As you walk into any Western coffee shop, there are a few things you expect: The hulking shadow of an espresso machine and the busy blurs of baristas. Plus the sounds of beans being ground, rotary pumps churning, and milk being steamed. Then there’s the elaborate menu full of a multitude of espresso drinks.
From ristretto to macchiato, cappuccino to cortado, it’s easiest to get confused with all the different types of espresso drinks on offer. So how do you know which one is best for you? Or do you just stick to your old faithful?
Espresso is the most prevalent form of coffee found in western coffee shops. Today, it feels like there is an increasing array of espresso beverages available. Each offers different combinations of milk, foam, and water to create new, and increasingly specific, coffees.
So read on as we run through the most popular espresso drinks, explain what they are, and a bit about their history. Plus, there’s a handy chart to keep you on the right track.
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Espresso is just one of many coffee types. Whilst you can buy specific espresso beans, this doesn’t mean you can’t use regular coffee beans. And vice versa.
The main point of difference between coffee and espresso is the brewing method. Espresso is brewed under pressure which is why you need a specific espresso machine.
The result is a short, concentrated shot of espresso that packs a flavorful punch.
Espresso shots can then be used to make a huge range of coffee drinks. We will take you through the most popular types of espresso drinks in this post.
The OG of espresso drinks is, obviously, a single shot of espresso.
There are many definitions of espresso, from the very broad to the insanely precise. We prefer a more general definition: a small, strong drink made using finely ground coffee and water under high pressure.
The weight of ground coffee to the weight of the finished drink should be around 1:2.
Crema, the foam on the top of an espresso, has long been seen as a mark of quality. But, this isn’t necessarily true. Espresso machines keep getting better at creating crema regardless of the quality of the coffee or the barista’s skill. So it is a very poor marker of quality these days.
Many top baristas will also tell you that you can have a superb espresso without any crema. The quality all depends on your espresso beans and machine.
Generally, an espresso will be 1oz for a single shot and 2 oz for a double espresso, also known as a doppio.
But, bear in mind that Starbucks drink sizes differ from the norm. So, if you buy an espresso at this coffee giant, you will actually get what they call a demi which is 3oz. So it might knock your socks off.
Ristretto comes from the Italian meaning “restricted”.
A ristretto should be an even smaller, stronger coffee than espresso.
This is done by running less water through the same amount of ground coffee. To ensure you get full extraction, the coffee should be a finer grind than for espresso. This will result in a very short, very strong coffee that is still aromatic.
Just like espresso, it can be used as the base for milky coffee drinks. One hot new example of this comes straight from Australia’s coffee capital – Melbourne. It’s the magic coffee: a 5oz drink that combines a double ristretto with textured milk.
Historically, the lungo “long” coffee was looked down upon by the specialty coffee community.
The same amount of coffee was used as an espresso, but with much more water run through the grounds. This created a much longer, weaker drink. Although it did offer a longer-lasting coffee drinking experience for the customer.
However, a lack of body and mouthfeel alongside a tendency towards bitterness are not characteristics most people look for in good coffee.
Lately, there has been a movement to brew lighter roasts in this fashion. This can result in a very well-balanced cup of coffee with great complexity.
So if you find your espresso to be too acidic, try running a bit more water through it to create a lungo at home. You will also need to use a slightly coarser grind to ensure you don’t over-extract the coffee giving you a very bitter cup.
Want to take a deeper dive into what separates ristretto from lungo/long shot? Check out our detailed guide here:
In Italian, macchiato means “stained” or “marked”. The espresso drink bearing this name is not indicative of what happens when you spill it on your new white top. But, instead, from the idea of “staining” an espresso shot with a splash of milk foam.
The macchiato style originated in Italy. The busy baristas required an easy way to remember which espresso of the many lined up in front of them contained a splash of milk.
If you add milk to espresso, it will simply sink under the crema so you can’t tell which is which. However, adding a teaspoon of milk foam to the top makes it clear and ensures everyone gets the correct espresso. It’s like if putting orange instead of lemon in Diet coke created an entirely new drink.
Over time, this has morphed into an espresso topped with foam. Sometimes this is because the customer wants a longer, sweeter drink and sometimes because the barista wants to do latte art in tiny cups.
To further confuse matters, coffee giants like Starbucks offer something called a “Caramel Macchiato”. This is just a latte “stained” with a hint of caramel syrup. So, in these coffee shops, you’ll find the original espresso macchiato labeled as “traditional macchiato” or something similar.
