When I was 20 years old, one of my first jobs was as a barista in an airport coffee shop. I didn’t care for the job, but I soon became fascinated with learning how to make great espresso drinks.
Up until this point, I had only the vaguest idea of how these drinks were made. From my Starbucks runs in college, I knew that a mocha was sort of a caffeinated hot chocolate, and that a latte somehow involved milk. But I certainly couldn’t make them, and the rest of the coffee drinks were a total mystery to me.
In retrospect, I’m grateful for the time I spent working as a barista, because it introduced me to a lifelong interest of mine: making great espresso drinks.
I’m going to explain what some of the most popular drinks are, and how you can make them.
Contrary to popular belief (and the menus of some cafes), there is no such thing as a “cup of espresso.” Espresso is a very strong drink, measured in shots, not cups.
Some people wonder what the difference is between espresso and regular coffee. Aren’t they both ground and extracted from coffee beans? Well, yes. But the process is very different.
Espresso is a much finer grind than coffee. This means that you can pack far more flavor into the same space, and it maximizes the surface area exposed to the water.
Additionally, an espresso machine uses extremely high pressure to force the water through the fine espresso grind. Compare that with the average coffee maker, which just heats the water and lets it drip through the coffee.
The result of all of this? Espresso has a much stronger, more intense flavor than coffee.
Some people like to start their mornings off with a shot or two of pure espresso. It’s great for people who are in a rush and just looking for a quick caffeine hit to perk them up. If you don’t have time to linger over a cup of coffee, you can down a shot of espresso in a few seconds.
Surprisingly, a shot of espresso has less caffeine than a cup of coffee. The shot of espresso will give you 64 mg, and a cup of drip coffee will give you 95 mg. There is some variance depending on the type of beans you use and the intensity of your extraction.
And of course, all bets are off if you order your drink from a coffee shop. For example, a Starbucks espresso has 75 mg of caffeine, but a venti coffee packs an insane 410 mg. Yikes! That exceeds the healthy amount for an entire day. No wonder so many people don’t get enough sleep.
If you’ve seen people order a “cup of espresso” at a cafe (especially in the US or Canada), what they are really drinking is an Americano.
According to legend, American soldiers stationed in Europe during World War II were introduced to espresso for the first time. They weren’t used to the strong taste and missed their drip coffee from home, so they invented the Americano as a compromise between coffee and espresso.
The Americano is very easy to make. Take a shot of espresso, add hot water to fill your coffee cup, and let it mix. You can think of it as a diluted espresso or a slightly stronger coffee.
The main difference between an Americano and a drip coffee is that an Americano offers a bolder flavor and smoother texture. Since it was made from espresso rather than coarse coffee grinds, it can still pack a punch.
It can be a great alternative to coffee if you’re trying to cut back on caffeine, but want a stronger taste and more of a “kick” than what you can get from coffee. On average, an Americano has only about 50-70% the caffeine of an equal amount of drip coffee.
The latte is arguably the simplest milk-based coffee drink to make.
Start with 1-2 shots of espresso. Pour your steamed milk over top of the espresso, then add just a bit of milk foam to the top.
Should you stir a latte before drinking it? It’s an ongoing debate. Generally, in North America it’s customary to stir your latte to get an even consistency throughout the drink. In Europe most people don’t stir it, preferring to keep the layered ingredients separate from one another.
Personally, I like it better stirred. But this is really a matter of subjective taste.
Steamed milk? Milk foam? What are these things?
To make steamed milk and milk foam, you’ll need to get a milk frother. You can pick up a basic milk frother quite cheaply on Amazon. Many stand-alone espresso machines have a milk frother built into them, such as the DeLonghi ESAM3300 Magnifica.
Ideally, after you heat your milk you should have a layer of milk foam on the top of your frother, and steamed milk underneath it. Steaming your milk is as much an art as a science. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time. Practice makes perfect!
Once you’ve steamed your milk, you’ll want to add the steamed milk to your latte before you add the foam. To do this, just use a spoon to hold the foam back while you pour the steamed milk into your coffee mug. When you’re ready for the foam, you can scoop it out with the spoon.
A latte should be a thick drink with a creamy texture throughout. It’s great for people who are seeking a caffeine hit, but don’t like the bitter taste of coffee or a straight espresso. The milk will dilute the strong taste.
What’s the difference between a cappuccino and a latte?
Both are made with exactly the same ingredients: 1-2 shots of espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam. The only difference is the proportion of the final two ingredients.
Whereas a latte is mostly steamed milk with just a little bit of milk foam on the top, a cappuccino has much more foam. The normal ratio for a cappuccino is 1 part steamed milk to 1 part milk foam.
This small change completely alters the taste and texture of the drink. Whereas a latte is very milky, a cappuccino has a much stronger espresso flavor and is less creamy.
I think of a cappuccino as a sort of compromise between an Americano and a latte. It’s not quite as strong as an Americano and conceals the espresso taste a bit more, but it’s definitely stronger than a latte.
Finally, we come to my favorite of the basic espresso drinks: the mocha.
Unlike the previous drinks, recipes for mochas can vary widely from one cafe to the next. Some coffee shops make their mochas just as they would make a latte, but with chocolate syrup added. Others go all out and make fancy dessert drinks, with chocolate syrup, chocolate powder, and whipped cream added.
My personal preference is for the simple, latte-style mochas, but again this is a matter of subjective taste.
Start with 2 tablespoons of flavored chocolate syrup. Add 1-2 shots of espresso. Pour steamed milk into your coffee mug until it’s most of the way full, then add a bit of milk foam on top.
If you want to add a bit more pizzazz to your drink, you can then sprinkle some cinnamon or chocolate flakes on top. One surprisingly good addition I’ve adopted since living in Texas is to sprinkle just a hint of chili powder on top, to give it a bit of a kick. This goes surprisingly well with the chocolate flavor.
I view the mocha as a sweeter, more stylish version of a latte. If you’re trying to avoid sugar, you can get chocolate flavoring that’s low-calorie and sugar-free.
The other nice thing about making mochas is that it introduces you to the world of espresso drink flavorings. Once you’ve mastered making the mocha, you can swap out the chocolate syrup and experiment with vanilla, cinnamon, and whatever other flavors you like.
Now that you understand how to make an espresso, Americano, latte, cappuccino, and mocha, you know all the basics. You’re well on your way to mastering the fine art of making espresso drinks of all sorts, and you have all the tools to create your own unique concoctions.