I know the look. If you work at any kind of fast-food – or coffee, in this case – establishment that requires someone to stand at a counter in front of you, you’ve seen this look too. That glazed-over, slightly confused look as they stare just slightly above your head. Maybe they squint as they do so. Maybe one single syllable will drift out of their partially-opened lips, “ummmmm, ahhhhh…”
We’ve all been there. We look at a menu and it might as well be in Greek. Or Italian, if you’re at a coffee shop. What the heck is miel and why is it in my coffee? Is it ex-presso or ess-presso? Why do they give me a funny look when I say “medium” instead of “grande?”
As someone who’s been on the other side of that counter, looking back at you and watching you have an existential crisis that is choosing what kind of specialty latte you want, I want to help. I don’t even know if this little field guide will help at all, but maybe it’ll make things less scary the next time you walk into a Starbucks or – even scarier – a local, privately-owned shop run by a free-range hipster named Alix who has a tattoo of a hemp leaf on his neck. So let’s jump into it, shall we?
Vocabulary: The first thing you should know is what kind of hip lingo you should use when you walk into a coffee shop. First, I’ll tell you words to avoid:
- Frappucino: DON’T. JUST. DON’T. Frappucinos were invented by Starbucks to siphon money from an unsuspecting public when it’s just a glorified slushie. If you’re at Starbucks, go ahead. Order a frappucino. But EVERYWHERE ELSE, ask if you could get your drink frozen or blended. They’ll know exactly what you want.
- Caramel macchiato: Freaking Starbucks ruins everything for people. If you order a caramel macchiato anywhere else, your barista will look at you like you just shot their grandmother. If you want the same experience as a caramel macchiato (which tastes like sadness, if I can be honest here) just ask for an unstirred caramel latte (that’s exactly what Starbucks’ caramel macchiato is.) A traditional espresso macchiato is a tiny cup of espresso with a dollop of milk foam. And that’s what you’ll get when you order a macchiato at any establishment that’s not Starbucks or a chain that’s fallen prey to the dreaded Starbucks Lingo.
- French vanilla: This is basically just redundant. French vanilla isn’t really a thing – it’s just a fancy way French people make ice cream (trust me, I googled it.) It’s also a weird powder that they put in those gas station machines so you can get a little cup of disappointment when you stop to fill up your tank. Just say “vanilla.”
- Venti: Yes, this is basically a list of Starbucks terms that you should never use anywhere else. Venti only exists at Starbucks, and Starbucks has conditioned us to speak their language. Thanks, capitalism. (Just say “large” everywhere else.)
The Basics. So you want a cup of coffee. That’s why you’re here, at this metaphorical coffee shop. Unless you’re over 60, you probably don’t go to coffee shops just for a cup of black coffee, unless you’re a hipster who’s into those weird glass contraptions that take five times longer to brew than a normal percolator but apparently bring out different “notes” in the coffee. (Hipsters like the term “woodsy” and “nutty.” Most other people just taste “coffee” because we don’t have a “sophisticated palate.” Apparently palates can be “sophisticated” – like did they go to Harvard or something? What am I missing here?)
First, it might be pertinent to talk about what kinds of drinks are available for your enjoyment – because after awhile, all those Italian names start to sound the same, which makes perfect fodder for old people complaining about younger generations (“those darn kids sipping their mochachino macchiatto grumble grumble.”) So I present to you a very short dictionary of coffee terms and beverages:
- Espresso: [ess-PRESS-oh] It’s a tiny cup of coffee (if you want to get fancy, it’s a demi-tasse, which is French for “teeny tiny cup that makes your hands look gigantic, even if you’re the president” (exact translation)) It may be small, but don’t be fooled – espresso is one tough cookie. If you’re not a fan of strong coffee, don’t order straight espresso or extra shots of it in your drink. Most of the fancy drinks on the menu will involve espresso. If you’re not a coffee fan, you can probably order any of these without espresso – just ask for a “steamer.” However, in most coffee shops, you can get your espresso served in a fancy way, like an espresso macchiato (see above) or an espresso con panna (that’s espresso topped with whipped cream, and yes, it’s delicious.)