Cappuccino is the favored breakfast drink of the Italians, who will then drink espresso for the rest of the day.
There are many myths around the cappuccino, many stemming from its name which is taken from the Capuchin monks.
The drink originates in Vienna in the 19th century where it was called “Kapuziner”. It was a black coffee mixed with milk or cream until it became the same color as the robes of the Capuchin monks. So, nothing to do with their hoods or haircuts as many legends go.
The “rule of thirds” is often thrown about for modern-day cappuccino: 1/3 standard espresso shot, 1/3 steamed milk, and 1/3 milk foam.
The first reference to this “rule” is from the 1950s. Although, since espresso didn’t exist until then this isn’t that surprising.
But the phrase is actually “an espresso mixed with equal amounts of milk and foam”. Now, this could mean a 1:1:1 ratio. Or could just as easily be a 1:2:2 ratio. It’s pretty ambiguous really.
I personally like the 1:1:1 ratio drink, mainly because I like strong coffee. However, the 1:2:2 ratio has a long tradition and is the style most commonly found in coffee shops.
Caffé latte literally translates from Italian as “milk coffee”.
However, the latte developed away from Italy as espresso spread around the world. Many found the drink too intense and too bitter so they mixed it with a large amount of textured milk to soften the flavors and add sweetness.
The foam element should only be a thin layer on the top. The goal is to drastically lessen the espresso shot’s intensity.
It is also important to remember that a “latte” is only a coffee outside of Italy. Whilst most Italian baristas will recognize when a non-Italian asks for a latte they actually mean a “caffe latte”, you may still find yourself being presented with a glass of milk instead of a milky coffee drink.
Read next: Iced Coffee vs Iced Latte
For a heated coffee argument, just look to Australia and New Zealand who both stake claim to the original Flat White. The only clarity we have is that this coffee drink is definitely an invention of the Australasian continent.
As with many things whose origins are unclear, there are plenty of tales. However, my favorite explanation is that a change in diet for Australian cattle in the 1980s resulted in milk with lower fat content. It is harder to create foam with lower fat milk so cappuccinos would often be “flat”.
An enterprising coffee shop owner decided this would be a new drink: a “flat white”. A cappuccino-sized espresso drink but with latte-like foam. The resulting drink is less milky and has a stronger espresso flavor than both cappuccinos and lattes.
By the early 1990s, you could get a “flat white” across most of Europe. Most people ordered it because they were fed up with overly foamy cappuccinos – or a mouthful of air.
It is the darling of the specialty café. Now, this all-time classic espresso drink is one of the most ordered drinks throughout the coffee chains.
The best way to describe the flat white is a small, strong latte with a higher coffee-to-milk ratio. The strength of coffee alongside a good amount of steamed milk and little foam makes it an ideal candidate for latte art, which has increased in popularity.
The Americano is allegedly named after American soldiers in Italy post-WW2. They found the Italian coffee too strong so asked for hot water to dilute it down to the strength they were used to, dubbed the “caffé americano”.
It resembles a drip-style coffee though is inferior in flavor most of the time. The great americano coffee is favored by café owners as they can produce something akin to a traditional black coffee without having to buy extra coffee-making equipment.
To make, pour fresh hot water into a cup and top with a double espresso shot, simple.
In the summer months, you can cool down with an iced americano – same great flavor, but refreshingly cool.
Removing the crema straight after brewing can vastly improve the taste of your americano. The crema has tiny bits of coffee trapped in it. So, when added to water, the flavor will continue to be extracted, increasing the bitterness of your coffee. It’s a bit of extra work but, for me, makes a big difference.
For the cortado, we head to Spain. More specifically, Madrid.
This small drink uses a slightly different style of espresso to the rest of the drinks listed here:
Spanish espresso is usually slightly longer and weaker than Italian espresso.
To make your cortado you need just over 1oz of Spanish espresso mixed with an equal amount of steamed milk. It is usually served in a glass. As its popularity has spread globally, recipes vary widely. But this is the basic concept.
Psst… Want to see how the Cortado stacks up against some of the most popular coffee drinks?
Check out our guides below:
Compared to the classics like latte and cappuccino, breve coffee (also known as cafe breve or breve latte) is the newest kid on the block.
