Does it ever seem like the typical café menu was written in another language?

In many cases, that’s true. With drink names tracing back to Italy, France, Spain, and India, pondering the menu in your favorite café can seem like a multicultural experience.

Fortunately, even the most unusually-named concoctions are based on a few standard classics. Understanding the roots of these drinks can help you crack the code of a café menu and order your next coffee drink with an extra shot of confidence.

What is espresso?

We have Italy to thank for the super-concentrated form of coffee called espresso. It is beloved in its pure form and as the heart of many drinks on the café menu.

An espresso was traditionally served as a one-ounce beverage. The barista prepares espresso especially for, and immediately serves it to, the intended consumer. In most cases baristas use an espresso machine to brew a pair of these single servings simultaneously using about 18 grams of finely-ground coffee beans. Serving both single espressos in the same cup creates a double espresso or doppio.

Straight espresso not your thing? Your barista will happily use that espresso to build many other options.

Espresso with milk

Milk and espresso are a classic combination, and the modern café menu contains several variations on this theme. That means that many common drinks involve espresso combined with varying amounts of milk and milk foam. Recipes and drink definitions do vary, though, and communication when ordering is often a good idea.

The caffe latte family

The most popular form this pairing takes in the US is the caffe latte. Though the name is Italian for “coffee milk”, the drink was likely born in California. Lattes are usually the largest espresso-based drinks – 8 ounces and up.

A well-made latte is a balanced beverage with rich espresso flavor and sweet steamed milk contributing to the experience. To achieve this balance, cafés may base their 12 or 16 ounce lattes on double espressos. When finished, the top centimeter of the beverage should be a smooth, caramel-colored combination of espresso and finely textured milk foam, often poured artfully to create intricate white patterns.

This simple combination is enjoyable as-is, and is the basis of a whole family of café best-sellers. The barista may sweeten with a bit of vanilla-flavored syrup for a vanilla latte or stretch their creativity with other flavors. Adding dark chocolate transforms the drink even more to create a caffe mocha. Adding white chocolate results in a white mocha.

Those looking to cool off might order a caffe latte made with cold milk and served over ice instead. Iced lattes and mochas are a summertime staple.

Not looking for that much milk? Your best choice may be something smaller.

An Italian tradition

The classic Italian cappuccino is a 5-6 ounce combination of a single espresso and steamed milk. Like the caffe latte, the objective is a harmony of espresso and milk. A cappuccino should feature a top layer of milk foam – like a latte’s but a little thicker. This recipe has for years been the standard for Italian cafés and barista competitions.  It has not, however, always been standard on the typical American café menu.

The first cappuccino to gain widespread popularity in the US was essentially a caffe latte with an extra-thick layer of milk foam. Like the latte, it’s usually available in larger sizes. This style remains a popular choice, however more progressive cafés now offer something closer to the Italian recipe.

Which type of cappuccino might you receive at a given café? It’s usually best to ask, though if the menu shows multiple sizes you’ll probably be offered the foamy-latte style.

Like lattes in smaller cups

The modern café menu typically offers several smaller variations on the caffe latte. Smaller cups mean less milk, as well as bigger espresso flavor.

With nebulous definition and disputed origins, the flat white is something of a controversial drink. What is clear, however, is its recent popularity in the US. It’s likely to be a bit smaller than a caffe latte, between 5 and 8 ounces, and may feature a slightly thinner layer of milk foam.

Does a glass make the drink? If that drink is a Gibraltar, then the answer is “yes”. Baristas usually serve this 4 to 5 ounce mini-latte in the clear rocks glass from which it takes its name. In some cases, café menus will list this beverage as a cortado or piccolo latte instead.

Want even more espresso-forward flavor? It’s time to go even smaller.

Making a mark

Macchiato in Italian means “marked” or “stained”. In the café, though, the mark this word often makes is one of confusion. Why? Because two common drinks carry this moniker: one tiny and intense, the other large, sweet, and caramel-drizzled.

The caffe (or espresso) macchiato is a small beverage, about 3 ounces. To make it, the barista “marks” an espresso with a small amount of milk. Some cafés spoon a small dollop of milk foam on top, while others pour in milk and foam to resemble a miniature cappuccino. While both approaches make a tasty beverage, it’s often overshadowed by its American cousin…

The caramel macchiato is a large cup of vanilla-sweetened steamed milk which has been marked twice. Espresso poured through the upper layer of milk foam creates the first mark, a drizzle of caramel sauce creates the second. Some variations even include whipped cream.

How can a consumer decide which macchiato to order? If the menu just says “macchiato”, chances are good the barista will be reaching for the 3 ounce cup and not the caramel bottle. If there’s any doubt, though, just ask. Most baristas are happy to suggesting an alternative if you’re looking for something bigger and sweeter.

Making and ordering drinks with confidence

Though the café menu may look complicated, understanding the roots of classic espresso drinks can help crack the code. To learn more, call us at 866 849 1682. Or join us for an upcoming SCA Barista Foundation course.