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The Nerd’s Guide to Espresso Drinks: Which One’s Right for You?

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Image credit: Emma Smith/Unsplash

While I previously explored the differences between espresso and coffee, there’s one thing I didn’t mention: I never drink shots of espresso. Espresso shots are way too concentrated for me, and I just can’t stomach them.

But that’s fine! Because the real magic of espresso is what you get when you mix it with other things. At this point, espresso purists are rolling their eyes and turning their noses away, but honestly, I don’t care. There’s a hidden depth to espresso that can only be drawn out by combining it with other ingredients.

If you’ve never had an espresso drink before and don’t know the first thing about ordering one, here’s a quick primer—the kind of beginner’s guide I wish I had when I first delved into the world of espresso drinks.

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The Components of an Espresso Drink

Recall that “espresso” is actually an extraction method. Espresso is coffee, but specifically coffee that comes from steam pushed through finely ground beans. The result is a small volume of highly concentrated coffee flavor, and that’s what makes it perfect as a base for mixing drinks.

When you order an espresso, you’ll get a 1 oz shot of concentrated coffee. If you order a doppio, you’ll get a 2 oz shot of concentrated coffee. (Doppio means double.) On the other hand, ordering a ristretto means running half as much steam through the same amount of coffee as a normal espresso, resulting in less than 1 oz of super concentrated coffee.

An espresso drink typically involves three components:

  • Doppio: Yes, most espresso drinks start with a double shot. This means if you order a double latte, you’re actually consuming four shots of espresso. Be careful!
  • Steamed milk: Steamed milk is milk that’s heated by running steam through it. It’s chemically different than cold milk. The heating process makes the milk taste sweeter and the texture creamier.
  • Foamed milk: Foamed milk is steamed milk that’s been aerated. The aeration results in a drier mouthfeel and not as much sweetness as straight steamed milk.

Most espresso drinks out there are pretty much the same idea, where the main difference is in the ratios of the above components used, so the world of espresso isn’t as complicated as it might seem. Sometimes a component can be omitted, and other components can be added, but the main gist of an espresso drink is espresso and milk.

The Americano

Ratio: 1 part doppio, 2 parts hot water

This is the espresso version of a “black coffee,” but don’t expect it to taste the same. An Americano is much stronger than a normal black coffee, and even if you were to water it down to about the same strength, it’d still have a deeper taste to it. Note that a long black is very similar: whereas an Americano adds water to the espresso, a long black adds the espresso to water. But honestly? I’ve had both, and the differences are negligible.

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The Latte

Ratio: 1 part doppio, 4 parts steamed milk, topped with foamed milk

A latte is the drink you want if you hate the taste of black coffee. Because there’s so much milk, any bitter or sour notes in the espresso are drowned out and you’re left with a light, creamy, milky beverage that’s easy to sip and tastes like a lighter, not-as-sweet version of coffee ice cream. For this reason, you should avoid lattes if you want a bolder coffee flavor.

The Flat White

Ratio: 1 part doppio, 2 parts steamed milk

The flat white is basically a latte with deeper coffee flavor and no foam on the top. This is the perfect option for coffee lovers who actually want to taste more coffee than milk in their drink but aren’t ready for the intensity of a macchiato and dislike the foaminess of a cappuccino.

Note: The flat white is primarily drank in Australia and New Zealand and may not be available in your region. If your barista has no idea how to make one, just ask for a double latte with no foam. You’ll get twice the volume, but the ratio is essentially the same.

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The Cortado

Ratio: 1 part doppio, 1 part steamed milk

If you want even more coffee flavor than what the flat white offers, the cortado is your best bet. You can think of it as an espresso-based variant of a cafe au lait, which is just cold milk in hot coffee—but the cortado offers a creamier feel because the milk is steamed, and of course you’re getting the flavors of an espresso rather than a brewed coffee.

Note: The cortado is primarily drank in Spain and Latin America. If your barista has no idea how to make one, you could try asking for a cappuccino without the foamed milk.

The Cappuccino

Ratio: 1 part doppio, 1 part steamed milk, 1 part foamed milk

The key difference in a cappuccino is the volume of foamed milk that sits on top of the drink. Because the foam is mostly air, it has a “dry” texture when you drink it, which can complement the taste of the espresso underneath and draw out a different set of flavors. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of drink and one that you’ll have to try for yourself to see what you think of it. I personally hate that much foamed milk in my coffee.

The Macchiato

Ratio: 1 part doppio, topped with foamed milk

For those who want to drink straight espresso but just aren’t “there yet” in terms of being able to handle the intense flavor and bitterness, the macchiato awaits. A macchiato is basically a straight espresso that’s been “stained” by a dollop of foamed milk on top. That small amount of milk helps to moderate the espresso’s intensity and makes it more palatable. (But it’s still super strong!)

Note: Not to be confused with a Starbucks macchiato, which is a completely different concoction.

The Mocha

Ratio: 1 part doppio, 1 part hot chocolate, 1 part steamed milk

For those who want a richer beverage that’s a bit sweeter and more comfortable to drink than plain espresso with milk, the mocha fits the bill. The addition of chocolate introduces a new dimension to the flavor, but don’t expect it to be as sweet or chocolatey as a straight hot chocolate. It pairs well with dessert pastries, in my experience.

The Affogato

Ratio: 1 part doppio, 1 part vanilla ice cream

Got a sweet tooth? Then you really need to try an affogato. It’s often served as a scoop of ice cream that’s been “drowned” in espresso, and the melting of the ice cream is what sweetens the espresso. If you drink it quick enough, the dance between hot and cold offers an interesting experience that you don’t get with normal espresso drinks, but even if you don’t, the use of ice cream makes for a tasty treat—whether for breakfast or dessert.

What’s Your Favorite Espresso Drink?

I’m a fan of the flat white (or a double latte if I have a long day ahead of me), but my tastes are evolving and taking me more toward the cortado. More coffee, less milk, please! And when I recently had my first affogato-ish experience, it blew me away.

What about you? Let me know in the comments!

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