This espresso variation was created in the US by combining a double espresso with an equal amount of steamed half-and-half milk. The result is creamy, rich, and indulgent – more of a dessert or after-dinner drink than a morning pick-me-up.
To take a deeper dive into this decadent drink including how to make it at home, head over to our full guide on all things breve coffee, here.
Ah, the mocha. A delicious concoction for those who have a sweet tooth but still want to enjoy a coffee.
The mocha is sneered at by coffee aficionados as it’s more a caffeinated hot chocolate than a coffee drink. But there’s no need to be unkind about it.
Maybe don’t use single-origin beans to make it though, as you won’t get the benefit. But if you like your coffee sweet, you will love a mocha.
Mocha is a double shot of espresso, mixed with either chocolate powder or syrup, then topped with latte-style milk. Basically, a mocha is a latte with added chocolate. It should be rich, sweet, and chocolatey with the bitterness and edge of the espresso to stop it from being too sweet.
If you are a fan of iced espresso drinks on a hot day, mocha works great over ice. We recommend using whisky stones rather than ice to stop your iced coffee from becoming diluted as the ice melts.
There is a proliferation of espresso-based drinks with increasingly esoteric names. The Red Eye is one such concoction and resembles the kind of Frankenstein’s monster of a coffee that I used to drink whilst working 80 hour weeks in hospitality.
First, you take a cup of regular black coffee – usually filter or drip. Then you add a shot of espresso.
This amount of caffeine in one drink is not recommended and flavor kind of goes out the window at this stage. But, if you have barely slept and need to be insanely alert and fidgety, this is the black coffee on steroids to get you through.
If that’s still not enough caffeine for you, there is also the black eye and dead eye. This involves taking your hot black coffee and adding two or three espresso shots respectively. But, for us, that’s just a step too far.
ESPRESSO CON PANNA
If you can’t decide between dessert and coffee, the espresso con panna is the perfect marriage: creamy, sweet coffee.
Originating from the same drink as the cappuccino, espresso con panna started its life in Vienna. Here, strong coffee was topped with whipped cream and served with water on the side.
Whilst the cappuccino was taken and exported globally, the other branch stayed mainly in Austria. Espresso con panna won’t be found in every coffee shop. But, if you’re visiting Austria or other parts of Central Europe, it is one of the best espresso drinks to try. And it would be rude not to accompany it with a delicious sweet pastry too.
So we know that Frappe technically shouldn’t be made with espresso, it should be made with instant coffee. However, we all know that your specialist coffee shops love to offer frappe and they are not dirtying their hands with such a thing as instant coffee so we’ve sneaked it onto the end here.
Frappe is coffee mixed with ice, milk, and water. Originating in Greece, you’ll often find them topped with whipped cream and mixed with a variety of syrups and flavorings to make a kind of drinkable coffee dessert. You’ll see them listed as “Frappuccino” in Starbucks and if you’re interested in frappe vs Frappuccino then we have a whole post about it.
In the late 19th century, coffee shops were booming. They were one of the most popular meeting places for people from all walks of life.
The problem they encountered was that brewing coffee took time. There were limited coffee types available as steeping and boiling were the only brewing options. So to serve more customers, they needed this process to be faster.
The early espresso machines used pressure from steam to brew regular black coffee faster, rather than brewing a totally different type of coffee. However, using steam doesn’t create that much pressure.
This is where café owner, Achille Gaggia, made his breakthrough:
He added a lever that the barista could use to add extra pressure, up to the magic 8 bar of pressure we now think as the minimum for creating espresso.
With the creation of the espresso machine, the way we drank coffee completely changed.
Espresso bars became popular in Italy. As they were almost entirely standing, they avoided paying a tax placed on sit-down cafes.
This love of espresso was combined with the more social aspect of the old coffee houses. And so the coffee shop exploded across the world, pioneered by a small coffee house company from Seattle – Starbucks.
Even a relatively cheap espresso machine with a steam wand will allow you to make any of these drinks at home, after a little practice. Or you can use a French press of milk frother separately if your budget is tight.
If you have a little more money to spend, you can get a super-automatic espresso machine that will do it all for you – like having a coffee shop in your kitchen.
There are no “better” or “worse” espresso drinks. It’s all just about personal preference and the type of coffee drink you enjoy. And the only way to find your favorite is to practice, drink lots of different coffees, and find ‘The One’ espresso for you.
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