National Coffee Day: Essential Coffee Guide

by John Khalil
Originally Published: 

Today is National Coffee Day, so in honor of the occasion, we thought it might be helpful to explore your cafe’s menu (get it?).

Most of us NEED coffee. Every so often, we also need a break from work. So we head down to our neighborhood coffee spot for both. What we don’t expect is that we’ll have to engage in mental gymnastics just to figure out the menu. Macchiato? Flat White? When did it all get so complicated? I blame a certain popular coffee chain. I know there will be a lot of folks telling me that my confusion has more to do with my provinciality than the coffee landscape’s excessive complexity. Maybe so.

But I have a feeling there are others out there like me. I have a feeling I’m not the only one who walks into a coffee shop, sees the menu, and immediately starts sweating for fear that I’ll get called on before I’m ready.

I have a feeling that I’m not the only one too terrified to ask a barista (when did we start calling them this?) what a Cortado is. I want to fit in, dammit! I want people to look at me and know – just know – that I belong. I want to help the everyman and everywoman. So here’s a cheat sheet you can use the next time you’re at a hip coffee shop:

1) Espresso: This is probably the easiest one to describe. This is the really small, really concentrated coffee drink that you see lots of European folks drinking. You want to make fun of guys who drink this because they drink espressos out of ridiculous doll-sized cups. But then you taste espresso and you know that only the manliest of men can drink this stuff. One of life’s true ironies. I drink three a day.

Quick fact – there is no mention of milk in coffee pre-1600 in Turkey or the Arab world. Everyone just drank espresso. Lots of other drinks on this list are derived from espresso.

2) Macchiato: Like Espresso, but “stained” with milk. Sounds disgusting, but it’s not. Basically, this is just espresso with a little bit of foamed milk.

3) Cortado: Yeah, I know. I had no idea what this was until yesterday. Espresso with equal parts steamed milk. Don’t know what steamed milk is? Neither do I. (Is this just a fancy way to say hot milk?) This is a coffee primer, so don’t worry about it.

4) Café Americano: As the story goes, during WWII, American G.I.s would dilute espresso with hot water. You can just picture those snooty Europeans smirking at our G.I.s as they poured water over perfectly good espressos. Anyway, this became a thing and the name stuck. Prepared as follows (warning – fractions ahead): 1/3 espresso, 2/3 hot water. If you order this outside of the U.S., be prepared to be treated, well, like our G.I.s were treated.

5) Flat White: Apparently this was started by a crazy Aussie who was dissatisfied with the current state of coffee offerings and simply needed another coffee/milk variation. One shot of espresso, with steamed milk filling up the rest of the cup. Sounds pretty damn similar to the next drink on the list. But that’s just me.

6) Cappuccino: Everyone pretends to know what this is, but no one actually does. Three parts to this one: one part espresso, one part hot milk, and one part froth. Yes, hot milk and froth are considered different things. Who knew?

7) Latte: Here’s where it really starts to get dicey. Feel free to skip the fractions and just order a cappuccino if it’s too much to handle. Doubt you’ll be able to tell the difference anyway. Here goes: 2/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, topped with milk foam.

8) Café au Lait: Ooooooh-la-la. A French take on the good stuff. Brewed coffee and steamed milk in a 1:1 ratio. Not be confused with “white coffee” (room temperature milk) or a latte (espresso based). Not that you’d confuse these at all.

There’s so much more, but this should get you started. Maybe next time we’ll venture into the world of hot brewed, cold brewed, drip coffee, or pressed coffee. So much to know…but right now I just need a cup of coffee.

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