- Latte: [LAH-tay] The oldest coffee trick in the book – pull some fresh shots of espresso and pour some warm, frothy milk over top. Add flavor if desired. Typical lattes come with two shots of espresso, but you can specify how many you want (single, double, triple…I’d probably stop at three. Like I said, espresso packs a punch.)
- Cappuccino: [cap-uh-CHEEN-oh] Lattes and cappuccinos are not created equally. Gas stations may have fooled you into believing a cappuccino is a cup of overly-sweet disappointment – it’s not. A cappucino is like a latte, but fluffier. When you pick up a cappuccino, it will almost feel like you’re holding an empty cup, because all of that frothy milk has been turned into foam – there’s a deep “cap” of it on top of your espresso. You can order it “dry,” which means you want all foam and no frothy milk. Order a cappuccino and you’ll be instantly classy.
- Americano: [ah-mair-ick-KAHN-oh] Europeans think we’re weak and can’t handle espresso – therefore, they named a drink after us. An Americano is espresso that’s been diluted in hot water. No milk is involved unless you decide to add cream. If you like a good swift kick in the pants and the mouth, then Americanos are for you.
- Mocha: [MOE-ka] Think of this as a grown-up hot chocolate. It’s a latte with extra fun – dark chocolate. Basically perfection in a cup. Usually it comes with whipped cream. If you’re a decent human being, you’ll keep it that way.
- Red eye (also called shot in the dark): A cup of black coffee with a shot of espresso (or two or three, depending on your level of exhaustion.) Not for the weak. Pack a defibrillator.
- Cafe con miel: A latte with honey and cinnamon to sweeten it. If Jesus were a drink, he would be this one.
- Cold brew: Different than iced coffee. No espresso is involved. This kind of coffee is brewed cold over 12ish hours, bringing out a different taste than hot-brewed coffee. Iced coffee is usually just hot-brewed coffee that’s been poured over ice.
Your head might be spinning right now. “Audrey, there’s so many options and I don’t know what I want! I’m standing, helpless in front of a counter facing this stranger who is probably judging me! You’ve just made this more confusing!”
Unfortunately, I can’t help you here. Coffee people, especially baristas, have gotten a bad reputation of being overly judgy. And…that reputation kind of hits home. So I’ll just give you some advice depending on what kind of coffee shop you’re at.
- A chain coffee shop (ie, Starbucks, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf for you West-coasters, or Dunkin Donuts for every American who drives long distances): Don’t worry! They’re not judging you. They deal with coffee laymen most of the time. Just order with confidence, exchange a joke or a little small talk with the cashier, and give them a nice tip. These people are on your side, and they appreciate you and your business. Their jobs are hard enough as it is, and they deal with difficult people all day, so a chipper and good-intentioned customer like you will brighten their day.
- A local, privately-owned coffee shop (ie something with a weird name like the Brown Crepe or Ground Up Ideas…wait…): Sorry, but these people are probably hardcore judging you. They journeyed to the deep caverns of the Himalayas in order to learn how to master the perfect pour over. They wake up at 3:30am every morning to milk a cow in order to make your latte later. They personally grind the espresso beans between their teeth to give it a more natural flavor. Of course they’re judging you when you order a caramel macchiato. And they’re definitely going to spell your name wrong on the tiny ceramic cup, because they have names like Leif and Alt-Z.
I hope this brief field guide helped you, or maybe I deeply offended some of you. If you have any further questions about coffee and how it can be served, drop a line in the comments and I’ll address it when I write an entire book based on this post (just kidding, never gonna happen.)
No matter who is standing behind the counter facing you, waiting for you to “just order already,” remember that it’s okay to ask questions. I’ve given you a brief skeleton of the kind of things you’ll encounter at a cafe, but chances are you’ll come nose-to-nose with something I didn’t outline here. Ask questions boldly. The worst thing the barista can do is answer you with a slight note of disdain in their voice.
In the meantime, friends, may your drinks always be caffeinated and your milk frothy. That’s kind of an awkward sign-off, but I’m going to leave it at that.