter-inch of milk foam. Lattes typically come in a flavor that’s already included in the name (caramel latte, vanilla latte, maple latte, etc), which is added to the drink in the form of a flavored syrup, usually put in first, at the bottom of the cup. However, if the drink is called a ‘caffee latte’ or a ‘cafe latte’, then it’s plain and unflavored. Some baristas will stir your latte once it’s done, and others will swirl the ingredients together as they make it and top it off with a pattern in the top of the milk foam.

Mochas are essentially the same thing as lattes, but are made with chocolate instead of a flavored syrup, and are usually topped off with whipped cream (and sometimes chocolate drizzle) instead of the milk foam (though some places will include both). The iced versions of both lattes and mochas contain cold, unsteamed milk, and – although some do include it – many coffee shops forgo the milk foam when making an iced latte.

Cappuccinos

Cappuccinos are interesting, because many people associate cappuccinos with the powered, sugary machine drinks that you can get at most gas stations. And not without good reason: most of the machines that mix and dispense these sweet beverages call them cappuccinos right on the machine.

However, if you order a cappuccino at a coffee shop, that is NOT what you’re going to get. The bottom half of an actual cappuccino consists of a shot or two espresso (again, depending on the size of the drink) and steamed milk. The top half consists entirely of milk foam. If you order a ‘dry’ cappuccino, it’ll be even foamier and have even less steamed milk. If you order it ‘wet’, it’s the opposite: you’ll get less foam and more steamed milk, so it’ll be closer to a plain latte.

If you want flavor, you have to ask for it! The default for a cappuccino is to forgo flavor; it’s just the espresso and milk. It’s pretty common for people to get flavored cappuccinos, but you do have to ask them for the flavor in order to get it added to the drink. There’s also typically an up-charge to add the syrup.

Since at least half of a cappuccino consists entirely of foam and most coffee shops are not able to add steamed or foamed milks to iced drinks, it’s not really possible for them to make iced cappuccinos. If you order just ‘an iced cappuccino’, you’ll probably be handed a plain iced latte instead, which, in this case, would be basically the same thing.

Macchiatos

The word macchiato is Italian for ‘marked’, and the name refers to the dot of espresso that marks the otherwise-plain milk foam at the top of the drink. Macchiatos are layered, unmixed drinks that start with steamed milk, rather than espresso, at the bottom of the drink. They’re topped off with milk foam, and then the espresso is poured in one spot, (creating that ‘marked’ spot referred to by the drink’s name). The espresso usually settles on top of the steamed milk, below the milk foam. The layers are easier to see in the iced versions, though the iced version might not include the foam.

It’s easiest to think of macchiatos as upside-down latttes. In my time working as a barista, the most-commonly sold macchiato was easily the Starbucks caramel macchiato, which actually starts with a couple of pumps of vanilla syrup on the bottom, and is topped off with caramel drizzle, which then slowly seeps down into the drink.

It’s definitely worth noting that this is the version of a macchiato that you’ll get at most chain coffee shops, and many smaller places as well. However, some coffee shops make a more traditional version of the drink, which omits the steamed milk altogether, and just consists of espresso and a little bit of milk foam. When in doubt, ask your barista what you’ll be getting.

Blended Drinks

Frappe’, ‘Frappuccino’, ‘iced coffee blended’, ‘blended coffee’ – there is a myriad of terms out there that all describe different versions (or just different brands) of the same exact thing. A ‘frappe’ is what McDonald’s calls it, a ‘frappuccinno’ is Starbucks’s version, and ‘blended coffee’ is what most other places use. The only similar-sounding one that is actually a different drink is a blended cream, which is still the same concept, just sans coffee.

Whatever you want to call it, blended coffees are the most complex of the drinks I’m describing today, and don’t often come with all that much coffee in it. The Starbucks version, for example, uses only 2-4 pumps of ‘frap roast’, which is a strongly-flavored coffee made from their frap roast powder and water. The coffee is then blended with milk, ice, and syrup and then usually topped with whipped cream.

If you’re like me and like blended coffees but wish they had more caffeine, note that you can always add espresso to your blended coffees. There’s generally an up-charge, but you can ask for a shot of espresso to be blended into the drink or have it poured over the top (which is also called affagato).

When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask

Remember, you can always ask your barista for clarifications and variations on your drinks. One of the best things about ordering from a coffee shop is that everything you order is 100% customizable. There are things that are impossible to do (like make a hot Frappuccino), and ordering things off of secret menus might be challenging if you don’t have the ‘secret recipe’ with you – but baristas are very used to swapping flavors, adjusting sweetness-levels, adding whipped cream, and generally modifying drinks to follow your preferences. As long as you’re respectful and understanding about it, your barista will most likely be happy to help. And if you’re impressed with all the knowledge and skills they have, don’t forget to tip if/when you can!

5 Replies to “Navigating the Coffee Shop Drinks Menu: The Basics”

  1. I enjoyed this post as I’m a great coffee lover. It was so interesting to read about the different types of coffee drinks, and you’ve explained everything so well. I didn’t know the difference between lattes and mochas and interesting to know they’re almost the same. Reading about it has made me want to go into my nearest Starbucks when lockdown is over:)

  2. In these times reading all your wonderful descriptions I can not tell you how desperate I am to drink a REAL coffee again. My favourite is the Hazelnut Latte and I can almost hear the sound of the machine and the smell of the fresh coffee beans. Thanks for breakdown all the different types of coffees I really enjoyed reading your post.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Nadine! I 100% know how you feel; I am so looking forward to going to coffee shops again! I think that may be why I was inspired to write about their menus right now.

  3. Hello – what an excellent and luscious descriptions of coffee shop menus. I’m one of those that you mentioned, just order something because the line is long behind me.

    I think I will be trying an Red Eye or Black Eye with flavoring the next time I need a good caffeine shot to get my through the rest of the push of work ahead of me for my day.

    This was very interesting, and I’m going to bookmark your site so I can refer back.
    I hope you and your family are staying well.
    Nancy M. Hamar
    Bedrooms by Nancy

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